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Strengthening global partnerships: FIU establishes World Centers to advance collaboration abroad
Genoa, Italy, and Bogotá, Colombia.

Strengthening global partnerships: FIU establishes World Centers to advance collaboration abroad

February 21, 2022 at 11:30am

It’s easy to imagine that Florida International University has partnerships around the world. After all, FIU is the only Carnegie R1 research university with “international” in its name. The question is: How deep do these partnerships go? 

Amongst academics, there is a phrase called “parachute science.” It is used to describe a case where a group of scientists swoop into a foreign country, conduct their research and don’t engage with local people. FIU is trying to do the opposite of that. 

In 2021, the university established its first two official World Centers. With one located in Italy and another in Colombia, these hubs are designed to facilitate collaborative learning, teaching, research and engagement opportunities abroad.  

“FIU’s global reach and impact has been a core mission for the institution since its inception,” says Vice President of Regional and World Locations and Vice Provost of Biscayne Bay Campus Pablo Ortiz. “The World Centers, along with our efforts to better understand the international engagements we have, will allow us to better manage our resources and leverage the deep relationships we have abroad.” 

Check out what’s going on at these global hubs of collaboration.

World Center Italy

Out of the way of classic tourism hubs like Rome and Venice, the city of Genoa isn’t overflowing with American students. Italian is the language that’s spoken and Italian customs are followed. This rich cultural landscape has become the backdrop for almost two decades of collaborative learning activities, producing layers of international connections. 

FIU is deepening its relationships with University of Genoa, the municipal government and local cultural institutions, as well as building new relationships with local businesses and industries. More than 500 FIU students have studied in the coastal city since 2005.

"Immersion is a good way to describe the experience,” says Professor Matthew Rice, the on-site manager of FIU’s program. “We want our students to go native, live locally and speak Italian as best they can.”  

FIU students take classes with FIU professors or local Italian instructors (in English) in a convent that dates back to the 13th century. Genoa has hosted students studying architecture, interior architecture, hospitality, social sciences and other majors. As a city known for its layered history and emerging contemporary identity, along with its logistical and shipping prowess, cruise ship activity and breathtaking construction, it serves as a natural learning environment. 

Some FIU programs organize collaborative workshops with University of Genoa. The partnership began with social sciences trips under Associate Professor Douglas Kincaid. Then it grew into a general exchange and cooperation agreement with FIU in 2004. Today at the University of Genoa, FIU and Italian students put their unique strengths together to synergize in the classroom.

Collaboration isn’t always easy. Sometimes, students don’t necessarily share a common language. But as students step outside their comfort zones, wonders are produced.

Glen Santayana ‘07 recalls how one of his most memorable design projects in college was a group project between FIU and University of Genoa students.

"At first, we didn't know where to start because we didn't speak the same language and we had some trouble communicating. But slowly we began to gesture and use drawing as a way of communicating. This allowed us to collaborate and share ideas throughout the semester, which ultimately lead to our final presentation where we presented the project in both languages," says Santayana, who is an associate and project manager at an architecture firm today.

"It was such a rewarding experience because, in the end, drawing became the common language, and we were able to 'speak' to each other. This experience reinforced how important communication is in any environment, whether it's with your client, team or audience. Without it, it's tough to move any project forward. My experience in Genoa is a memory I carry with me to this day." 

University of Genoa students have studied at FIU in Miami, with European Union funding in place to support the reciprocal exchange of students and faculty from each institution.

Plans are underway to take advantage of the potential strengths of FIU and Genoa to develop internship opportunities for FIU students in local industries with the assistance of the local government and Chamber of Commerce.

Students are also soaking up experiences at local cultural institutions such as the Wolfsoniana Museum, the sister institution of the Wolfsonian-FIU. And new educational capabilities are evolving between FIU and University of Genoa, such as exchange and research opportunities with various engineering departments and an ongoing cruise ship and super yacht interior design program.

FIU has partnerships across the rest of the country, too. The collaboration in Genoa is so strong now that even the mayor of the city is a staunch advocate for it.

“Students are sponges, meaning that they are highly capable of absorbing information and behaviors that are going to help them develop in life,” says Mayor Marco Bucci, who worked in the U.S. for 22 years as an international business executive. “Since students at FIU and the University of Genoa are gaining international exposure at a young age, I guarantee that they will be prepared on how to behave when they interact with all kinds of cultures in the world.” 

World Center Colombia

The Amazon River is among the most famous rivers in the world, and deservedly so. It contains more than 2,500 species of fish, tens of millions people living in its river basin and about 12 percent of all freshwater above ground.  

Elizabeth Anderson, head of the Tropical Rivers Lab at FIU and associate professor in the department of Earth and environment, mentions these facts to make a point.

“When you think of the Amazon, you think of it as a place that has a lot of national parks and Indigenous territories, and that’s wonderful for conservation. But there’s nothing that protects the main river,” Anderson says.

Anderson previously co-led the Partners for Conservation in the Colombian Amazon project, a group of researchers and workers from multiple universities and more than 20 other organizations in Colombia and the U.S. The project resulted in 15 graduate fellowships to Colombian students, 23 research awards and more than 100 participants in training courses. The partnerships have also yielded a great amount of information to assist future conservation efforts of the Colombian Amazon, which accounts for nearly half of the country’s national territory.

Anderson is also part of a collaborative, international group of researchers, including many Colombian scientists, who study the incredible impact that the western Amazon River region has on the ecology, biochemistry, and human-environment connections of the Amazon Basin and coastal Atlantic Ocean.

“We recently did a high-level assessment of the needs and opportunities for freshwater conservation in the Amazon,” Anderson says. “Amazon forests have been a global conservation priority for a long time, and international support has made a tremendous impact on protection of forests and Indigenous territories. Now it’s time to use that momentum to secure sustainable protection for Amazon freshwater ecosystems."

In addition to environmental resilience research, public health is a focus of cooperative research in Colombia. 

“There are many academic institutions in Colombia with strong research programs,” says Dr. Carlos Espinal, director of the Global Health Consortium at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work. He served as a researcher in the National Institute of Health and Ministry of Health in Colombia for 15 years and brings his connections to FIU's partnerships.

Research begins with helping people on the ground. Local populations who have been exposed to environmental contaminants need help, says Professor and Dean of Stempel College Tomás R. Guilarte. FIU and several Colombian universities are researching the issue. 

“There are estimates that up to 40 percent of the world’s children have learning problems due to lead exposure,” Guilarte says. “In Colombia, we are working on the development of a simple, effective and safe therapy for children who have learning problems due to lead exposure." 

FIU and Colombian global health experts are also tackling the issue of antimicrobial resistance, the process by which viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites become resistant to treatments. This problem often occurs because antibiotics are taken without prescriptions. 

“Antimicrobial resistance is projected to be the leading cause of death in 2050,” Espinal says. “We are working to strengthen the local capacity to fight this challenge while we implement national resistance programs in other countries.” 

FIU researchers, Colombian scientists and international experts are also broadcasting critical knowledge through the Global Health Consortium. Last December, its Global Health Conference of the Americas was held in person in Cartagena, Colombia, bringing together hundreds of people from across the world to discuss challenges and opportunities around COVID-19, immunizations, antimicrobial resistance, digital health and more.

FIU also has high-stakes partnerships in Alzheimer's disease research in Colombia. Daniel Martinez, a Ph.D. student from Colombia, is currently researching the nuerodegenerative disease in Guilarte’s lab at FIU.

And outside of public health, learning between students of various disciplines is underway. Collaborative International Online Learning is linking groups together virtually to develop alternative and digital strategies for expressing hybrid U.S.-Colombian identities in business, communications and the arts.

FIU expects to send more students to Colombia for collaborative activities as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes.

“Our work in Italy and Colombia is highlighted by these World Center designations, which in turn is meant to serve as a boost to expand our efforts further,” says FIU Director of Global Strategy & Faculty Success Birgitta Rausch-Montoto. “This is not about planting a flag. It’s about fulfilling the FIU promise to be a global changemaker.”

For those who want to learn more about the centers, check out the official pages of World Center Italy and World Center Colombia.