International politics hit home

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Steven Wuhs, assistant provost for internationalization and professor of the Department of Political Science at the University of Redlands, spoke with Mika Elizabeth Ono of Och Tamale about how the current political climate is affecting international students and faculty at the University and why it matters.

OCH TAMALE: This spring, the White House moved to bar travelers from several predominantly Muslim countries, including Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. How were international faculty and students at the University of Redlands affected by the move?

Steven Wuhs: The University does have faculty members from the seven, now six, countries included on the ban. Some of them are permanent residents in the U.S., but there was still a question whether they could leave the country to, say, see their families or attend conferences. Although the ban on visas has been put on hold by a federal court, the executive orders have created a great deal of anxiety. Only one of our students was directly, personally affected, but many more were indirectly affected with family members subject
to the ban. In addition, the ban certainly ratcheted up their awareness of being and
feeling “foreign.”

As a community, I believe we have to step up. When the first ban came through, we had an open meeting for students. About a dozen international students came just to talk things through. Our international mixers came after that. We wanted to create spaces where international students felt it was ok to be international. About 35 people, including 10 faculty, came to the last mixer. A broad community here—including many folks like me who aren’t necessarily international—cares deeply about international students being able to feel that this is an OK place for them, a safe place for them.

OT: There’s a widespread perception that international students are no longer interested in coming to the United States. Do you see that?

Wuhs: I certainly read a lot about it. We should expect fewer international students enrolling. Right now, it’s unclear how the numbers will compare to last year. Over the past years, the number of our international students has been increasing. In the College of Arts and Sciences, that number has tripled since 2012. It’s still relatively small, though—about five percent in the School of Business, where the proportion is highest.

Fortunately, when we began internationalization, we did not aim to increase international student enrollment for budgetary reasons. A lot of universities do enroll international students to help the bottom line. We didn’t want to be dependent on international student enrollment or take the risk of disrupting our community by introducing large numbers of international students very quickly. Our approach has been pretty thoughtful.

OT: Why is internationalization important?

Wuhs: I take a student-centered approach to the benefits of internationalization. Students graduating into the workforce and into their communities need to be well-versed in intercultural competency. They need to know something about global history and globalization. They need to have skills such as second language competence. Those are simply “citizenship skills.”

Where do international students fit in? On the one hand, international students help American students encounter what the globalized world is actually like through interactions in day-to-day life. International students also benefit from our global learning efforts. In addition, most countries don’t have small liberal arts institutions with small class sizes like we do at Redlands. The kind of education we offer is valuable not only for people born within U.S. borders, but also for students from other places.

OT: How has internationalization infused the curriculum and life at the U of R?

Wuhs: When I first became involved in the internationalization effort at the University five years ago, a faculty working group identified many already-existing international touchpoints through the curriculum, study abroad, and programs of study—not only with the international MBA and a major in international relations, but also in programs such as sociology, anthropology, religious studies, and English, which were full of international and intercultural content. We just hadn’t been thinking of them
that way.

One new initiative that grew out of internationalization was North Hall, our global living-learning community. Students who live in North Hall participate in globally themed programing. My wife and colleague, Kimberley Coles, is teaching a first-year seminar there this fall around the theme of home; it’s going to eventually look at the refugee experience, but starts with students’ individual conceptions of home as they transition to university life.

This past year, I’ve identified faculty from across the University who have common interests or threads in their teaching or scholarship. Haiti is one of those threads, as are South Africa and Swaziland. Identifying these common interests across campus and with institutions overseas, we hope, will create new opportunities for students and faculty in the future.

We are also trying to recognize the global work of faculty. With support from the deans’ and provost’s offices, the first faculty global impact awards were presented this year to Greg Hamilton of the School of Education for his teacher-training work in Haiti and Karen Derris from the Religious Studies Department for her work with his Holiness the 17th Karmapa [a revered global Buddhist leader].

OT: Where is internationalization going from here?

Wuhs: We are exploring new programs of study at the graduate and undergraduate level, including certificate programs through the School of Continuing Studies, trying to gauge where student interest is. We’d like to creatively support higher levels of language learning. We’re also excited to capitalize on an alumni trip to Havana, Cuba, last year that opened the possibility of faculty exchanges with the University of Havana.

OT: As a political scientist, your work touches on many issues that are politically sensitive. How do you manage to talk about politics and keep it civil—both in the classroom and outside of it?

Wuhs: I have opposite sides of the great divide in my family. My sister and my mother voted for Clinton, and my dad and my brother voted for Trump. I get the challenges. What I say to my students is, “I don’t care how you vote, Democrat or Republican. I care that you avoid stupid arguments. Let’s talk about evidence.”

I want citizens to be informed about the implications of different policy choices, and I want them to hold politicians to a standard where it’s not just about rhetoric, but about evidence that supports their claims. In class, I ask students to make arguments from different points of view—conservative, liberal, left, right—to try on different ideological hats.

OT: When you step out of the classroom and you’re talking to family, what’s your advice there?

Wuhs  It’s a divisive time, and political leaders are not helping. We can set the rules for discussions—what we are going to talk about, the phrases we’re going to use, and the practices we’re going to engage in. Maybe one of those practices is the use of evidence. Although, now facts are contested as well; so even that isn’t easy.

To engage in civil discussion, it helps to go into those conversations knowing you are probably not going to convert anyone. People are not generally convertible—on Facebook, Twitter, or at the dinner table. One of the things I do in class is ask the students how situations touch another person’s reality. Thinking across the divides that exist within politics and trying to see things from another segment of the population’s viewpoint—I think that’s where you start.

OT: What are you asked most about?

Wuhs: One line of questioning that comes up often is “Where does this stop? How do you change political course?” Those are complicated questions. Populism is like a virus—once it takes root in the political system, it’s difficult to stop. In part, citizens need to be educated and make a different kind of choice when they’re at the ballot box with a different set of criteria. Of course, I want it to be evidence-based and informed, but the reality is the education system here and elsewhere can’t change that in four years. How do you beat a populist? Probably with another populist. Then you’re just digging that hole a little bit deeper.

When I’m teaching about democracy in Latin America or Europe or the U.S., I say democracy is supposed to be a little bit boring. It’s about predictability. That’s not where we are today. Many of our international students are coming from contexts with a lot more political and economic instability and volatility. They came here looking for opportunity, but also with an expectation of predictability. The executive orders have challenged their understanding of the U.S. They didn’t think they would be getting the current political situation, much like the rest of us.

I’ve never thought it more important to be teaching politics than I do these days.

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