Diversity and Democracy

Engaging with Global Issues in Local Communities

Many problems that contemporary societies face are universal, intellectually challenging, and unlikely to be solved by a single person from any one discipline. Take access to water as an example: as Nathaniel Uchtmann warns, “Water-related human morbidity and mortality … is already widespread, and almost 80 percent of the global population faces exposure to high threat levels of water insecurity” (2011). Providing potable water in all regions will require collaboration from people with diverse disciplinary backgrounds working together at scales from local to global. To address challenges like these, higher education must prepare today’s students to recognize the difficulty of such issues and build on their own diverse strengths.

To prepare today’s students—tomorrow’s citizens—for a life of unprecedented volatility, to give them the skills to address global problems, and to help them communicate across borders and cultures, the University of Montana (UM) created the Global Leadership Initiative (GLI). Stemming from an awareness that global issues are complex and urgent, the program reflects UM’s distinct view of global education. At UM, global education is not equivalent to international studies; it is not the same as study abroad; it is not focused on acquiring a second language. These are all worthy goals that may contribute to an appreciation of global issues, but they do not by themselves encapsulate or ensure global learning. Instead, global learning at UM focuses on global problems: those complex, poorly defined, loosely structured challenges common to all people, and perhaps to all life on the planet. The daunting tasks associated with addressing these problems require knowledge, appreciation of differences, interdisciplinary perspectives, problem-solving abilities, collaborative skills, and leadership—outcomes that UM aims to instill in students through the Global Leadership Initiative.

Program Structure

UM began piloting the Global Leadership Initiative in fall 2011. Each year, the program enrolls up to two hundred incoming freshmen, selected randomly from a volunteer pool with the goal of creating a cohort that is representative of the entering class. The GLI is not an honors program; it is open to any student admitted to the university. Participating students, designated as GLI fellows, will receive recognition at graduation after completing a four-year sequence of scheduled activities that provide hands-on learning and community interaction. The sequence includes (1) the Context for Big Questions, (2) Models of Leadership, (3) Beyond-the-Classroom Experiences, and (4) Capstone Projects.

Context for Big Questions: In the first semester of the first year, students explore global questions through semester-long, credit-bearing freshman seminars focused on issues like human rights, discrimination, sustainability, world health, and the relationship between mind and body. Potential instructors submit seminar proposals to the faculty-led GLI task force. Seminars must infuse an interdisciplinary approach, and faculty members often partner to create team-taught courses that better ensure multiple disciplinary perspectives. Faculty are encouraged to include service learning and civic engagement as seminar components. This year, for example, students in the seminar Can Giving Change the World? solicited, analyzed, and funded proposals from nonprofits using $10,000 donated by the Living by Giving Foundation. Students in Women’s Rights and Women’s Roles around the World created a website on self-image called More Than a Face (http://morethanaface.weebly.com/) and a multicultural feminist zine called La Femmina. First-year GLI fellows must attend two lectures each semester offered through the many speaker series on campus, and almost half live in a living-learning community that occupies one floor of a residence hall.

Models of Leadership: In the second year, students engage in workshops, retreats, and other activities where leaders from a range of sectors (such as nonprofit, government, business, education, and fine arts) share their stories. Students receive leadership training in on-campus workshops and at one-day retreats, typically held at a university-owned forest research center an hour’s drive from campus. In fall 2013, these retreats focused on public health (with faculty-moderated panels composed of several physicians and a medical anthropologist) and on conservation (with panelists from the Wilderness Society and the Nature Conservancy). Students also meet with peers to discuss big questions that interest them.

Beyond the Classroom: In the third year, students enroll in internships or fieldwork, participate in extensive service-learning projects, conduct research, or (when appropriate) study internationally. The GLI director works with several offices across campus (Academic Enrichment, Internships Services, Civic Engagement, and International Programs) and with faculty to help GLI fellows identify suitable placements. A semester in advance, students apply for funding (contributed by private donors) by submitting budget requests and short essays that describe how their proposed experiences connect with the big question they want to explore. All applicants to date have received some funding. Through their placements—many of which are in Montana—students get hands-on experience while focusing on shared, complex, and messy global issues. (Editor’s note: See Cody Dems’s essay in this issue for an example of one student’s third-year experience.) Students also interact with each other in the classroom, on discussion boards, and through cocurricular activities like their self-organized GLI student club, book club, service days, and social events. The program also funds a US passport for all eligible students, whether or not they intend to study internationally.

Capstone Project: Students in the first GLI cohort will enter their senior year in fall 2014. As seniors, these students will work together in multidisciplinary teams, first to define and sharpen a shared question and then to determine how each student can contribute to investigating that question using his or her academic major and specific skills. Faculty mentors will guide students from different majors as they create team products such as white papers and multimedia presentations. These group projects can offer a foundation for additional inquiry to students who must complete individual capstone projects for their majors.

High-Impact Local Learning

The GLI exploits several high-impact practices, including first-year seminars, undergraduate research, service learning, internships, learning communities, and capstone projects (Kuh 2008). Participants benefit from opportunities to learn with and from diverse peers who take different approaches. The GLI also makes use of experiential learning as emphasized by proponents of place-based education and provides a foundation for understanding and participating in local and global change.

The GLI’s approach to global learning is one of the initiative’s particular strengths. Unlike global learning programs that emphasize study abroad or other international experiences, the GLI allows students to focus on global problems at the local level—often a more viable approach. At UM, a strong sense of place provides an important point of access to the study of global issues. In Montana, students see firsthand the effects of climate change, scarcity of water, and species endangerment. Montana is also the setting for seven Native American reservations whose people are affected by global challenges like discrimination and poverty. Through experiential learning, students become invested in their local community while grappling with far-reaching problems that are repeated all over the planet. In the process, they see firsthand how personal experiences are connected to universal ones. Students who study or intern internationally also make connections between the local and global. For example, one student has spent the spring 2014 semester in Denmark, gaining knowledge and experience about cohousing projects to share with peers working on a sustainability initiative in Montana.

The opportunity to become involved locally is important to the program’s success. Students who are unable to travel because of their majors or personal circumstances can acquire vital communication and collaboration skills in their own communities. Addressing local instances of global problems demands some of the same skills as international study, including perspective-taking and effective communication across cultural barriers, and it requires students to invest in and honor the values and concerns of a community. In addition to helping students address global issues successfully, the GLI aims to educate informed citizens who can contribute to a democratic society. Supporting students as they immerse themselves in local concerns, learn to listen to others, and collaborate to effect change is a good start.

Although the GLI is still in its infancy, initiative leaders hope to extend lessons learned from the pilot to all UM students. UM’s current general education coursework is organized primarily by disciplines, but big questions might provide a more navigable structure. Similarly, while nearly half of all UM students participate in activities beyond the classroom, we hope to increase such opportunities and encourage experiential learning. By using big questions to provide a context for general education coursework and a focus for major study, the GLI offers a mechanism to help students make deliberate choices about their educations while clarifying how their majors offer approaches to global problems. The initiative provides a practical context for education, interdisciplinary perspectives, and application outside the boundaries of the university—as well as the opportunity to make a difference.


Kuh, George D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Uchtmann, Nathaniel. 2011. “Water Issues from a Global, National, and Local Perspective.” Global-e: A Global Studies Journal 5 (September 19). http://global-ejournal.org/2011/09/19/water-issues-from-a-global-nationa....

Arlene Walker-Andrews is associate provost for global century education at the University of Montana.

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