Between the sleepy-eyed Californians who’d just woken up and the Georgians staying late on campus on the eve of a national holiday, the conference call really wasn’t exactly at an ideal time for anyone. But given the subject matter – and the realities imposed by an 11-hour time difference — no one was complaining.
The April link-up was a first meeting of sorts between East and West. On one end were eight students from SDSU’s College of Sciences and College of Engineering, preparing to study this fall at SDSU’s new program in the country of Georgia. On the other end, in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, were SDSU-Georgia Dean Kenneth Walsh and nine Georgian students — seven of whom will be coming to San Diego in the fall
The purpose of the call was to answer pressing questions for the students, and everyone in the room surely had a few. Topics of discussion ranged from the 30-hour flight to housing to cell phone plans to food. Two Georgian students spoke up to ask about the possibility of competing on volleyball and rugby teams. The Californians — as you might expect — were concerned about the weather.
“The climate here is actually pretty similar to what you’d expect to find in Denver,” Walsh assured them. “It’s not Siberia.”
They’ll see for themselves soon enough. This fall will mark the launch of the student exchange program between SDSU’s main campus and its new Georgian program. In addition, a group of SDSU study abroad students will travel from San Diego to Tbilisi in July for the faculty-led program International Security, Politics and Culture.
Part of a joint partnership between SDSU, the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation and the Georgian government, SDSU-Georgia admitted its first students in collaboration with three Georgian partner universities last year. These study abroad programs mark a new chapter in the relationship.
“The main goal of this partnership was to increase the quality of education in Georgia and help the universities that we work with reach an internationally accredited level,” said former SDSU provost Nancy Marlin, who worked together with several deans and department chairs to successfully secure the contract for SDSU. “But the exchange and our faculty-led program were of interest because they provide opportunities for our students.”
Opportunity of a lifetime
The students taking part in the first exchange seem eager to seize the opportunity.
“I’m really excited to meet more people internationally,” said chemistry sophomore Taylor Inouye. “I’ve met a lot of international students here in San Diego, and I have such strong connections with them. It’s nice to meet so many people and have strong connections that span the whole world.”
For the 10 participating students from the College of Sciences and College of Engineering in San Diego, SDSU-Georgia presents a unique chance to gain international experience. Students in science and engineering majors have traditionally not gone abroad at that same rate as their peers in other majors for fear of delaying graduation. Often, a semester in another country would interfere with their structured curriculum, where classes must be taken in a particular sequence.
That’s not an issue for students in the SDSU-Georgia exchange program.
“They will be taking San Diego State courses taught by San Diego State faculty — Georgians who have worked in San Diego with our faculty and teach according to our standards,” Marlin said. “It shows up on their transcript as SDSU credit and the courses are taught in English.”
When electrical engineering freshman Luke Draney looked into the program, he discovered that all the classes that he needed to take in the fall semester would be offered in Georgia. That’s all he needed to see.
“I just thought it would be the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said.
A fascinating time
As one of the key SDSU administrators responsible for helping to get SDSU-Georgia up and running, College of Extended Studies dean Joe Shapiro has visited Tbilisi on several occasions. As such, he believes the students bound for Georgia this summer on the CES faculty-led program have a special experience in store.
“Our students will be meeting a culture that is very excited about the possibility of learning more about the West,” Shapiro said.
It’s hard to miss the growing global importance of Georgia — a relatively new democracy located on the Black Sea and bordering Russia to the north, Turkey and Armenia to the south, and Azerbaijan to the west. The CES program, led by International Security and Conflict Resolution (ISCOR) faculty, will provide a look at international security and global concerns by studying Georgian society, politics, culture and regional relations.
Last year, the program piloted with six student participants. This year, more than 20 students are signed up.
“The timing of this program is good with all the things that are going on geopolitically in that region, with Georgia being a strong U.S. ally and a democratic country with a rapidly developing economy,” Shapiro said. “It’s a fascinating time for that group of SDSU students to travel to Georgia and see first hand what’s going on.”
In early May a small contingent of SDSU-Georgia communications staff came to San Diego with a camera crew in tow. On their itinerary was a session to meet the SDSU students who would soon be arriving in Georgia. What’s clear is that, from the Georgian perspective, the start of the exchange program is a very big deal.
“The whole system of higher education in Georgia is to be reformed by the example of SDSU-Georgia,” said Sofia Chaava, social media and communications specialist at SDSU-Georgia. “This exchange program is an important international bridge, and the students coming from the U.S. are going to contribute to this experience. They’re going to meet Georgian professors and it’s going to be a two-way learning process.”
The SDSU students from San Diego will have much to glean from their Georgian peers, as well. Marlin noted that the first-year Georgian students performed better on average than their American counterparts, despite the fact that courses were taught in English — typically their third or even fourth language. Chaava said that the students attending SDSU-Georgia reflect some of the brightest minds in the country.
“These are probably the future leaders of Georgia,” she said. “The American students coming to Georgia are going to build lifelong friendships with some very important people.”
If last month’s conference call is any indication, that process may already be underway.
“You can see on Skype how everyone is so friendly,” Inouye said. “The hospitality is showing — even thousands of miles away.”