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Binghamton readies students for global culture

By : By Rachel Coker

A year from now, senior Lesley Small will be in medical school. But she’s not majoring in a science at Binghamton; she chose to focus on Spanish and minor in biology.

“I want to be bilingual before I attend med school,” said the Oceanside resident, who traces this commitment back to an episode of the NBC drama ER.

On the show, a Spanish-speaking patient died of a drug overdose after being told to take something “once.” That word means “11” in Spanish.

Small expects she’ll see many Spanish-speaking patients when she begins practicing medicine in New York City. That television show helped her decide to make language skills a top priority. Whether they work in the United States or end up taking jobs overseas, Small and other young people will need linguistic skills and cultural awareness to succeed in an increasingly global society.

That kind of education may have been considered a luxury for members of previous generations; now it’s a top priority for the federal government and institutions such as Binghamton University. That’s one message of International Education Week, which runs from Nov. 14-18.

“We have been victimized by our own failings in language skills,” said H. Stephen Straight, vice provost for undergraduate education and international affairs. Now, Binghamton and other universities must help the nation fix that problem.

Course offerings have changed and will continue to evolve as pro-grams are created to address this need to develop global citizens. Small, for instance, took a class titled Business Spanish last spring. It afforded her a chance to incorporate practical language skills into her education, which has otherwise focused largely on literary Spanish. Class time was devoted to presentations on topics ranging from legal lingo to auto parts terminology.

“For somebody who wants to use the language, not just study it, it’s very important to learn the vocabulary,” she said. “A class like this — it’s very valuable.”

Antonio Sobejano-Moran, who teaches the class, said enrollment is limited to 25 students and he always has a waiting list to get in. “They find it’s very useful in their real life,” he said. “That’s why it’s so appealing to students.”

Sobejano-Moran said he sees students from management, engineering and nursing in the class, in addition to Spanish majors and even native Spanish speakers. “They are people who are going to work here but they are aware that they’ll have an edge if they know Spanish,” he said.

Straight envisions a day when the University will offer bilingual degrees and turn out students with high-level literacy in two languages as well as a subject expertise. “We are positioned to make more of the potential for multilingual education,” he said. Ellen Badger, director of international student and scholar services, has worked at the University for more than 30 years. She said international education has always relied on partnerships of different offices, cultural groups and academic departments.

“But it wasn’t until President Lois DeFleur came to the University and made it a priority that all of these dispersed programs and opportunities came together and were lifted up and made part of a framework,” Badger said. “And we have been building on that framework ever since. The exciting thing for me is to see it grow.” One major change she has seen lately is a shift in the ratio of international undergraduates and graduate students. For years, the international student population was 70 percent graduate students. This year, they account for about 55 percent of the roughly 1,519 international students enrolled at Binghamton. The Turkish dual degree program accounts for a part of that shift, with about 150 first-year students participating.

Katharine Krebs, director of the Office of International Programs, said she too has noticed a shift in international education at Binghamton.

“The exciting change I have seen is a change in the awareness of students or the beliefs they have about international edu-cation,” she said. “They see themselves being involved with other cultures.”

That translates into an interest in a broader array of destinations for study abroad, as well as students from a broader array of backgrounds traveling, Krebs said.

“I’m putting people on their first airplane ride — to Turkey and to China,” she said.

Krebs noted study abroad does not happen in isolation. Students at Binghamton are challenged to incorporate their experiences in other countries and with other cultures into their education when they return.

“We’ve done so much here on the campus,” she said. “The faculty have worked so hard to add international dimensions to the curriculum.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08