By CHASE GORSKI
A connection that has been in the makings for almost two years now is beginning to come to fruition under the Center for International Education (CIE) at Salisbury University.
As one of the largest Spanish-speaking countries in the world, Colombia has taken strides towards stabilization within the past decade, putting the country back on the secondary education map.
SU took notice back in the spring of 2016 when CIE Director Dr. Brian Stiegler sent various staff members to travel and begin making connections within the South American country.
“There’s this renaissance going on in Colombia…there’s much more political stability,” Stiegler said. “The Colombian government is investing a lot in education in order to continue to feed this healthy sort of cycle of replenishment, so it’s a good time to be in Colombia.”
The purpose of the initiative is to begin an interactive relationship between SU and the country, providing the opportunity for professors or students to travel to Salisbury and partake in research projects while also enhancing English language skills.
The opportunities are a two-way street as Salisbury professors and graduates will also be able to reap the benefits of research and job opportunities within universities in Colombia. Other possibilities include different professors in various SU departments traveling to Colombia and working with professors throughout their university systems.
The international relationship between SU and multiple different Colombian universities began with a visit last summer by 20 professors from the Universidad de la Costa in the city of Barranquilla. The professors came to SU and studied English for a month over the summer through funding from their university.
The next major step taken occurred back in February of this year when Stiegler and SU President Dr. Janet Dudley-Eshbach traveled to Colombia to further negotiations with numerous universities and also meeting with local government officials.
This was accompanied with the application for various grants, one of which would bring around 10 undergraduates from Colombia to SU in the spring of 2019. Those students would spend a semester within the English Language Institute (ELI) while also taking on an undergraduate research project.
“This is a funded program from the Colombian government to encourage more young people to think in terms of research,” Stiegler said. “We got a positive back in January, we went in February and met the governor so that’s going really well.”
The CIE also applied for a grant in December with SU’s Conflict Analysis and Dispute Resolution (CADR) department with the hopes of sending professors to universities in coastal Colombia for a ‘train the trainers’ workshop.
“The idea is to train university faculty members to work with students who are recovering from conflict, either were touched by the armed revolution and the war there or were victims of conflict in some other ways,” Stiegler said.
Dudley-Eshbach signed several different memorandums of understanding during their visit not just with institutions like Universidad Libre, but as well with the rear admiral of the Colombian Navy.
“To potentially do more English language training for both Colombian officers and petty officers and also with the Colombian Naval Academy,” Stiegler said. “There is just a lot of opportunity for Salisbury University to engage in Colombia, so the president went down there and really consolidated some initiatives.”
Stiegler felt that the presence of Dudley-Eshbach not just as the president of the university but also as a fluent Spanish speaker and someone who has studied Latin America in depth was a great benefit for the initiative.
The entire project has continued to grow since their visits to Cartagena, Barranquilla and Bogotá. While SU wants the opportunity to send faculty there, the universities that Stiegler has been in contact with have expressed the desire for graduates to teach English.
Stiegler explained that along with those interests, universities have also shown interest in students within master’s degree programs to become professors.
“It’s about us going down there and teaching and engaging and then also about them engaging with us, they are very interested in English language development,” Stiegler said. “As they become more politically and socio-economically stable, tourism is on the up so they need more development in the English language.”
Another contributory character behind the scenes for the CIE was International Student Success Coordinator Melissa Aristizabal Vizcaino. A former student who came to SU through the ELI, Vizcaino completed her master’s degree at SU and continued with the school to work full-time in the CIE.
“She was very instrumental in opening up some doors with her contacts within Colombia and that was very helpful,” Stiegler said. “Prior to that we didn’t have really any institutional partnerships down there so that maybe is what changed things and of course the context in Colombia changed.”
With many different benefits in terms of travelling, Stiegler also sees this as an opportunity to increase the diversity on campus.
The efforts of the CIE center around providing a global education at Salisbury. While SU is around the national average with about 14 percent of students studying abroad, that leaves a large majority of students that will never study abroad.
Stiegler sees this as a reason behind the need for more international diversity on campus which also provides faculty with the opportunity to experience more diversity in the classroom.
With all of these exciting opportunities growing from this project and many others out of the CIE, Stiegler also is looking to the future for what is on the horizon.
“There will be opportunities as well to eventually have study abroad programs down there, so this is all part of the spirit of a multifaceted approach to a dynamic country that’s developing in really positive ways,” Stiegler said. “Colombia is not maybe American higher-education’s first thought…we really want to be somebody who’s in Colombia the way Purdue University is.”
Purdue is one of the only major universities in the nation that has maintained a relationship with universities in Colombia, and have done so for many years now. Though a little behind, SU hopes to get to that level.
Dudley-Eshbach’s involvement makes the initiative that much more interesting, with SU having the ability to not only send the face of the university down for these negotiations but also for the president to have a background in Latin America and Spanish.
“She is beautiful to travel with in the Spanish-speaking world because she is a fish in water, she honestly and sincerely and deeply appreciates the culture and the history,” Stiegler said. “As she steps down from her presidency, I’m particularly hopeful that she will continue to be engaged with Salisbury University and particularly with Colombia.”
While no official plans have been made, Dudley-Eshbach voiced her desire to return to the classroom following her presidency. However, the CIE has acknowledged how valuable her presence can be in international relations.
Stiegler feels that the combination of Spanish skills along with Dudley-Eshbach’s senior leadership experience works well in these scenarios. The need of someone who understands how a university is run could bode well in future initiatives as well.
As her tenure begins to come to a close, the trip to Colombia serves as one of the last things President Dudley-Eshbach is able to add to her resume. If she does intend on returning the SU following her sabbatical, it is clear that Stiegler and the CIE will be glad to have her.