Before coming to Vassar, my work in global health had taken me to many parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe; one of the many aspects of Vassar that attracted me was its global perspective. From the 1880s until now, Vassar has engaged in teaching, research, and exchange with international partners. Today, Vassar offers Study Abroad programs in Bologna, Madrid, Paris, London, Clifden, Berlin, and Saint Petersburg (when it is safe again). We also have exchange partnerships in Beijing, Tokyo, Kyoto, Singapore, Exeter, and Toulouse. Nearly 50 percent of students study abroad at some point in their Vassar career—either at one of Vassar’s sites or a site directed by other partners. This past year alone, students studied abroad in 37 countries on five continents. Beyond formal education abroad programs, Vassar students sometimes participate in intensives, fellowships, or summer research, which can also bring students to new geographies.
A relatively new set of international partnerships specifically built around the liberal arts model of higher education has emerged in the last five years. It began with a request by Dr. Paul Farmer that Vassar partner with a burgeoning new medical school in Rwanda (the University of Global Health Equity) to integrate liberal arts pedagogy into medical education. As students in Rwanda typically enter medical school right after high school, they lack exposure to college-level courses outside the sciences, and Dr. Farmer, a renowned figure in social medicine, believed that a background in the humanities and social sciences would help physicians understand and foster greater equity to the larger social structures in which medicine takes place. This aspiration has resonated with Vassar faculty, students, and administrators who have traveled to Rwanda as well as hosted colleagues from the University of Global Health Equity on campus.
Soon after, another institution of higher education outside the US seeking to experiment with liberal arts education approached Vassar—this time, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay, sometimes called the M.I.T. of India. Vassar and IIT, Bombay could not be more different in size or mission, but we are good complements in that IIT, Bombay was seeking models of liberal arts education and Vassar was seeking advice on how to introduce data science into its curriculum. A collaboration was born, which resulted in a faculty member from IIT, Bombay teaching at Vassar this semester—participating in faculty discussions about data science coursework as well as absorbing the magic of the Vassar classroom. Discussions are underway for Vassar faculty to teach in India as an exchange.
More recently, the University of Edinburgh has joined our institutional collaboration around the liberal arts. An ancient university with enormous depth and breadth, the University of Edinburgh has created the Edinburgh Futures Institute, which seeks to offer a multidisciplinary approach to undergraduate education as well as several masters programs. Much is to be designed related to this new vision of multi-disciplinarity, and colleagues there were particularly interested in Vassar’s efforts in Engaged Pluralism as a way to promote inclusion and a sense of belonging. Again, we are such different institutions in terms of size and history; however, the promise of learning from each other is strong. To learn more about the perspectives of Vassar and the three global partners, listen to a recent video at go.vassar.edu/globalpanel.
After three years of traveling with others to these different settings and reflecting on their interest in Vassar, the value of global partnerships is apparent. When we engage with other institutions in different countries, it requires us to articulate more clearly what is unique and defining about the liberal arts approach at Vassar. When we see our educational model in a new light outside our campus in Poughkeepsie, the value becomes even clearer. It is not simply a set of courses offered but rather the freedom to choose one’s own path, an inquiry-based pedagogy using primary sources, and an educational culture in which we are expected to ask questions, find novel approaches, and challenge ourselves to see new perspectives. Moreover, we return to campus with new ideas, concepts, and learnings to help us constantly improve the Vassar education.
The challenges of the future are enormous with the pace of change accelerating and unpredicted events occurring more frequently. The skills learned through a liberal arts education—a multidisciplinary approach, challenging traditional ideas, and engaging diverse partners—are what is needed to best equip one to thrive in the world. Vassar and each of its global partners are seeking the best way to educate future citizens to engage with today’s concerns, and we learn best and adapt when we talk across borders and educational models of how to do that.
Elizabeth H. BradleyPresident