Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

General Education and Global Citizenship at Webster University

Like many first-year university students, Katie Fields cared little about general education requirements.

“I just wanted to focus on my business courses as soon as I could,” she said. “I thought it was kind of a waste of my time.”

Now, after graduating with a BS in business administration and a BA in management from Webster University in 2019, she credits the general education requirements of Webster’s Global Citizenship Program (GCP) with transforming her future.

“I'm happy to admit that I was wrong,” she said.

A Mission of Global Citizenship

Webster University’s focus on global learning began in 1978, when it expanded beyond the main St. Louis campus to open a campus in Geneva, Switzerland. Over the next four decades, the university added campuses across four continents to become one of the most diverse institutions in the world (students come from nearly 150 nationalities and speak more than eighty languages).

“This very international student body affects everything, the way faculty teach . . . and the way we deliver the curriculum,” said Julianna M. Sandholm-Bark, assistant professor and head of the GCP on the Geneva campus.

In 2007, Webster embraced this international identity by revising its mission statement to focus on “high-quality learning experiences that transform students for global citizenship and individual excellence.” In 2009, global citizenship became the cornerstone of the revised general education curriculum.

Webster intentionally distinguishes between global citizenship and global awareness. “I think that's important,” said Bruce Umbaugh, philosophy professor and director of the GCP. “We're aiming to prepare students to play an active role in the world.”

To develop the GCP, a team of Webster faculty and administrators attended AAC&U summer institutes, including the Institute on General Education and Assessment, which provided the expertise and collaborative work time to tailor the program to the university’s unique context and navigate the politics of approval processes.

“I think sometimes people misunderstand global as being, ‘Oh, well, in order for me to get that experience I need to travel and go far away,’” said Stephanie Mahfood, associate professor and director of the Global Keystone Seminar component of the GCP. “But a global focus starts local. Even if you never leave the 63119 zip code, there are issues that are affected by global events. Students need to learn to negotiate those issues even if they never step foot out of Webster Groves.”

The Global Citizenship Program

Every Webster student takes at least ten GCP courses, including two core classes (a first-year seminar and a junior- or senior-level Keystone course) and several courses aligned with specific learning outcomes.

“We got the best of both worlds” from a general education perspective, Umbaugh said. “The Global Citizenship Program gives us some of the purposefulness that you can get with a traditional core kind of program but also the flexibility in student choice that you get from a distribution model.”

GCP courses at Webster’s domestic and international campuses examine different topics, but they all focus on the same learning outcomes: critical thinking, written and oral communication, teamwork, quantitative literacy, arts appreciation, global understanding, and knowledge about human behavior, roots of cultures, and physical and social systems. In addition to these skills, the two core seminars also address integrative learning and collaboration.

“I tell students all the time it doesn't matter if you're the best computer scientist or teacher or biologist or costume designer,” Mahfood said. “If you cannot write, communicate, get along with other people, and solve problems, you won't get a job. Or if you get a job, you will not keep it.”

The First-Year Seminar

Rather than requiring faculty to teach within their specific disciplines, first-year seminars allow them to share the research and hobbies they are passionate about with students. On the St. Louis campus, recent topics include the Marvel Comics universe, baseball, and the US education system, while a recent course in Geneva explored how different academic disciplines approach creativity.

For students like Fields, who initially didn’t want to take the first-year seminar, communication with faculty members was vital to earning trust and buy-in with the program.

“New-student orientation is invaluable as a platform for giving students a sense of what they'll be doing and what the purpose of it all is,” Sandholm-Bark said.

At Umbaugh’s urging, Fields enrolled in a first-year seminar that was organized as a learning community, with students taking three courses (for a total of seven credits) together rather than a single three-credit course. All first-year seminars aim to build students’ skills in critical thinking, written and oral communication, and integrative learning.

“Moving to a new college, to a new town, not having really any friends there, it was amazing the sense of family that was created, just being able to take three classes with the same students,” Fields said.

Embedding Outcomes across the Curriculum

After the first-year seminar, students take twenty-four credits of courses aligned with specific GCP learning outcomes. Unlike first-year seminar courses, which are overseen by a Global Citizenship Committee and designed by individual faculty, these courses are managed by departments across the institution.

“Rather than having dedicated courses for first-year composition or public speaking, faculty across different departments are very intentional about helping students develop these skills,” Umbaugh said. “We built a writing across the curriculum program, a critical thinking across the curriculum program, and an ethical reasoning across the curriculum program by embedding or joining the skills and the knowledge instruction in those courses.”

The courses that Fields took—on human rights and international relations, American Sign Language, and environmental ethics, among other topics—quickly “broadened my horizons and made me realize that there are so many opportunities to provide service to those around me and to make a positive impact while also continuing to study business,” she said.

The courses also helped her develop essential skills—critical thinking, intercultural competence, writing, and public speaking—that were often missing from business classes. Her cultural anthropology course was designed to help students become better writers, and almost every class she took at Webster included an oral communication component, whether through class discussions, group presentations, or narration of a video assignment.

“They found ways to embed these skills without making it the entire topic of the class,” she said. “Students are probably not going to be as excited about taking the public speaking course as they would about learning about human rights with a presentation component embedded into the course.”

Addressing “Wicked Problems” in the Keystone Seminar

Students take their final GCP course, the Keystone Seminar, in their junior or senior year. Each Keystone was designed by a different interdisciplinary team composed of faculty, administrators, and a librarian from across Webster’s domestic and international campuses.

“All of the courses are built around ‘wicked problems’—problems that are big and complicated and multidisciplinary that don't have easy answers,” Mahfood said. Recent topics for the courses include global poverty, educational inequity, sustainable design, art and social engagement, and water scarcity.

Through collaborative projects and experiences based on these topics, students draw on the various skills they learned in earlier GCP courses and through their majors.

“Keystone Seminars are problem-based, experiential, interdisciplinary, and integrative,” Umbaugh said.

Mahfood teaches a Keystone course, School on a Shoestring, that explores the effects of educational inequity. The class visits several local schools in St. Louis, including an affluent public school district and an independent school with a sliding tuition scale that supports lower-income students. They also make several trips to a public school designed for newly arrived immigrants, including refugees and students who had little or no compulsory schooling in their previous country.

“It's like walking into the United Nations, and everything related to inequity sort of rears itself right in front of your face,” Mahfood said.

There, Webster students talk with college-bound high schoolers about American university life, and they coordinate a field trip for the high schoolers to visit Webster. Mahfood said her students must work together and plan carefully for the trip’s many complications: “Are there dietary restrictions? Who needs to pray after lunch? Are there certain things that families of these students would be uncomfortable with them seeing? Do we need to front load some information visually or in another way so they understand what's happening?”

In Real-World Survivor, the Keystone that Fields took, students learn about the United Nations’ sustainable development goals and examine ethical perspectives about social change. During the university’s fall break, students spend four days in a poverty simulation at Heifer Ranch in Perryville, Arkansas.

Operated by Heifer International, a nonprofit that provides livestock and agricultural training to impoverished families around the world to help them maintain a sustainable food source, the simulation separates students into “families” who live for several days in dwellings meant to represent those from places like Mumbai, Gambia, or the Appalachian Mountains.  

“The first time we piloted this, a number of us had some real questions about whether this could really be a coherent and legitimate experience,” Umbaugh said. “Can you really simulate living in poverty? Because we all knew very well that at the end we were going to get on a bus and come back to St. Louis and have hot showers and three square meals a day. But I was really struck by the impact that this experience had: the loss of control over our day, the uncertainty about when or whether our next meal would come.”

Fields remembers her time on Heifer Ranch fondly, even though she spent three days sleeping on a concrete floor in “Guatemala.”

“There’s no electricity. You don't get to bring food with you and you have to work for your rations every day. You get to trade with people if you want,” Fields said. As part of the service-learning aspect of the program, she earned money to spend or barter by cutting through acres of shrubbery and removing deep fence posts so that land could be used in different ways. “It was just such an eye-opening experience to how lucky and privileged we all were and how we take for granted so much of what we have.”

After students return to campus, they work in teams to develop videos explaining the UN’s sustainable development goals and exploring possible solutions.

“Everybody from different majors came together and used their own expertise to build something,” Fields said. “I had to use almost every skill I gained in my GCP courses throughout the final project.”

Are Students Learning the GCP Outcomes?

Using modified versions of AAC&U’s VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) rubrics, GCP course instructors enter scores for each student on each line of the rubric. The Office of Institutional Effectiveness aggregates the scores and, through a cohort analysis, compares how students perform at different points of the program (in their first-year seminar, in the skills-based courses, or in the Keystone seminar). They also disaggregated results by students’ ACT scores, finding that students who entered Webster with lower ACT scores scored lower on the rubrics at the beginning of their college career, but the gap narrowed as they progressed through the curriculum.

“That felt like really good validation that students were learning in the program and in their time as undergraduates at Webster,” Umbaugh said.

However, the assessment efforts over the past decade have fallen short of one key goal: “helping departments have conversations about how to improve student experience and student learning,” Umbaugh said. To stimulate these conversations, the Global Citizenship Program and the Office of Institutional Effectiveness are revamping the assessment approach to focus on individual skills across the GCP rather than on individual courses. The Faculty Development Center is also helping to create a series of events to facilitate cross-disciplinary discussion of critical thinking and other skills.

Fields, who now works at the Starkloff Disability Institute running their ACCESS U program to support college students with disabilities, believes that the skills she learned from the GCP gave her “the cross-cultural competency to go forth in a global world,” she said. But she insists that the GCP courses went far beyond skill development—they were truly transformational.

“I feel like I'm a totally different person because of the GCP courses I took. I was politically apathetic before college, and by the end of college I had run our campus voting initiative,” Fields said. “Because of the GCP, I was able to match my skill set with my passions, find my dream job, and make connections along the way.”