October 2008
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Whittier College Campus
Whittier is one of the most diverse private institutions in the country. More than 40 percent of students come from an underrepresented group.


A Portal to the World

In some ways, Whittier College is a typical small liberal arts college—it has around 1,400 students, small class sizes, a focus on teaching, and a mostly residential campus. But Whittier is one of the most diverse private institutions in the country, with a student body that’s 42 percent minority, 5 percent international, and 26 percent first-generation college students. Whittier is also one of the few selective liberal arts colleges to be designated a Hispanic-Serving Institution—a federal designation indicating that at least 25 percent of the college’s full-time students are Hispanic. And the college’s location in Whittier, California, thirty miles from Los Angeles, puts the resources of one of America’s most international cities within easy reach. All this means that a global worldview is a natural fit at Whittier, says Susan Gotsch, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty. “On so many campuses, domestic diversity is separate from globalism,” Gotsch says. “We had a ‘light bulb’ moment—we’ve really been thinking about how to use our diversity to give students opportunities and weave a curriculum that connects international and domestic diversity,” she says. “We want Whittier to be ‘a portal to the world.’”

A Global Curriculum

Since 2005, Whittier has been working to infuse global perspectives into three requirements within its undergraduate general education curriculum: a first-year writing requirement, a science and society requirement, and a four-course Cultural Perspectives requirement. Whittier is one of sixteen institutions participating in AAC&U’s Shared Futures: General Education for Global Learning initiative, a program that works to expand and extend the role of global learning in general education curricula. With support from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) and the Henry Luce Foundation, Shared Futures institutions are developing curricula to help students answer questions like “What does it mean to be a citizen in the evolving global context?” and “How should one act in the face of large unsolved global problems?"

These aren’t easy questions to answer, but Whittier has a long history of focusing on interdisciplinary learning, Gotsch says, and global learning is necessarily interdisciplinary. In the past three years, Whittier has substantially increased the degree to which the curriculum includes global content—defined as courses that compare at least two regions or cultures, one of which is outside the United States, and address global issues such as migration, natural resources, the environment, conflict, equity, and health. Currently, 27 percent of all courses and nearly 50 percent of general education courses include global content—up from less than 30 percent of general education courses in 2006-07.

“We focused on questions that make our students more aware of the interdependence of the global community,” explains Cheryl Swift, professor of biology and a Shared Futures team leader. In the past year, six faculty members revised their existing general education courses or developed new ones to incorporate a global worldview, with a special focus on courses that could fulfill the science and society requirement. As a result, students will soon be able to take courses like AIDS and Other Human Diseases; Disasters; Islamic Science and Society in Spain: 711-1492; and Global Health: Problems of the Modern World. At least one set of interdisciplinary paired courses is required for upper-level students at Whittier—Swift and business assistant professor Lana Nino taught a linked pair, Conservation Biology and Globalization and Business Ethics, in spring 2008, for example.

Freshman required writing seminars are also getting the global treatment—since 2005, the number of seminars with a global focus has increased 10 percent, including courses like A World Without Us and Peaceful Paths: Nonviolence and Political Change.

Markets of Trajan
During Whittier’s “Jan Term," many students take advantage of intense, globally focused courses with international travel components.

The International Classroom

Aside from general education coursework, the other clear way to educate students for global citizenship is to give them international experiences, says Marilyn Gottschall, chair of Whittier’s Global and Cultural Studies program. But requiring across-the-board study abroad experiences is impractical at a college where many students are supporting themselves or their families and don’t have the time or the funds to spend a semester out of the country.

So instead of mandating study abroad, Whittier is working to make sure all students, regardless of their situation, have international experiences either locally or overseas. One option is an intensive learning experience during “Jan Term”—Whittier’s four-week January interim session. Many Jan Term offerings, especially those developed since Whittier started its Shared Futures work in 2005, feature travel abroad, but the short duration and comparatively low costs make Jan Term courses accessible to a greater number of students than traditional semester-long or summer study abroad sessions. Cheryl Swift’s biology students spent part of Jan Term in South Africa last year, conducting research in the field. “This isn’t academic tourism,” she says. “We call this the international classroom—it’s out of students’ comfort zone.”

Another Jan Term option is a “local international” experience, Gotsch explains. “We can immerse students in global culture in Los Angeles, and it helps those who can study abroad prepare, and helps those who can’t literally go abroad still have a global experience,” she says. “We have a course where students spend ten days in a Buddhist temple retreat, but the temple is right here in L.A. It’s an example of looking at what resources we have locally and tying them into global learning.”  

Whittier is also piloting an exchange program with Arcadia University in Pennsylvania, another Shared Futures institution, in which five Arcadia students will spend the semester at Whittier, experiencing Los Angeles’ multicultural community, while five Whittier students will participate in one of Arcadia’s overseas study abroad experiences. Gotsch points out that to an Arcadia student who has perhaps grown up in a small town in Pennsylvania, Los Angeles is like another country, while a first-generation college student from L.A. might benefit from a study abroad experience in England or Italy.

“We’re in the unique position of having students who are already living the concept of global learning just by being at a small private liberal arts college as first-generation students,” Swift explains.

Planning for a Global Education

Whittier’s next project is to start looking for answers to another big question: how to develop an institution-wide ethos of global citizenship—beyond simply adding course requirements. Gottschall will lead a series of discussions, slated to start this month, in which faculty will question how global learning fits into Whittier’s overall mission. “One of the first things schools need to do is develop a vocabulary that’s more nuanced, so we all have a shared meaning for, say, ‘cultural diversity’—so I’m not talking African American culture when you’re talking study abroad,” she says.

Gotsch says that ultimately, despite the work Whittier has already done, there are always pragmatic questions to answer. “If we’re trying to prepare students for a global world, what does that look like?”

More information about Whittier College’s general education program and global learning requirements is available online. To learn about AAC&U’s Shared Futures initiative, see the Shared Futures Web page.