Global learning expands undergraduates’ worldviews with experiences in and out of the classroom

The child in the wheelchair could have been 4 years old or 9, boy or girl. All you could see were dark eyes peering from under the blankets and mask. A young mother maneuvered the small bundle through the lobby of the Miami Ronald McDonald House with urgency.

Everyone stared.

Elizabeth Fitzgibbons and two of her Global Learning classmates were there that spring morning taking a tour with the house manager, Tyrone Lopez ’07. As the child passed by, Lopez was explaining that Ronald McDonald House is a home for families with sick children who are being treated in area hospitals. Every year, more than 500 families from around the world stay at the 28-bedroom home. Some parents leave with children in recovery. Others go home without their child.

“We give them a place to stay and fundraise for everything,” Lopez said. “They are here for their children to get better. If they need us, we are here.”

Fitzgibbons, who has a 6-year-old son, stared after the mother and child as they exited into a warm, sunny Miami morning.

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Three years ago, FIU did something nearly impossible in higher education: it changed the curriculum for all undergraduate students. The initiative is called Global Learning for Global Citizenship and it retooled courses and activities so that every undergraduate student would have multiple opportunities to get a “global” education.

No other university in the country has a global education program as comprehensive as FIU’s, touching every undergraduate in every major. The online magazine Inside Higher Ed featured the global learning initiative in a February 2013 feature headlined, “The ‘I’ in FIU.” Director Hilary Landorf, a professor in the College of Education, and Associate Director Stephanie Doscher are regularly asked to give presentations about the initiative at other universities and higher education organizations.

Today, FIU offers over 130 global learning classes as varied as Global Supply Chains and Logistics and Artistic Expression in a Global Society. All global learning courses address complex issues from multiple disciplinary perspectives. The International Nutrition, Public Health and Economic Development class Elizabeth Fitzgibbons took is co-taught by professors of nutrition and resource economics. The classes are designed so that students gain three specific outcomes: global perspective, global awareness and global engagement.

Some of the classes, like International Nutrition, have a community involvement requirement. Students had to devote one class period to visiting and learning about a community organization. Fitzgibbons and her classmates chose Ronald McDonald House.

global learning sos members service trip cusco peru

SOS members Diva Hurtado (left) and Andres Arango (right) worked under the supervision of a local contractor to build a chicken coop at an orphanage in Cusco, Peru. Photo by Eric Feldman.

Along with the classes, Global Learning offers students co-curricular activities such as lunchtime talks on global issues in the media and the student club GLOBEd, whose members act as ambassadors for the initiative.

Global Learning also recently launched the FIU chapter of Students Offering Support, an international organization that raises money for service projects in Latin America. This spring, SOS members raised $6,000 to fund a service project in Cusco, Peru. The SOS Advisor, Global Learning Coordinator Eric Feldman, and six SOS students spent two weeks repairing the classrooms of two orphanages.

“Almost every institution in this country is trying to figure out how they can prepare students better for the pluralistic world; however, there are an awful lot of institutions that are just beginning,” said international education expert Larry Braskamp, president of the Global Perspectives Institute. “FIU in my estimation is definitely a leader. They have a comprehensive program in the classroom and outside the classroom.”

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At the end of 2012, the first cohort of students to complete the global learning requirements graduated from FIU. History major Jennifer Schwartz said her global learning classes – Asian Studies, Introduction to Urban Development and World Religions – were beneficial for her career as a teacher.

“I have a little better perspective on understanding students coming from different places and different backgrounds,” she said. “I’m not going to assume anything about anybody with students from different cultures.”

Liberal studies major Claudia Otero took the global learning classes Economic Geography and World Ethnography and graduated, she said, understanding what was happening in the world economy. “I understand now the economic crisis,” she said. “I understand how decisions made here effect other countries because we are so interconnected. I can read economic news and understand what is going on.”

Ryan Levinson grew up in Israel before coming to FIU. For her Myth, Ritual and Mysticism global learning class she visited a Buddhist temple. “I’ve never been exposed to anything else. I’ve been in a sheltered Jewish environment where everyone around me was Jewish. Going to the temple was life changing.”

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Global learning classes are typically active and participatory. Even with 100 students in the class, professors Adrianna Campa and Mahadev Bhat found ways to get students talking about issues in the world from multiple perspectives.

“It is important to know what others people feel about the problem,” Bhat told students on the first day of class. “With awareness and perspective, you are physically and mentally ready to take action.”

Students work in small groups during class.

Students in the International Nutrition, Public Health and Economic Development class divided into groups to discuss issues related to hunger, human rights and development. Photo by Doug Garland ’10.

A debate on the effectiveness of foreign aid one morning brought a heated conversation among students. “Many countries receive foreign aid and it never gets to them,” said Dontay Smith. “It creates conflict. The people who are supposed to see it don’t see anything growth or progress.”

Aqeel Ahmad framed the debate this way: “The question that needs to be raised now to the entire class is if people have problems, should we help?”

In a later class, students were shown a photo of a young, severely malnourished Somalian child in a Kenyan refugee camp during the 2011 famine. Campa pushed the students to think about the connection between hunger, natural disaster and international aid.

“We have a combination political unrest and drought causing mass movements of people into a country that wasn’t able to handle the influx,” Campa said. “When you look at foreign aid, you have to remember one of the reasons it exists is this.”

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The architects of global learning are quick to point out that a global education starts local. Students need to learn about the issues and problems within their own community, as well as those that span regional, national and transnational boundaries. The field trip requirement in the International Nutrition class aimed to get students out of the classroom and into the community.


From left, undergraduate students Elizabeth Fitzgibbons, Paul Bokor and John Pham visited the Ronald McDonald House this spring as part of their global learning class and met with house manager Tyrone Lopez ’07 to learn about the challenges facing families with very sick children. Photo by Doug Garland ’10.

The three students who visited the Ronald McDonald House got a firsthand understanding of a group of people within their community who often struggle silently and those who help them. House manager Lopez talked to them about his work, caring for families from around the world with sick and dying children.

“There are many people from all different backgrounds all living together,” Lopez explained, adding that he speaks Spanish and some Haitian Creole. He began there as a volunteer and eventually joined the staff. “I try to be as compassionate as I can to everybody.”

When the morning was over, the students talked about what they had seen: the mother rushing through the lobby with her sick bundle, the donated furnishings and shared kitchen, the many photos of children, sick and healthy, along the walls. Each felt moved to help the families in crisis.

“If I’d never taken this class, I wouldn’t have come here,” said John Pham. “This class is for people who don’t see what is going on around them.”

Fitzgibbons asked her classmates: “How do we help each other?”

“ Yes,” Paul Bokor agreed, “how do we help each other? There are lots of places like this.”

The students talked about volunteering at Ronald McDonald house and donating items for the families. “I am going to bring my family here,” Fitzgibbons said. “It’s a way to give back.”   

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