Academic Exchange Quarterly      Winter    2006    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  10, Issue  4

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Global Competency: An Interdisciplinary Approach

Ashley Shams, University of St. Thomas, MN

Camille George, University of St. Thomas, MN


Shams is active in study abroad and George promotes sustainable engineering for the developing world. They have co-directed collaborative international service-learning projects at the University of St. Thomas since 2003.




Participation in international service-learning projects is shown to be a viable tool to educate students towards global competency. The presented model provides opportunities for intercultural engagement and meaningful exposure to global issues with minimal changes to the existing university framework.  This collaborative interdisciplinary (Engineering, French, Communications) approach reflects the interdependent nature of the real world. Trip log entries show evidence of increased global awareness, an increased ability to interact effectively in a different cultural setting, and an expanded understanding of the interconnectedness of the world.
Introduction to Global Competency

The importance of educating US citizens to be internationally aware and knowledgeable first emerged in response to national security needs during the cold war era when congress passed the National Defense Education Act of 1958 (National Defense Education Act, 1958).  This legislation provided government funds to institutes of higher education in support of enhanced study of foreign languages, history, geography, and economics. More recently and in response to the economic, political, technological, and environmental changes being brought about by globalization, the importance of internationally-attuned education has taken on renewed vitality as is evidenced by the global competency initiative issued by the Council on International Education Exchange in 1988 (Council on the International Educational Exchange [CIEE], 1988). In general, the report recommended an increase in the number of students studying abroad, greater participation of students from under-represented academic and social groups, more experiences in developing countries, and internationalization of curricula and the university atmosphere.


Since then a variety of definitions for global competency, global citizenship, and global awareness have appeared. As Hunter (Hunter, 2004) points out, no one in particular is viewed as the standard and this has at times complicated research in the field.  Among the definitions presented in his comprehensive review is that of Curran (Curran, 2003, p.10), who defines global competence as an “appreciation of other cultures and the ability to interact with people from foreign lands. It is the ability to become familiar with an environment, not causing a rift while experiencing something new, and reflection upon the experience at its completion.” Alternatively, The Stanley Foundation (Stanley Foundation, 2004) states that, “Globally competent citizens know they have an impact on the world and that the world influences them. They recognize their ability and responsibility to make choices that affect the future.”


Despite that lack of consensus on a specific definition, global competency is often viewed in terms of three attributes: knowledge, attitudes, and skills (Green & Olson, 2005).  In brief, a globally competent person is one who demonstrates knowledge of world geography, conditions, and events. It is someone who has an awareness of the complexity and interdependency of world issues and events and an understanding of the historical forces that have shaped the current world system. In terms of attitudes, a globally competent person has a sensitivity and respect for personal and cultural differences. It is someone who is capable of empathy and can handle ambiguity and unfamiliarity.  Regarding skills, a globally competent person has critical thinking and comparative skills, including the ability to think creatively and integrate knowledge. Also, it is person who has effective communications skills including an understanding of intercultural communication concepts (Green & Olson, 2005).


Given the importance of these attributes in preparing graduates who can function as world citizens and who are ready to join the global workforce , the question for educators is how to best provide students with opportunities that nurture this type of learning and awareness. The model presented in this paper, a multi-disciplinary international service-learning project, may offer such an opportunity and has the added benefit of requiring minimal changes to administrative infrastructure.


Defining International Service-Learning

Service-learning is a pedagogy in which students engage in activities designed to enhance learning by integrating appropriate community-based projects into their coursework, and by reflecting on the experience in order to promote their own development (Jacoby and Associates, 1996). Study abroad is a form of experiential education and is promoted by the CIEE initiative as key to developing global competency. At its best, it engages students in meaningful interactions and relationships with a variety of people while also addressing traditional academic endeavors. In reality however, study abroad can result in isolated programs where students remain in insulated groups, interacting only with peers from their home institution or with other international students. Framing the study abroad experience within a service-learning context can provide the sometimes missing meaningful relationships to the community. Thus, by pairing these two pedagogies, students may be able to experience the maximum benefits from both approaches.


Current trends in U.S students studying abroad

Recent statistics show that the five most popular destinations for American students studying abroad are the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, France and Australia (Institute of International Education [Opendoors], 2005). This shows the disparity between current practices and the CIEE goal of sending students to destinations less frequented by Americans and where English is not the first language.


Additionally, certain disciplines have historically had fewer students go abroad. Engineering, Mathematics, Computer Sciences, and Agriculture, are the least represented majors in study abroad (Opendoors, 2005), Part of the problem stems from the rigid and heavy academic course load associated with the sciences and math, making it difficult for students from these disciplines to spend a semester away from their home institution. This makes the CIEE goal of increasing the number of study abroad participants from under-represented academic fields such as these, all the more challenging.


Recently, and perhaps because of the pressure students feel to graduate as quickly as possible, there has been an increase in the number of students participating in short-term study abroad (programs of eight weeks or less) in recent years, from 3.5% in 1995-1996 to 8.9% in 2003-2004. (Opendoors, 2005). Short-term experiences are a feasible way for many students to experience a foreign country and may be attractive to some because they can be embedded within regular credit-granting course work and implemented by the regular course instructor from the home university.


The proposed model addresses these unsatisfied CIEE objectives. It uses short-term travel in order to reach students who may not otherwise participate in study abroad (such as those in the sciences).  And, while it is possible to confine projects to English-speaking areas or to rely on English-speaking contacts onsite, the current model promotes destinations where English is not the first language and asks students not to rely on the English speaking skills of others.


The Synergy of Collaboration

The opportunities brought on by international service-learning projects can be enhanced by using a collaborative approach. Global competency is interdisciplinary by nature and the learning experience should reflect this.  Service-learning projects can be more comprehensive when the needs of the community partner are addressed from more than one perspective. Engaging different disciplines also means that students learn to see situations from multiple perspectives. And on a very practical level, collaborations can increase funding opportunities.  In short, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.


The University of St. Thomas Model

Beginning in 2003-2004, the University of St. Thomas (UST) has offered courses in engineering, communication studies, and French which have been structured to include interdisciplinary collaborations with an international service-learning component in the developing world.  These classes are part of the regular course work associated with each discipline and are conducted as regular classes. The only structural difference is that the subset of students involved in the international community based project meet weekly for a seminar-style meeting and the three groups of students travel (ten to fourteen days) to an international destination.


Senior capstone and independent study classes have been used and lend themselves to the model because they incorporate inquiry and are by nature project-based. The supplemental seminar meetings are used to study the country’s culture and current political and economic situation, to exchange project information between teams, and to discuss trip logistics.


By working together in the seminars and on-site, the students are introduced to different disciplines and skill sets. The collaborative team works well within the senior capstone model because the students involved have the relevant disciplinary expertise to work independently on their portion of the project and are mature enough to appreciate different disciplinary perspectives.  Important ‘soft skills’ such as teamwork are learned and practiced.


These projects have the added benefit of internationalizing the atmosphere at the home campus. The non-traveling students enrolled in the capstone courses who opt to work on more traditional projects, hear about the issues of a resource poor country, issues not usually covered in the traditional curriculum.


In order to better understand the model at work, a detailed description of one of the projects is presented. In addition to the project presented here, other project themes following the same interdisciplinary collaboration model have included improving the yield of local food sources in the Caribbean, and solar water purification in Mali.


The Mali Project - Overview

In order to better understand the model at work, a description of the Mali Project is presented here. The focus of this project emerged from a grant opportunity to work in Mali and a subsequent fact-finding trip. During the trip a discussion with a Peace Corps volunteer emphasized the benefits an increase in rural women’s income could have on the health and education of the community. From this conversation, contact was made with a U.S/Malian non-profit organization, Shea Yeleen International (SYI). The mission of SYI is to improve the economic situation of women in Mali, Africa by helping them form co-operatives in order to produce high quality shea butter. Shea butter is a local commodity with both a domestic and export market (Chalfin, 2004) and is used as a food product or as an ingredient in cosmetics. SYI also provides Malian women with production, finance, and business training. A partnership was formed between the University of St. Thomas (UST) and SYI.  The major goal for UST was to find ways to support the SYI mission.


From the outset, the project was informed by the community partner’s needs. The engineering students began to explore ways to increase the efficiency of the current production means by devising a hand-powered mixer that was culturally appropriate and sustainable. The design was to be based on simple technology using materials available in Mali at an affordable price. Just as with any engineering senior design project, the students examined alternative solutions, built and tested a prototype, and fulfilled both user and engineering specifications.  Engineering students at UST are part of a program that promotes sustainable and responsible engineering and this project called on them to put these skills to use.


The communication studies students approached the situation from a different angle. They focused on the value of information sharing and looked for ways to inform Malians about the benefits of forming a women’s co-operative. They were tasked to produce three informative videos to enable co-operative formation. The videos were produced in Bambara, the market language of Bamako and its surrounding areas. The guiding principle which shaped the videos was “Malians informing Malians”. The videos featured women from an established, successful shea butter co-operative, government officials, civil servants, and a shea butter merchant. The women talked about what it was like being a member of a co-operative and discussed the benefits they experienced. The merchant explained the financial implications of being able to sell in the larger quantities produced by co-operatives (as opposed to the smaller quantities produced individually).  The civil servants were from the governmental offices which legislate and oversee the laws governing the formation and management of co-operatives. They discussed the procedures involved in founding a co-operative.


The French team took on the role of cultural liaison and focused on the cultural barriers and opportunities for entrepreneurial women in Mali. Their job was to teach the other students about important cultural information about Mali and to assist with language needs. Additionally they researched how the history of Mali manifests itself in the present as part of their term paper. In tandem to the shea butter project, the French students also worked at Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights where they provided office and language assistance to refugees and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa in particular. By doing this, they learned more about the areas of conflict and/or famine in Africa from real people, they learned about a variety of cultures in Africa, and they became familiar with the different French accents and linguistic nuances of people from francophone African countries. Another goal associated with their work at the centre was to reinforce the experience of a global world by broadening their perspective, working with Africans in the United States and in Mali. Once onsite, the French students functioned as translators and facilitated communication between their team members and the local people.


Additionally, prior to departure, students in the project had e-mail contact with Shea Yeleen and a shea nut importer in Olympia, Washington as well as face-to-face contact with local Malians through friendships and other professional ties.


Each team focused on its responsibility throughout the first half of the semester in preparation for the onsite work which would take place over a ten-day period, mid-semester during spring-break. Once onsite, the nature of the project required students to work with a broad cross-section of people and develop new community partners.


The engineering students focused on building and testing their prototype in a rural village. They verified the local availability and price of parts to ensure affordability, manufacturability, and maintainability of their mixer in the Malian environment. They received input from local blacksmiths, the village mayor, Malian scientists from the Institut D’Economie Rurale (IER, equivalent to the USDA), Malian members of the non-profit, as well as the village women (or end-users).


The communication studies students worked with the same rural women and members of the non-profit in addition to interviewing government officials, local merchants, and members of an already established and successful co-operative. The French team interacted with all the community partners through their work as language facilitators. The feedback from community partners was invaluable and made the reasons for needing a specified outcome (in product design or service) much more tangible and personal.  


Follow-up Activities

During the second half of the semester, each team continued its work back on campus. The engineering team made the needed adjustments to the manual mixer and delivered the design instructions to SYI.  The communication studies team edited their video footage and engaged local Malians to supply voice-overs in the appropriate language. The educational videos outlining the procedures and benefits of founding women’s co-operatives are now available in Mali at thirteen Community Learning and Information Centers (CLIC’s), 21st century learning centers funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development in Mali (USAID-Mali). The French team presented a paper to the university’s women’s center focusing on relevant women’s issues in Mali.



The UST projects of the last few years are part of a bigger effort that began at Montana State University seventeen years ago and has since grown to involve five universities.

This current project was the first year of a three-year grant (2004-2007) funded by USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) Higher Education Challenge Grant and CSREES (Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension). The purpose of this funding was to increase interest and awareness of agricultural issues as well as provide meaningful mentored research to undergraduate students. Subsequently, the educational goals for the project were to provide undergraduates with the following: an opportunity to successfully complete a first field-based experience, an understanding of subsistence farming issues, experience in giving professional presentations, cross-cultural skills, an awareness of global perspectives, and an opportunity to consider careers in the developing world.


A second project funded through a separate three-year grant (2004-2007) provided by ALO (The Association Liaison Office for University Cooperation in Development) was designed to work in conjunction with the first. The second project provides funding for the education of a group of Malians who will subsequently start an entrepreneurial centre. This entrepreneurial centre will focus on small business enterprises which incorporate the products produced by the first project. The model for this small business centre is different from a US or European model. It is a development model that derives from cultural strengths and recognizes cultural weaknesses of the specific, potential entrepreneurial group in mind. In this way, projects such as the one described in this article are ultimately guided, informed, and in the service of the community partner’s objectives and as such are more likely to be sustainable, meaningful, and successful.


Results of the Student Experiences

While no one definition for global competency exists, certain key elements are consistent.  A globally competent person is someone who is aware of the world around him and who knows how to interact with people from other cultures. A globally competent person understands the interconnectedness of today’s world and the importance of responsible decision making.  The effectiveness of this and similar projects in terms of educating for global competency can be examined on two levels: 1) the substantive learning objectives associated with the course content and 2) the affective change and growth brought on by reflection on the personal and community experience.


In order to stimulate and document reflection, students were asked to keep a trip log which was guided by a set of questions based on the activities in Maximizing Study Abroad (Paige, Cohen, Kappler, Chi, & Lassegard, 2002). The logs were collected after returning from the service-learning journey.


Learning in the area of global competency involves unique and personal experiences that can not be easily captured by objective instruments, thus insight into student awareness is provided through these trip log entries. Trip logs from all the projects over a three year period, including two trips to Mali and one trip to the Caribbean, were examined for evidence of growth.


On Global Awareness

The projects in which UST engages are meant to increase understanding about issues in resource poor nations that affect the two thirds of the world not often included in traditional coursework. By their very nature, the projects expose students to a population, history, geography and culture of a different area of the world.


“Even though we were only there for two weeks, I feel like I learned a lot more, not only about the people in Mali, but also about myself and where I come from. This was the first time out of the US for me, and I realized that this trip was the first time I went around calling myself an American.”


“Before I had rarely thought of the politics or economics of Caribbean countries –they were just vacation destinations.”


“After this trip I am more aware of what is happening in other parts of the world. I tend to pay more attention to international news.”


“I learned a lot about Malian culture and appreciate a country that nine month ago I didn’t know about.”


“Prior to our trip, I researched Mali’s history, politics, and culture extensively. However, it wasn’t until I witnessed firsthand the daily lives of Malians that I finally grasped all that makes up Malian culture.”


On Interacting with Other Cultures

Encouraging students to engage with people from other cultures heightens their awareness of the subtle complexities of being globally competent. Working with a wide assortment of community partners provides experiences for thoughtful interaction.


“While we were eating I noticed how quiet it was. I learned that it is considered rude to talk while you eat. I think when the Malians are silent during eating they are showing respect for the women who cooked the meal. When you don’t talk, you are able to fully participate in eating and really sense the flavor and scents of the food.”


            “I never imagined Mali to be anything like the US, so I guess I see more similarities than differences.”


“I looked at the chalkboard when we walked in (at the village school) and I was surprised to see molecular structures from chemistry and physics shift equations.”


“I saw a small rhesus monkey chained to a table. Although it was entertaining, I thought it seemed unfair. It’s weird how different cultures sympathize with different animals. Sometimes, I wonder who decides what is appropriate.”


“…A camel was traveling on the busy streets of Bamako with his Toureg owner. Interesting how these minorities (Toureg) adapt to the changing world yet are still confined with tradition –somehow reminded me of the Amish people.”


On Seeing Ones Role in an Interconnected World

Providing these unique learning opportunities for students helps them realize that there is a place for every professional to work on ensuring global sustainability and issues of social justice.


“I was made aware of the practicalities and necessity of speaking French.”


            “The Mali project also broadened my awareness of the francophone world. The            French language, though spoken by million throughout the world, is too often       associated only with the French.”


“I am more interested in engineering that has a positive impact on life”


“I feel like I am actually doing something important. I guess it makes me feel useful.”


“It has helped me decide what I want to do as a career.”


“The trip made me realize how important this project is to the women in Mali, at least to the women of Dio. I think I stopped thinking of it as “my senior project” and more as the project for the women in Mali…”


“Seeing who was actually going to use the machine helped me realize how much this could improve their lives by adding some more income.”


The Value of the Model

This paper introduces a unique curricular model that enables students to experience meaningful exposure to global issues. The collaborative nature allows faculty and students to learn about each other’s work while using their skills in the pursuit of important, appropriate, and real goals. This model can be adapted to most undergraduate institutions and can involve any disciplinary major with minimal restructuring. Students from majors with time constraints or majors that seldom have opportunities to travel abroad can participate. The model requires enthusiasm of faculty, administrative support for international travel, and support from a local community.


The collaborative nature of the project may provide access to funding support. Students from majors with budget constraints such as the funding-poor humanities are connected to projects in disciplines with stronger financial support, such as the sciences or engineering. The interdisciplinary nature of the projects strengthens the student experience. Just as today’s global issues can not be encapsulated and treated individually; global education should reflect the interdependent nature of the real world. Solutions are approached from many perspectives. Collaborations occur within and between the classes and go beyond the university borders as connections are made to community partners both locally and internationally.


The approach promotes the goals associated with education for global competency. Students are able to experience countries less frequented by Americans where English is not the first language. Cultural exchanges connecting a variety of people are made possible. Curricula and home institutions are internationalized as participating faculty and students disseminate their knowledge throughout the university. Course content shifts to incorporate issues facing resource poor countries. Students are reminded of their impact on the world and the importance of the outside world on them. Through the project lens, students examine issues of cultural diversity, social justice, and human rights and are more prepared to work as partners in a globally diverse reality.



The work presented in this paper was supported by USDA Cooperative States Research Extension Education Service (CSREES) Higher Education Challenge Grant program, the University of St. Thomas’ (UST) Lily Endowment Beyond Career to Calling Project and the Larry Mathews Fund. We would like to thank Larry Mathews, Florence Dunkel of Montana State University, Kevin Sauter and the UST International Education Center for their help and support.



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