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Jackson School Director Leela Fernandes: Leading global education & engagement for students and faculty

Leela Fernandes joined the Jackson School in 2020 after serving as the Director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan; she has also served on the faculty of Rutgers University, New Brunswick and Oberlin College. Her research has been on inequality and democratic politics in India, the politics of economic reform and transnational feminism.

Vice Provost Jeff Riedinger
Jeffrey Riedinger

By Jeff Riedinger, Vice Provost of Global Affairs

The last two years have been an important moment of reflection for all of us, and international education has been both challenged and inspired. COVID-19 significantly reduced our faculty and researchers’ ability to move across borders while making virtual methods of connection widely used and more accessible. Recognition of historical and colonial inequities in the United States and abroad pushes us to reassess our approaches to teaching, administration, and research.

For the Office of Global Affairs (OGA), this meant reconsidering what our office’s mission is and how we can better support the University of Washington’s faculty, students, staff and community. A Global Engagement Task Force was charged in 2020 with answering such questions, meeting with over 100 stakeholders from across the university.

One of the members of this Task Force was Leela Fernandes, the Director of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies and Stanley D. Golub Chair in International Studies. Leela joined UW and the Jackson School last year and has navigated many new challenges while leading the School’s faculty, students, and staff forward. As leaders in global engagement and higher education, I am pleased to invite Leela for a conversation on the School’s vision and future and how the Jackson School has risen to meet the challenges of this current time.

New ‘open’ Global and Regional Studies major

Students can now enjoy open admissions, more choices in courses, new specializations, and varied capstone options.

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JR: Right after you started in your new position you asked your faculty to approve a significant revision of the Jackson School’s flagship undergraduate International Studies major, which is now called Global & Regional Studies. Starting this quarter (Autumn 2021) any UW undergraduate can freely declare this major which was previously competitive and by application only.

Why was this change in the curriculum a priority for you?

LF: The new major builds on the historical strengths of the Jackson School in deep regional knowledge and adapts these strengths to address changes in the field of international studies. Some of the pressing challenges of our time are fundamentally global in nature. Global pandemics, climate change and economic crises of various kinds continually reveal the interconnectedness of peoples, regions and nations. At the same time, the depth of the Jackson School’s work shows us that policy solutions need to engage with and learn from local communities. Moreover, policies are still ultimately implemented in national contexts and through governmental action. The new major prepares students by combining training that addresses these global, regional and local/national dimensions. The major allows students the flexibility to combine broad thematic interests (for example in the environment, inequality, security) and combine these interests with a regional focus. It also allows students to develop formal regional specializations in areas that have not had independent majors – such as African Studies and Arctic Studies. So the new major was really driven by the objective of serving students in the best way that we can. It reflects the Jackson School’s commitment to undergraduate education and to keeping up with trends in international studies.

JR: It sounds like you are keen to position the Jackson School even more prominently in the ‘global education’ space for undergraduates at UW, while emphasizing the deep connections between the local, regional, and global.

What, to you, is the significance of this change in terms of student enrollment and students’ access to global and regional studies courses and degrees?

LF: The change in curriculum was a priority because it hopes to serve the Jackson School’s objectives in addressing diversity, equity and inclusion. The new major is an open major so it gives students more access to the School’s offerings. We live in a time where globalization means that students in every field of study need to have some understanding of the broader world. We hope that these changes will also draw in more students including students from other colleges and from the natural sciences.

JR: This change also sounds like a great opportunity for more students at UW to be able to combine their primary academic interests with courses and even minor or majors offered by the Jackson School. This would help them ‘globalize’ their education and take steps toward becoming global citizens and broadening their horizons – as well as their competencies and career options. The Jackson School is one of the country’s premier centers for research and teaching on global affairs and area studies. It is also the academic hub for global and regional studies at UW.

What is your five-year vision for the role of the Jackson School in the University? And beyond UW?

LF: The Jackson School is unique amongst professional schools of international studies in its intellectual breadth and depth. We cover conventional areas such as political economy, human rights and security but also have distinct strengths in fields like comparative religion and indigenous studies. What connects all of these disparate intellectual areas is a broad based commitment to public engagement. Public engagement matters to all aspects of JSIS’ work – scholarship, teaching, policy work, commentary, and community outreach.

Through distinctive coursework, like our capstone Task Force, our undergraduate majors acquire distinctive competencies and skills in addressing practical problems. We have also developed a second capstone offering as part of our new major that is focused on training students in public writing and engagement. This has been created as part of an inaugural series of seminars funded by the Calderwood Seminars in Public Writing program.

One of the lessons we have learned is that good policy requires public communication and engagement – particularly in the context of misinformation and a world heavily saturated by social media. The Jackson school is poised to lead in this mission of public engagement in a distinctive way. Developing this mission of public engagement – both within and beyond the academy – is a key objective for the coming years.

Global Engagement Task Force Recommendations

Five key recommendations guide OGA forward, shaping our vision for global engagement at the UW.

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JR: Global engagement for faculty, students, staff and with the broader public, are also key strategic priorities for me and the Office of Global Affairs. We thank you for serving on our 2021 Global Engagement Task Force which delves into some of the ways OGA is shifting our vision and priorities. For all of us in OGA our commitments and aspirations in this area are important for our internal culture and for broader conversations in all our communities.

How does your vision for the Jackson School connect with the aspirations of faculty and students to be included in conversations around diversity and equity at UW, and beyond?

LF: Goals of diversity and equity are always ongoing and unfinished projects. The Jackson School has passed a new charter on diversity, equity and inclusion and is committed to this work. We also bring a distinctive international perspective to understandings of diversity and equity. We train students to work inclusively and train students in linguistic, religious, and cultural literacy. We have faculty who do important work in the field of disability studies. Our vision of public engagement also has a strong emphasis on equity, justice, and respect for the histories and knowledge of diverse peoples and places across national borders. The challenge is to incorporate these worthy endeavors into institutional practices so that the school embodies these ideals. Our faculty have been working on this – for instance by connecting pressing questions of racial justice in the U.S. to global work on race and diasporic communities.

JR: I completely agree: there are so many positive and pioneering things happening at UW already, and we need to work to connect people and projects in ways that energize all of our our global efforts, and generate new ones. So much of what we do at UW already has a global dimension, even if it is not always explicit, or by design. Thank you so much for this conversation, Leela. I hope it will be an inspiration to others, as it has been for me. Very best of luck during your second year leading the Jackson School!