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2 WVU professors expand their horizons

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Photos courtesy of Jenny Douglas Photos courtesy of Jenny Douglas

Editor'sNote: This is the second part in a two-part series featuring two West Virginia University professors' experiences abroad.

After considering applying for a Fulbright Specialist, Jenny Douglas, director of faculty and graduate student support at West Virginia University, decided to look at International Education Administrator program opportunities. 

Earlier this year, Douglas's role at WVU grew to include faculty development, with her position being part of WVU's Academic Innovation department.

"There are several (International Education Administrator program opportunities) in different countries, and the United Kingdom had opened one up for the summer of 2013," she said. "I started looking into the opportunity and realized it sounded like an amazing way to meet other U.S. administrators from universities and colleges and also get to see an entirely different education system."

After applying for the program in January 2013 and going through several rounds of waiting to hear back, Douglas was eventually selected in the beginning of summer 2013. 

Different education system

In the English higher education system, the bachelor's degree is a three-year rather than a four-year degree.

"That's basically because the students who are going on to university do a two-year college prep program called the A levels," Douglas said. "They kind of do what we would consider general education requirements in their A levels. 

"Then they apply to university to be in their major so there's no figuring it out once they get there."

Douglas said students do their A levels in several subjects and then basically go straight into their major with no other real distribution of general education requirements. 

"It's a more focused system in some ways, which definitely impacts the way they can do curriculum because once students are in the program, they basically have three uninterrupted years to focus on that major," she said.

Both the English and American systems have pros and cons, Douglas said. In the American system, students have the ability to think about their major, decide and change a few times in their college careers if they so desire. In the English system, that's quite rare because once a student is in a program, it's quite hard to move around, Douglas said.

What different systems offer

Because of the English model, Douglas said the United Kingdom does things more formally and has very strict accountability measures that the university has to report.

"There's a lot of nationwide data on exactly where the students end up after graduation, what kind of jobs they're doing, the employment rate," she said. "That's much more strictly reported and in the public view than I think our reporting over here sometimes is. Because of that, they have really focused on that they would call employability. 

"I think transferable skills is the language I sometimes use a little more."

In order to display the preparation process students undergo to attain career options, many English universities have adapted an additional transcript method. On top of a student's transcript is another transcript, chronicling leadership opportunities, service performed, any study-abroad acquired and things gained from internships.

In addition, students have the option of acquiring an additional distinction with their degree. 

"It was quite prestigious and a difficult process for the students to go through, but it gave them a much more complete transcript with a lot of information on it that employers could look at," Douglas said. "I thought that was a great way of showing they had gone through their program and they can articulate what skills they had at the end of it to go into their employment."

Similarities between systems

What Douglas said she didn't realize is the Scottish education system is completely different from the English system.  The Scottish system more closely resembles the American model, being a four-year system instead of a three-year system. 

"They basically have two years of general courses, two years of major courses," she said. "It's kind of similar to the way we approach our four-year undergrad degree."

Because of the structure, Douglas said it definitely changes the way students go into University because Scottish students don't have to choose a major as early as the English students do. However, there is crossover.

Prince William and Kate Middleton chose Scottish instead of English University, attending St. Andrews in Scotland.

Pros and cons

One of the pros Douglas sees in the American educational system is flexibility and freedom of choice.

"I think there are a lot of wonderful things about the freedom students have (in the United States) to choose a major, to change their mind, to experiment, to get a broad basis both at the undergraduate level and at the graduate level," she said.

While the American system generally has coursework in graduate degrees, United Kingdom doctoral degrees have no coursework and are solely research-based.

While Douglas says choice offers great freedom, she also acknowledges the benefit of the early and concentrated focus of the English system.

"I also think because of the focus of the English system, especially with their three-year, very focused degree, they have had to be very clear about how they move students through their progression of courses and what their real aims are at the end of the curriculum," she said. "I was impressed in meeting with faculty and department chairs over there that seemed to have a very clear grasp on what employability skills they were training students for at the end of the program."

After taking note of the United Kingdom's program for master, doctoral and post-doctoral students, Douglas would like to implement some of the program's assets into how WVU prepares its graduates for the post-college world. 

Range of differences

During her time in the United Kingdom, Douglas said she saw quite a range of institutions, ranging from 500 years old to only 50 years old. Some schools were younger than WVU, and a couple of institutions were part of the 1960s group — a time when a large university expansion took place. 

"Several schools were only 50 years old, which was surprising to a lot of us in the group," she said. "We automatically assumed they must be really old schools. 

"We went to some universities that were in their group of ancients that were very old, like the University of Edinburgh and the University of Aberdeen, which are both 500 years old."

Although Douglas did quite the looping tour through England and Scotland, she did not go to Wales or Ireland.

Douglas and her group started at the University of East Anglia, near the town of Norwich and on the eastern coast of England, stopping in London briefly at Imperial College London and getting a little taste of the city. After London, the group headed to Brighton and the University of Sussex on the southern coast of England. 

"They call Brighton ‘London by the Sea' because it's a little cultural center, fairly quick to get to London by train," Douglas said.

The group then worked their way back on the outskirts of London at Royal Holloway, University of London, a Victorian era institution.

"It has really spectacular central buildings. Definitely Victorian inspired," Douglas said. "Just huge brick edifices of all sorts of spires and statues of Queen Victoria and things like that."

Continuing north was a stop at University of Birmingham, a 1900-era school with an urban campus. Birmingham is the second largest city in England with a very young culture.

In York, Douglas experienced the remnants of a medieval city. 

"It's known for the cathedrals and the shambles, which are these tiny, little medieval streets that wind around the city and have all these little shops and restaurants and cobblestone," she said. "Very quaint and cultural."

Set up on top of a hill in northern England was the University of Durham. Douglas got to stay in a converted castle that is now used as a dormitory.

"It's very Harry Potter style," she said. "It has a great hall, sort of like when you envision the great hall in Harry Potter where they have all their meals. They had a very similar looking great hall where they hosted a lot of their formal dinners."

The next stop was central Scotland and the very young University of Sterling, Scotland's university of sporting excellence, complete with a tennis training center and the aquatics training center. While there, Douglas visually feasted on the surrounding countryside and more medieval castles.

While "eating as the Scottish do," Douglas also feasted on haggis, or at least sampled the Scottish staple.

"It tastes better than it looks," she said. "It just doesn't look all that appealing, frankly."

In the northern city of Aberdeen, far north on the North Sea and a large petroleum city, Douglas visited two schools. One was the University of Aberdeen, a traditional, ancient university with clerical beginnings. The other institution in Aberdeen was very engineering and technology-based, but with a big connection to the oil industry, Douglas said.

Favorite sites

"I have Scottish background, so I appreciated getting to see the Highlands of Scotland and the really beautiful purple, heather-covered mountainsides and hillsides and castles and some of the history there," she said.

Douglas also appreciated the town of Brighton and said the very south of England was a surprise because it was on the ocean and had an interesting artistic and cultural life.

Although the University of Sussex is not in Brighton, Douglas said it is quite close and that students often live in town, going back and forth on the train. It is a beautiful summer place to visit, she said, and seeing people splashing around in the cold water is not an uncommon site.

The fulbright experience

At the three-week program were 20 administrators from different U.S. higher education systems throughout the country including California, Hawaii, Oregon, Idaho, Kentucky, Georgia, Florida, New York City and Ohio.

Not only were different states represented but also different positions held within the school setting, ranging from academic affairs, provost and vice-president of academic affairs to directors of international programs or study-abroad officers.

Because the itinerary was planned by the Fulbright Commission, Douglas said it was a unique Fulbright experience. The commission solicited proposals from all their partnership institutions in the United Kingdom and selected 11 institutions to visit. The format was intense, Douglas said, using the three weeks to travel to the 11 institutions, with each institution having a different program laid out. 

The universities emphasized slightly different areas of their own universities and had panels and speakers with cultural events built in. 

At every school, the visiting party had time to interact, often breaking up in small groups with people from that particular university, sharing back and forth about the good aspects of both university systems. 

At the end of program, Douglas and the others who participated in the Fulbright experience reported back to Fulbright about what they found to be most useful and wanted to bring forward.

"One of the goals of the program from a Fulbright perspective was to increase international exchange between a wider variety of U.S. schools and a wider variety of United Kingdom schools and to build awareness about some of those programs," Douglas said. 

Sharing ideas

After returning, Douglas produced a summary of each institution that she took to the Office of International Programs, giving her perspective on things she saw and some of the highlights the universities presented that WVU might not have seen before. 

WVU currently has United Kingdom partners, where students can take advantage of expanding their cultural horizons. The University of Sussex has a popular summer school program where U.S. students who are pre-med can fulfill their physics requirement. 

In addition to fulfilling a basic requirement, Douglas said students gain cultural experience and are able to embark on trips and excursions, all on a relatively short-term basis.

In addition to learning about the United Kingdom educational system and spreading the word about the many great institutions, Douglas said another big advantage of the program was learning from her U.S. counterparts.

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