Study Abroad

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October 2019 TOC icon
Cover Article
October 2019 (Vol. 51, No. 5)
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Photo of Monica NevinsInternationalisation is all the buzz in academia today. While the impetus has largely been, and continues to be, the need for colleges and universities to generate more revenue by attracting fee-paying students from abroad, I warmly welcome what I see as a recent shift of focus: our schools, at all levels, touting their dedication to producing global citizens. As we get into the swing of our fall semester, I’m reflecting on what promoting “global citizenship” might mean to us, and to our professional society.

I’ve had a lot of reason to reflect on internationalisation, beyond the shifting demographics in my own classroom: at uOttawa, I am the Faculty of Science’s Vice-Dean International Relations—a nebulous role that I am slowly defining for myself. What we’ve seen most tangibly is how our undergraduate and graduate programs benefit by attracting excellent students from around the world—not to mention how our research programs benefit from international collaborations, and from hiring globe-trotting postdoctoral fellows. But until I took on this role, I was unaware how intensely some countries promote global citizenship among their own students, and how comparatively far behind we are. For example, most programs in France have as a requirement that their students study at least one semester abroad—and their students are eager to seize this opportunity (due in part, no doubt, to the strong national funding behind the initiative).

What excites me particularly about internationalisation and global citizenship are the opportunities to promote outward mobility, at all levels. Going abroad is all about adding something global to our local knowledge. (Coincidentally or not, local-global relationships are the kind of mathematics I like, too.) What I’ve been learning about, and seeking to encourage, are the myriad of different interconnected ways students and academics go abroad. What really stands out for me is how almost uniquely well-positioned we are—as mathematicians, or students of mathematics—to take advantage of them.

Student exchanges had always struck me as quaint throwbacks, for simpler times. The appetite for specialised undergraduate programs, with long rigid lists of required courses, isn’t all that compatible with exploration, let alone with studies at a university with a different take on the subject. Mathematics is certainly a nice exception to this rule: most universities are lucky to have a healthy core program that is well-respected, and yet enjoys enough flexibility to count courses from abroad towards their degree. I encourage my students to take advantage of the special and unique mathematics courses they discover at their host institution, for the chance to really experience the breadth and depth of mathematics.

Moreover, isn’t mathematics among the simplest subjects to follow in a foreign language? (I’ve certainly argued this, successfully and not, trying to persuade students to try a math course in the other language at my bilingual University…) The point is rapidly becoming moot, though—the number of universities abroad offering international programs in English make an academic exchange easier to embrace than ever.

Fundamentally, I think that studying abroad, and having the chance to live and breathe in another culture (both socially and academically), truly enriches—maybe even defines—a university education. How many of us will attest to the relevance of graduate studies in another country to forging a successful career in academia? I certainly believe that doing my doctoral studies in the US had a profound impact on both my career and my world view.

The Canadian Mathematical Society had a long and proud tradition of promoting such student mobility. The NSERC-CMS Math in Moscow program, which ran from 2001 to 2014, funded between two and four Canadian students per year to study one semester at the Independent University of Moscow. Though Math in Moscow continues, our sponsorship ended with the withdrawal of our NSERC funding partner, and no equivalently highly prestigious program has taken its place. Perhaps it is madness to consider choosing a replacement; after all, why should there be one single best destination, from the dozens of outstanding mathematics institutions around the world? Nevertheless, I do think it was a singular opportunity to establish—with just three words!—that doing mathematics is a glorious and international activity.

Though I’ve focussed on academic exchanges, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention some of the other options for internationalisation open to our students, and ourselves. For one, there is a growing market for students conducting research abroad. As universities around the world seek to raise their stature (and their rankings), we’re seeing a steady growth in funded research internships for our undergraduate students, everywhere from Lyon to Shanghai. It goes both ways: programs like Mitacs Globalink make it easy for the world (of hopeful undergraduate research students) to come to us. These are excellent opportunities, for our students, and for our research—and I, for one, welcome the competition for hiring and attracting the brightest students into mathematical research.

Thankfully, internationalisation and global citizenship doesn’t have to end with graduation! Think of the opportunities that academics enjoy: to attend conferences in different countries, to collaborate with colleagues across the globe, and to enjoy research stays, including sabbaticals, abroad. Between videoconferencing technologies and generous Research in Pairs programs at mathematical institutes on different continents, becoming global mathematicians ourselves has never been easier.

Application deadlines for exchanges next September are fast approaching. Share your international experiences with your students, and encourage them to take advantage of some of these great opportunities!

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