Skip to main content

The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press A Ukrainian serviceman stands on the road in the wake of last week’s battle for the nation‘s Debaltseve region. Though students at northeast Indiana universities are far removed from the events halfway around the world, they appreciate the globe’s interconnectedness and study accordingly, professors say.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015 10:43 am

Students of the world

Terrorism in Europe and Africa. Disruptions in the Mideast. The crisis in Ukraine.

The world’s problems and challenges seem so far away from the placid college campuses of northeast Indiana. Or maybe not, any more.

Last summer, IPFW’s James Toole spent a month in the Mideast studying the Syrian refugee crisis.

The weather marooned Manchester University’s Benson Onyeji in Boston last week after he and a contingent of students attended the National Model United Nations meeting. He’s taken a class there each of the past 20 years.

Lachlan Whalen, IPFW’s director of international studies, spent several summers in Ireland researching a book on the writings of Irish Republican political prisoners.

And Mark Angelos, a professor of history at Manchester, spent the college’s January session as he has each year since 2002, taking students to Europe.

This year, it was England and Ireland. Next year, the plan is to go to Italy and France.

Those who teach world affairs in the northeast corner of Indiana say travel is one of the best ways to stimulate students and stay connected themselves.

"There is nothing like the experience of taking 18- to 20-year-olds to a different environment," said Angelos, professor of history and chairman of Manchester’s department of history and political science. Many of Manchester’s students have never before ventured far from northeast Indiana.

On this year’s trip, "two of my students had never been on an airplane before," he said. "For an intelligent, not-yet-worldly college student, it’s life-changing."

But he and other professors also say the communications revolution has made it possible for professors and students to keep up with events around the globe without leaving home.

"I’m in my mid-50s," Angelos said. "I led a whole professional life before the Internet." But it’s different now, and, for his subject areas at least, better.

"It’s definitely one of the benefits of technology," Whalen said. "You can look at multiple news sources – the Guardian (a British newspaper) or the Economist online."

Professors strongly defend the value of nurturing a view of the wider world in their classrooms.

"Is it hard to interest students?" Angelos said. "Not really, when we’re all connected.

"Now, you have this flood of information," he said. "My job is to provide you with some context and teach you how to evaluate that information."

But are subjects like political science, history and international affairs worth pursuing in Hoosier colleges at a time when the focus is on jobs, jobs and more jobs?

"It’s not the students we have to convince," said Toole, an associate professor of political science, noting that some political leaders would have colleges de-emphasize subjects that don’t point straight to a job.

"One of our big goals is to encourage the students to think more globally," Toole said.

Angelos agreed. "Millennials are interested," he said. "I think there’s a general awareness that they’re part of a much bigger world."

A sense of the world may be more important than it used to be to graduates who want to find a job in, say, Fort Wayne.

While many of IPFW’s political science grads go on to law school, others find work in government and politics and with the increasing number of companies in this area that have international connections, Toole said.

"It almost always adds something to one’s portfolio," Whalen agreed.

A key value in teaching about these areas is getting students to see things differently.

Whalen, who studied published and unpublished writing by Irish political prisoners, shows his students a photograph of a cigarette paper on which a prisoner had written 300 words. The prisoners he studied averaged 19 years of age, about the same as his students today, Whalen said. Seeing that people in such a bleak situation dealt with it by writing poetry, he said, "shows them the power that writing has. The power of the written word."

Onyeji, director of Manchester’s international studies program, uses a variety of methods to engage his students. He has strong views about how the United States should be handling the conflict with the Islamic State, for instance, but he holds them in check and lets students sort through the options in simulations and discussions. They focus on the countries involved and try to identify each nation’s interests. Then they debate the options available to the United States. Containment? Boots on the ground? "How many boots on the ground? Syria? Libya? Iraq?

"I let them explore," Onyeji said. "Their location does not constrain them. You can be anywhere."

But the active learning that occurs on the annual Harvard trip is a high point.

"You expose them, over the weekend, to (discussions on) terrorism, nuclear weapons, the environment." The event draws 3,000 students from all over the world, and Manchester’s students find that they can hold their own. They’ve twice won best-delegate awards for their work on issue committees.

IPFW students have been recognized, as well. Two political science majors have won prestigious Fulbright scholarships; another student was chosen as an intern by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

IPFW offers a certificate in international studies; Manchester offers a minor in the subject.

At IPFW, "the best way to do it is to get a political science degree or a history or anthropology degree, and focus on international courses," Toole said.

Whalen says the certificate program is one of the largest on campus. "I have an evil plot to eventually move to an international studies major."

Though their programs are relatively small and their course loads make it hard to specialize, professors at both Manchester and IPFW say their school’s commitment to teaching about the wider world is strong. Both colleges offer a study-abroad program and encourage their faculty to travel.

Manchester has a tradition of world involvement that dates back to Andrew Cordier, a mid-20th-century internationalist who was a Manchester graduate and faculty member who helped write the United Nations charter and later was president of Columbia University. He is buried in North Manchester.

"Most of our students come from that tradition," Onyeji said. "Others pick it up while they are here."

Tim Harmon is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.