Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

May 1, 2014

Preparing globally-engaged leaders

Divya McMillin: Fostering cultural understanding globally and locally

“We want students to ‘take-off’ from the classroom into the real world, even before they graduate.”

Divya McMillin
Director, Global Honors Program, and Professor, Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, UW Tacoma

In our increasingly interconnected world, UW graduates will need to navigate the complexities of working with multidisciplinary teams and engaging with communities other than their own.1 In this environment, effective communication and collaboration require more than tolerance or respect for difference; knowledge about the world and practice partnering across boundaries will serve our graduates well in their professional and civic roles in a globalizing society.2 UW professors such as Divya McMillin are preparing their students to succeed and lead in this complex world. McMillin supports students as they grapple with large-scale issues that shape our interdependent world.

Divya McMillin believes that “our world needs big thinkers.” Her goal is to connect students not only to the world outside the classroom, but also to the world at large. She says, “we need to provide the conditions that produce informed and compassionate leaders. Students are eager to build skills and knowledge in global issues.” McMillin keeps student excitement alive by teaching through current world events, recruiting excellent faculty, inviting industry speakers, facilitating experiential learning, and mentoring undergraduate researchers in her own research program in foreign policy and global media studies. Here are some of her guiding principles:

Emphasize that cultural understanding is a valued skill in diverse professional settings: McMillin makes it clear to students that employers and graduate programs are keenly interested in candidates who excel above and beyond conventional degree holders. Global competencies and cross-cultural fluency are especially advantageous. “Our core curriculum gives students a sophisticated understanding of the intricacies of global interactions and prepares them for the challenges of a networked society,” says McMillin.

Discuss global “big questions” to drive improvement in students’ analytical skills:
Deep exploration of world events helps students develop new ways of thinking and requires an understanding and appreciation of cultures. Says McMillin, “Analysis of global flows and conflicts requires lateral thinking, flexibility, inventiveness, and empathy—qualities that are also necessary for students’ personal and professional success. Perhaps it will lead to acts of leadership within their careers—leadership that could change the world.”

Bring the world into the classroom: McMillin has created a community-partnered faculty model in the Global Honors Program at UW Tacoma (which will expand in fall 2014 with the establishment of the Institute for Global Engagement). Under this model, professionals from private and nonprofit organizations guest lecture (sometimes from across the country or the world) or team-teach with university faculty. “This provides an incredible opportunity for professionals to regain the excitement of discovery and to deepen student learning by bringing alive the theory they are learning in the classroom,” says McMillin. The program also helps students build connections to local and global communities through undergraduate research and experiential learning.

Seek donor contributions to expand access to experiential learning: The cost of international learning opportunities is often a barrier for UW Tacoma students, more than forty percent of whom are the first in their family to attend college, and many of whom work, support families, and fund their education with grants and loans. To increase access to global learning, the Global Honors Program has facilitated merit awards to each student, and McMillin has developed fully funded international research opportunities. “We have secured private sponsorship to support student-faculty teams for year-long studies,” she says. “The students who do fieldwork abroad then tie their research back to the needs of our local community.”

Help students learn to navigate a complex world for themselves: “Students deeply appreciate the dots we connect for them and the autonomy to rearrange those dots in ways that are more meaningful to their lives and careers,” says McMillin. As a result, students remain engaged and enthusiastic, as evidenced by the program’s current one hundred percent retention rate and its highly invested alumni.


1Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement. Strength through Global Leadership and Engagement: U.S. Higher Education in the 21st Century. Report of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Global Engagement. Washington, DC: American Council for Higher Education, 2011.

2Luo, Jiali and David Jamieson-Drake. “Examining the Educational Benefits of Interacting with International Students.” Journal of International Students 3, no. 2 (2013): 85-101.

Learn More

Read the full Provost report on how to prepare students for life after graduation