MIT’s growing relevance in a shrinking world

I’m sitting 11,000 meters above the Atlantic Ocean, hurtling at 800 kilometers per hour towards Boston after an exhilarating week at a conference focused on smart cities in Barcelona, Spain. After spending the past three days engaging in discussions with policymakers, researchers, and businesspeople about the future of technology in cities, it has become highly apparent to me that MIT’s recent efforts to expand our global education and outreach programs have truly paid off. At conferences, workshops, and business meetings around the world, MIT is globally regarded as a leader in innovative thought across a wide variety of disciplines. Faculty and graduate students are spending more time traveling than perhaps ever before, a testament to the growing international relevance of MIT in an increasingly complex and globalized world. Presenting novel ideas at conferences, teaching children in developing nations, and participating in internships in foreign countries are just samples of activities that the MIT community engage in on a daily basis to maintain our global prominence. But we must not take this reputation for granted, as it has resulted from the continued commitment of students, staff, and faculty to make MIT a truly global university. Nor can we rest on our laurels, as this dedication must continue with renewed vigor to keep MIT’s researchers and alumni competitive in a shrinking world.

When I first arrived at MIT in 2006, international education was not a particularly hot topic of discussion among the student body or the faculty. Notorious for its stringent academic requirements, MIT had largely been reluctant to offer traditional study abroad programs, which faculty and administrators feared would not provide access to the same quality and rigor of the MIT residential education. With a handful of exceptions, such as the Cambridge-MIT Exchange (CME) program, relatively few programs were available to promote the participation of MIT’s students in international study or work experiences. Only a minority of students considered studying or working abroad a priority for their MIT educational experience.

However, in the past six years, a remarkable transformation has taken place. Today, MIT abounds with international opportunities for its students, staff, and faculty. And in a world of heightened competition and rapid global diversification, it is critical that MIT community members are educated as international thinkers who are experienced at working across borders, rather than becoming victims of globalization.

Programs such as MISTI — MIT’s International Science and Technology Initiative — provide opportunities for students to participate in internships abroad, learning not only from cultural immersion and diversity but also from the challenges of developing technology and businesses in an international context. Students can work in research labs at universities and institutions, or be matched with companies that are pioneering exciting new technologies and ideas in industry. My own MISTI experience, an internship in southern Spain in 2008, taught me the challenges of developing hardware in a country without the luxuries of overnight parts shipping and access to world class laboratory facilities. I also learned invaluable lessons about effective communication and engaging in international business that could not have been taught in any classroom. MIT now offers an undergraduate minor in Applied International Studies, which requires the participation in a MISTI internship as well as several courses on global approaches to innovation, communication, and culture.

Students who wish to pursue their own projects in the developing world can apply for funding from organizations such as MIT’s Public Service Center (PSC), which provides grants and mentorship for independent research, education, and technology-deployment projects in every corner of the world from Colombia to Colombo. Those who are passionate about deploying businesses in international contexts can tap into expertise and funding from organizations such as the Desphande Center for Technological Innovation. Meanwhile, our Global Education and Career Development (GECD) office provides students access to outstanding resources and mentorship to help them apply for distinguished international fellowships such as Rhodes, Marshall, Fulbright, and Gates scholarships. GECD can also connect students with non-MIT study abroad programs and help internationally focused students fit a semester or year abroad into their undergraduate four-year plan, which can be a daunting challenge given MIT’s demanding coursework requirements.

Countless workshops during the semester, IAP, and summer sessions provide students the chance to teach, work, and study abroad. There are opportunities in every field from intensive language and culture immersion programs in Madrid, to the study of Palladian architecture in Italy, to developing technologies for water treatment in southeast Asia. Recently, courses focused on providing aid to areas struck by natural disasters such as post-earthquake Haiti and post-tsunami Japan have provided incredible opportunities for students to develop new skillsets and deploy impactful projects, while assisting communities in need.

All of MIT’s students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels should take advantage of some of these global opportunities, or they may face irrelevance in a world where cross-cultural communication and international work experience is increasingly valuable. Whether through an MIT course that focuses a project on an international site, or through an overseas internship or public service project, these global experiences provide a rich complement to the residential campus research and educational opportunities that most students are drawn to MIT for. Undergraduate advisors should encourage students to go abroad and ensure students that a summer spent at a lab in Mexico can be even more educational, eye-opening, and career-boosting than an internship at a hot Silicon Valley tech company or New York City consulting firm. Meanwhile, graduate student advisors should encourage their students to participate in international conferences, publish in international journals, and engage in collaborative projects with institutions and companies around the globe. Graduate students should also have the opportunity to work as visiting researchers at foreign research institutions to gain international perspectives on the research process and diversify their academic exposure. Indeed, having experience at multiple academic institutions in a variety of geographies can be an important criterion for junior faculty search committees at many universities.

These global educational, research, and work opportunities are not just beneficial for students, they are vital for the preservation of MIT’s reputation worldwide. In today’s world of informational overload, anonymity is irrelevance. Furthermore, these international ties contribute to MIT’s mission statement of “generating, disseminating, and preserving knowledge, and working with others to bring this knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges.” By sharing the results of our latest research and engaging in international projects, MIT’s globally mindful students, staff, and faculty function as ambassadors who disseminate the knowledge and mission of MIT while fostering vital academic and cultural partnerships for the Institute. In conjunction with our online educational programs such as edX and its predecessor OpenCourseWare, these ambassadors can impact a wider global community than ever before.

In 2013, I will move to Chile on a Fulbright Scholarship to apply my MIT educational, research, and business experiences to improving the public transportation systems in Santiago through the use of shared, lightweight electric vehicles. I am confident that my time at MIT has prepared me for a productive and engaging year in Chile. Furthermore, I know that I have an incredible global network of MIT’s diverse alumni, collaborators, and friends awaiting. From the moment I chose to undertake this project, my colleagues and mentors at MIT jumped in to provide introductions to relevant people, offers of hospitality, and even restaurant recommendations for my time in Santiago. I greatly look forward to seeing my colleagues and friends from MIT, in classrooms, boardrooms, conferences, field sites, and airports throughout the world.

1 Comment
Ash over 10 years ago

Hopefully other educational institions will follow MIT's footstep!