Lehigh’s new vice president and vice provost for international affairs, Cheryl Matherly, and President John Simon and Provost Pat Farrell sit down to discuss the importance of international education and Lehigh’s role in the future. Matherly is currently the vice provost for global education at the University of Tulsa and will formally take office at Lehigh on March 31. Read more about her background and appointment here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Why do you think it’s important for Lehigh to be international?
Simon: I think everything is global now. You have to be globally competent—you have to understand how to work in teams with people from different nationalities, different cultural backgrounds. We have an obligation to provide the experiences necessary for our students to be able to engage globally.
Farrell: Being prepared to work in different cultures is critical. Do you know how to operate effectively in a culture that’s different from the one you’re familiar with, with people who come from different perspectives? Anymore, that’s part of a university education. Our students come in now with more global awareness. One thing universities can do is help you build a framework so those observations start to fit together and information becomes actual knowledge that you can use to look ahead. In a heavily Internet-influenced world, that’s one of the things we can offer our students.
Simon: I think it’s a very different time. If you had asked me in 1985 if I ever thought I would be part of an international team working on a scientific project, I would have told you no. The United States is now among the countries where the best science is done, and the past decade of my research career has involved many international collaborations. What I find interesting is that most of the foundations of chemistry were not discovered in the United States. And there’s little effort made to emphasize that it was and is a global enterprise. So when I listen to various disciplines tell me they don’t know how to teach global competence, I don’t believe it. You can bring the concept of a global community into any curriculum and any major, and actually I think that we have that responsibility so that people understand that it’s not just US-centric.
Matherly: The kinds of challenges that we’re preparing people who graduate from college to address are by their very nature global questions. I think students are coming in recognizing that and in some ways, are ahead of where the institutions are. They need to have the broad perspective of understanding where to go beyond the US to get that knowledge.
Why is it important for faculty to have international connections?
Farrell: A lot of the most interesting challenges on which people want to do research don’t have any specific national or cultural boundary—that’s exactly why they’re big problems. A lot of faculty are already there in their scholarship. In the world that we’re in now, there rarely is a single answer. Faculty engagement with global is hugely important because I think that really expands faculty horizons and how they think about their knowledge and how to encourage students to think in a broader, multi-perspective, multicultural way.
Matherly: Some of my colleagues at Tulsa say that engaging internationally has been one of the most reenergizing things for their work in the classroom. There’s this other side of bringing in new things, new contacts, new material, new applications that really enliven work in a way that’s current and fresh that they just couldn’t do otherwise.
Why do you think Lehigh is well situated to excel in international education?
Matherly: The problems that students will be addressing are not just global problems, they’re also interdisciplinary questions. Schools like Lehigh that already have a lock on that interdisciplinary approach to education are so far ahead. I’ve been part of an NSF-funded research team that’s looking at globally prepared engineers. The first phase was to develop a model of what a globally prepared engineer looked like. Yes, there needed to be these technical skills. But what was even more important were things like intercultural communications, teamwork, language, and understanding cultures—engineering embedded within a humanities context. That’s part of what Lehigh has always been.
Simon: I recently had all the Iacocca interns over one evening. Most of the interns I talked to were telling me about their next global engagement. And it’s not in areas where you’d say it’s tourist travel. I think our challenge institutionally is to figure out what makes sense for us, in what parts of the world should Lehigh be deeply engaged, and what experiences do we want students to have. It is important that our offerings appeal to as broad a population as possible.
Matherly: I think this is another place where the students are pushing the institution to be more creative. This makes for an extremely exciting time to be in the field and to be leading the initiatives. Even just the choice of terminology has moved away from where it used to be “study abroad programs,” it’s now “education abroad.” And there’s a reason for that. It’s because now it’s everything—study, credit, non-credit, service, research, internships. And it’s more possible for all students to have some kind of experience like that.
How has your personal international experience colored how you see the world and do your job?
Simon: In my research career, the things that have interested me in the past decade have all engaged me internationally. Professionally as an educator, when I was in the provost role, this was my highest priority. And I learned that if you want deep, meaningful activity in an area of the world, you’ve got to have presence. Personally, given the chance now, I’d travel abroad frequently and spend enough time in various locations to experience the culture. Spending time abroad has changed me in many ways, in my thinking about myself and the world.
Farrell: In my field of research, you have to be internationally engaged. It’s just a very international topic to work in. But some of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had have been more personal, less about professional colleagues and engagement and more just getting a feel for what it’s like finding yourself in really unusual situations. One of the most interesting was about a month I spent teaching short courses in Indonesia. It’s just a really interesting experience to meet people who want to talk to you because you’re the tallest white guy they’ve ever seen. By traveling, you realize your own culture is actually unusual and the rest of the world sees things very differently. That’s a great perspective that you don’t get if you never look at it from outside.
Matherly: I’ve always been interested in culture and cultural differences. I grew up in New Mexico, which is incredibly diverse. I didn’t realize to what extent until I left and went to graduate school in Indiana. That was an interesting entrée into something that shapes your worldview, how you define questions, how you work as teams, all that. Personally, some of the most impactful travel experiences have been those where I have really pushed up against the boundaries of my own Americanness, like the summer I spent six weeks living in Japan. Someone once told me that to be effective interculturally, you need to get comfortable being uncomfortable being uncomfortable. I love that and I thought that actually gets it exactly right. When you can examine why you’re uncomfortable and learn from it, that’s incredibly rich. That’s why I got into this and the part that I still find the most exciting.