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Smith Students Want to Make an Impact

By Jan McCoy Ebbets

It has been more than three years since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and two years since the war on Iraq began. As global issues and tensions continue to dominate the news, Smith College students in increasing numbers are making their way into classrooms to study international affairs.

On a bright Tuesday afternoon in a small classroom in Wright Hall, six undergraduates taking a seminar in international politics taught by Jacques Hymans, assistant professor of government, wrestled with the ethics and realities of weapons of mass destruction that faced the two scientists who developed nuclear power -- Dane Niels Bohr and his German protégé Werner Heisenberg. In a free-flowing two-hour discussion, the students, all government majors, flipped through their well-worn copies of Michael Frayn’s award-winning play Copenhagen, their reading assignment for the week, coaxing example and analysis from various lines.

They wanted to understand why the two scientists stopped communicating with one another after a clandestine meeting in Copenhagen in 1941. More important, they wanted to understand the motives of those whose contributions led to the development of the atomic bomb that caused so many deaths at the end of World War II.

Sidebar: Smith Forges New Partnership with University of Sarajevo

Sidebar: Courses to the World

Relative new seminars like the one taught by Hymans reflect the surging interest in international studies and the international relations minor. It is apparent in the large turnouts for such courses as foreign policy and international politics and the high demand for opportunities to study abroad and to intern with companies and organizations all over the world, college officials say.

“International relations is in the hearts and on the minds of many Smith students these days,” Professor of Anthropology Elliot Fratkin notes. “And Smith’s curriculum is already strong with a very rich body of offerings in global studies and international relations.”

From the Smith alumnae who served as ambulance drivers in post-World War I France through today’s increasing popular Junior Year Abroad program, which was established at the University of Paris in 1925, Smith has long supported students’ enthusiasm for studying and experiencing other cultures. A 1996 campuswide self-study defined the college’s goals for the 21st century, determining that “Smith graduates will thrive personally in an increasingly multicultural world and will be well prepared to succeed in a global economy.”

Embracing the importance of international studies, Smith is now taking steps to establish a new Center for International Affairs to better coordinate the myriad offerings on campus with an international focus. The center, which is currently under development, will serve as a headquarters for students interested in international studies and global affairs and will coordinate speakers, programs and international exchange efforts for students and faculty. It will also integrate such programs and services as those offered by the Office of International Study, which administers Smith’s Junior Year Abroad programs as well as independent study abroad and international fellowships, and the Office of International Students and Scholars, which supervises and supports the experience of international students and visitors on campus.

“What often drives students,” says Elliot Fratkin, anthropology professor and director of the African Studies Program, “is the question ‘How do I make an impact?’ They want a global understanding and they want to change the world situation.” Photo by Jim Gipe.

The Many Gateways to International Study

Today Smith offers more than 400 courses with international dimensions through several departments and programs, including eight language and literature departments, three transnational area studies programs -- African, East Asian, and Latin American studies -- and opportunities to study 12 languages. Students can also take advantage of a rich diversity of minors in such fields as Third World development studies, political economy, and environmental science and policy. Also available are Five College Certificates in such areas as Asian/ Pacific/American studies and Middle East studies.

More specifically, the international relations program is a formal field of study through the government department, offering a minor degree. Its interdisciplinary scope is broad, drawing from the humanities, sciences and social sciences, with courses from numerous departments including government, economics, anthropology, comparative literature, environmental science and policy, and history.

Likewise, the scope of the global representation among Smith faculty members is broad, says Fratkin, who is director of the African Studies Program. They bring to the college a collective expertise encompassing much of the world, either through their countries of origin, the languages they speak, or their areas of study and teaching. Many faculty members -- such as government professors Catharine Newbury, an internationally recognized expert on the Congo and Rwanda, and Donna Divine, an expert on the Middle East and Morningstar Family Professor in the Field of Jewish Studies; as well as David Newbury, the Gwendolen Carter Professor of African Studies and History -- travel the world conducting research on topics in all areas of the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. (See sidebar on the University of Sarajevo Partnership.)

Add to that strength, the college’s frequent hosting of guest lecturers, visiting scholars and faculty exchanges, “and we usually have quite an international community of scholars on campus,” Fratkin notes.

A heightened awareness of globalization and the shifting order of world power is drawing students to the study of international relations, notes Mlada Bukovansky, associate professor of government. Photo by Jim Gipe.

The Way Things Change

“We are in a time when students are being challenged to consider and reflect upon the United States and its place in the world, and the shifting international order of power,” says Mlada Bukovansky, associate professor of government and director of the international relations program.

“A heightened awareness of globalization has played a big part in drawing students to international relations,” she adds. Bukovansky attributes the steady, growing interest to not only the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks but also to the tensions in Israeli-Palestinian relations and the Middle East. “But even before 9/11, students started paying attention to the issues of globalization and its relevant economic components back in the ’90s,” she comments. “Students have always shown an interest in developing countries, and a lot of students focused on the emergence of anti-globalization protests in Seattle against the global institutions -- IMF and World Bank, and the debate over NAFTA.”

Like other faculty members, she says her teaching changes often to reflect new global perspectives and realities. “Although Gov 241, the basic international relations course, consistently covers general issue areas such as international security and political economy,” Bukovansky notes, “the emphasis changes year to year. Before 9/11, terrorism was not a major focus, but of course that changed after 9/11. Similarly the conduct of the Iraq war, and the varied global responses to that war, has also entailed changes in emphasis and the types of readings assigned in the course.”

What’s more, students’ career interests are changing, says Greg White, associate professor of government. “Back in the ’90s, the students I advised were interested in career options with a globalization hook, working for a bank or a large international corporation. Now in post 9/11, more students are applying to work in defense- or intelligence-related fields and diplomacy work.”

White encourages his students to dip into the course offerings across all fields and avoid concentrating their studies too narrowly in the government and international relations areas. “I tell a student it doesn’t matter what she majors in. It doesn’t have to be a major in government or a minor in international relations,” he says.

“Students don’t immediately realize that they can do a Latin American studies major, spend a year studying in Nicaragua, declare a minor in economics, and graduate with a solid background and a strong résumé for all kinds of careers in international relations,” notes White, who teaches courses in international political economy, labor migration and politics of the global environment.

Students’ career interests are changing. In the post-9/11 era, more students are seeking work in diplomacy and defense- or intelligence-related fields, says Greg White, associate professor of government. Photo by Jim Gipe.

Regardless of what career a Smith graduate aims for, says Bukovansky, “I think it’s critically important for a Smith student to be able to evaluate competing world visions and to be able to be reflective about her own biases and assumptions.”

“By the time she graduates from Smith, a student should have a sense of the world and what she wants to do in it,” she insists.

The Educated Student

When senior Rosalyn Epstein ’05 from Salt Lake City, Utah, first arrived at Smith she says she knew little about global issues. “It was through my classes I learned about the global economy and the way that it works -- sometimes taking advantage of developing countries -- and also how women are particularly affected in those developing countries.” Studying for a major in women’s studies and a minor in Third World development, Epstein hopes to work with an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) that focuses on promoting women’s sexual health and economic development, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

With dual citizenship in “two wealthy countries,” the United States and the United Kingdom, she says it is her responsibility “to create change in the way that these two powerful and rich countries affect the development and success of developing countries. The U.S. has incredible power in the World Bank and IMF, and these institutions are responsible for some of the poverty and suffering in developing countries.”

Like others hoping for international careers, Epstein used an internship stipend provided by Smith for a summer internship overseas. She worked with the Bwafwano Home Based Care Organization in Lusaka, Zambia, a nonprofit group providing home-based care for HIV patients and their families as well as peer education and voluntary counseling, testing, and skills training for AIDS orphans and widows. “It was important for me to work for an organization like that because I did not want to be part of an international aid organization that was pursuing projects not helpful or important to the local people.”

Some students taking classes in international studies are doing so simply because they want to know more about global politics and the effects of globalization on other cultures. For some international students, that can also mean trying to understand what’s going on in their own countries.

“The classes I’ve taken at Smith -- namely Economic Development, International Politics and currently Anthropology of Development -- have basically reaffirmed the idea that education and a strong government are crucial if a country is to develop, and the lack thereof contributes to political instability,” says Arpana Pandey ’07 of Kathmandu, Nepal.

While Pandey isn’t losing sleep over the difficult political situation with the government in her home country, she is trying to understand the Maoist uprising that has caused havoc and further divisions between the Nepalese monarchy and the parliamentary government. It is “partly the result of inept politicians and lack of access and availability of education to the general public. And the unrest has pushed Nepal back 20 or 30 years.”

She observes, “From Gov 241, it was clear that the power and self-interest clearly dictate how one country interacts with another and that the international community, if it wants to, can really help resolve tensions in a country by merely acting as a mediator.... I think that the people of Nepal had hoped that the international community would intervene, but when that didn’t happen the only alternative was the king taking control.”

The Many Reasons to Study Abroad

Each year more than half of Smith juniors study abroad. The programs available to them include Smith’s Junior Year Abroad programs (JYA) in Florence, Geneva and Hamburg, as well as Paris, which has long been a hallmark of the Smith education. Now, students can also arrange to study in more than 100 approved programs in Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe, the United Kingdom and Ireland, the Middle East, and the South Pacific. Most students are attracted by the direct experience of living and learning in another country and culture. Later, many realize the experience has become an essential part of understanding the larger global realities they will face for the rest of their lives.

“Students who return to Smith after studying overseas their junior years are totally engaged and have remarkable ways of enriching our international relations classes and seminars,” observes professor White. “I have never spoken to any student in any of my classes who has not seen this as a major experience in her life.”

“What often drives students,” says professor Fratkin, “is the question ‘How do I make an impact?’ They want a global understanding and they want to change the world situation.”

A government major with an interest in international relations, Jessie Rubin ’06 of Sacramento, California, has linked her academic studies to a concern for such issues as human rights and fair labor practices.

While a Smith student, she has traveled to Nicaragua with a delegation of United States citizens organized through the nonprofit organization Witness for Peace, and she hopes to go again this year with funding from a Smith grant through the Office of International Study. Last fall she spent a semester studying at the Universidad de Chile, after receiving a prestigious Boren Undergraduate Scholarship, and observed firsthand the opposition -- as well as lingering support -- for the ousted former dictator, General Augusto Pinochet. “I’ve been adding to my repertoire about international relations,” she says.

Then her priorities started to shift. “I’m beginning to think I can do more good working on individual cases, one person at a time, within the American system.... There are third-world conditions right here in the U.S. that are not being addressed -- housing segregation, equal access to education and information. These systems are perpetuated to disallow minorities in our country.... I’m feeling more passionate now about correcting issues at home. Since the U.S. has become a dominant world power, any work I do here will have an effect on the global community anyway.”

“Even if it’s one person at a time,” says Rubin, “I want to be the spoke in the wheel that makes change happen.”

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