How can universities equip students for a post-pandemic world?

Annelise Riles, Associate Provost for Global Affairs, Executive Director of the Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs at Northwestern University and leader of the secretariat of the U7+ Alliance at Northwestern, joins IF’s Worldwide Blog Week to ask how universities can best equip students post-COVID-19

Universities have a unique responsibility

As the world begins to plan for a post-COVID-19 economic recovery, universities have a unique responsibility to ensure they equip students with the tools needed to successfully thrive in a rapidly changing economic landscape.

As we have seen over the last year, the pandemic has rapidly accelerated shifts to new platforms and modes of operation that were already underway, and there is little reason to think these trends will not continue beyond our present circumstances. If younger generations are to thrive in this increasingly dynamic and ever-changing economic environment, then universities have a responsibility to rethink and redefine their role in preparing them to enter the workforce and assume leadership roles.

Fortunately, universities are uniquely positioned to step up to the challenge. Unlike governments or the private sector, universities are not beholden to short-term election or sales’ cycles and are better positioned to take a “long view” to address the needs of the next generation. While it is impossible to imagine and anticipate every unexpected force that will crop up and catalyse major societal shifts, universities can still work to better prepare the next generation to not only become experts in their fields of study, but also to successfully work across different sectors and adapt to new circumstances.

Shared learning

Universities can accomplish this without the need to fundamentally overhaul every program, department or path of study. Rather, existing modes of operation can be adapted to place a greater emphasis on new kinds of learning experiences that better situate students to understand and constructively interact with differences, such as through shared learning opportunities alongside students from other parts of the world.

Likewise, faculty can play a greater role by demonstrating the limits of their own expertise and emphasising the importance of meaningful interdisciplinary engagement and collaboration across academic and geographic borders.

Virtual is here to stay

Examples of what this might look like already exist. For example, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Global Learning Office at Northwestern University’s Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs launched a virtual iteration of its award-winning Global Engagement Studies Institute (GESI) program, which offers students an opportunity to explore complex international development issues through virtual coursework and a remote internship with an NGO in one of nine countries.

GESI’s inclusive pedagogy, collaborative teaching and learning models, and innovative uses of technology offer students hands-on, community-based learning opportunities to build the skills necessary to operate ethically and reflexively in complex transnational work environments.

We also offer International Classroom Partnering grants to support creative co-teaching and global engagement initiatives between faculty at Northwestern University and partner institutions around the world. These grants invite faculty to design courses that provide students with opportunities to enhance their global perspectives and intercultural competencies without the need to travel abroad.

While no two courses or partnerships are the same, each project links students to peers at partner institutions and offers a platform for mutual, cross-cultural learning. This model also provides greater access to global learning opportunities for students who lack the financial means or the time in their programs to study abroad.

Advocate for students

In addition to adapting and facilitating specific programming that better prepares students for an ever-changing world, universities also can use their collective voice to advocate for the interests of the students they serve. An example of this includes the recent statement from the U7+ Alliance of World Universities to world leaders in the lead-up to this year’s G7 Summit, which urged policymakers to embed opportunities for equitable resource sharing and dialogue across generations into their commitments.

Simultaneously, the Alliance also is engaged in a series of intergenerational roundtables inviting diverse stakeholders from across generations including students to engage with one another on issues such as climate change, the global gender gap and more.  By both advocating on behalf of students and involving them in discussions on critical policy issues, universities can offer the next generation a meaningful seat at the table and better prepare them to meet the challenges of our rapidly changing world.

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