STANDING in the midst of Florida International University, it's not difficult to associate the school with its middle name. Low concrete buildings with names like Primera Casa, Viertes Haus, and Atheneum are separated by blooming tropical plants and warm, humid air. Spanish is a common tongue among passers-by, and the variety of skin tones are products of more than just the Florida sun.
But according to officials of the newest of Florida's state universities - it opened in 1972 - the task of developing an educational program that incorporates that middle name into every student's experience has at times been daunting. How to make a reality of one of the school's goals as set out by the state Board of Regents - to cultivate effective members of a modern global society - has not been obvious.
''The (Florida) Legislature gave us the middle name, but without ex4ensive rationale for choosing it,'' says Steve Altman, Florida International's provost and vice-president for academic affairs. ''We really struggled for the first few years to define what that meant.''
That struggle is not unusual. Colleges and universities across the United States are looking for ways to bring a global perspective t/ the ivory tower: by internationalizing their curricula, making the world an integral part of more courses and majors; by encouraging more Americans to study overseas; and by better tapping the potential offered by a growing number of foreign students in the US.
The reasons for the new emphasis on international education are partly humanitarian. With international travel and global telecommunications becoming commonplace, the world continues to shrink - even as risks of misunderstanding, between individuals or nations, continue to grow. In addition, college and government officials are pointing out with increased frequency that US security and international standing are threatened if the country fails - as many say it has - to train the experts it needs in diplomacy, area studies, and languages.
But the reasons are also economic. The US is increasingly dependent on the global market for its prosperity. In the early years after World War II the US economy operated without great impact from the rest of the world. But today fluctuations in international prices and production have direct effects on American lives. One in 8 US manufacturing jobs depends on foreign trade, according to the Commerce Department. In 1970, US manufacturers exported 14 percent of their production; by 1980 they exported 29 percent.
As Joseph Downer, vice-chairman of Atlantic Richfield, told a recent gathering of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) , ''The only relevant market today is the world market.'' Very few college graduates are sufficiently prepared in world affairs and foreign cultures, he added, but increasingly they are taking jobs that require some knowledge of the world.
The stories are legion of lack of sensitivity on the part of US companies operating in foreign cultures. General Motors named a small car it marketed in Brazil ''Nova,'' without regard to the fact that ''no va'' in Portuguese means ''doesn't go.'' And no one at Gerber realized that drawings of the Gerber baby, so familiar to American consumers, were not appropriate for the packaging of baby food in the Philippines, where labels carry likenesses of the edible contents.
In the eyes of many, US students will have to overcome a number of American traits - ranging from isolationism to cultural condescension - if they are to open their education to encompass the world. ''We are in an isolationist period, '' says Robert Kaplan, professor of applied linguistics at the University of Southern California and outgoing president of the National Association for Foreign Student Affairs. ''I think we have ample evidence that Americans' knowledge of and interest in the rest of the world have diminished over the past 40 years.'' Adds Carl Rosberg, director of the Institute of International Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, ''There is no concerted effort, no consciousness, that students should really know something about the international environment despite the great changes going on in the world.''
But according to Mark Mancall, director of Stanford University's foreign studies program, ''The country is not so much in a period of isolationism. It's more of a conservatism,'' he says, that leaves students thinking first about professional pursuits guaranteeing financial security.
Still others tie the lack of interest to a dearth of humility. ''The attitude cultivated of the outside world is often caricatural, if not snide,'' says Duncan Smith, associate dean for foreign studies at Brown University. Adds Norman Greenberg, dean of international education at Western Michigan University , ''What we really need in this country is to de-ethnocentrize our curricula.''
Despite those dour appraisals, there are some indications that the US is beginning to pay more attention to the world around it. According to Maurice Harari, director of the Center for International Education at California State University, Long Beach, and formerly AASCU vice-president for international programs, ''A graph of student interest in international affairs would show a sharp drop after Vietnam, and another fall with the downturn in the economy. But paradoxically,'' he continues, ''it's the economic interest that's causing the turnaround we're starting to see.''
In addition, the federal government has shown renewed interest in international education after it looked as though Reagan administration budget cuts might end all federal involvement. The administration has proposed major budget increases for the segment of the Fulbright scholarship program that brings foreigners to the United States and $25 million for new programs to bring Central American undergraduates to the US.
The Reagan draft budget for 1985 proposes no funding for the international segment of the Higher Education Act, which funds competitively selected international studies and foreign-language programs. But the Department of Education has set up a center for international education, and a recent Pentagon report calls for greater federal investment in language training and area studies.
Yet many educators say the relevant question is what individual colleges can do to foster greater international awareness. In the case of Florida International University (FIU), the turning point came when the school established a deanship to coordinate all international education activities. Says William Leffland, dean of FIU's International Affairs Center, ''This post put weight behind the school's stated goal of opening up students to the world.'' Hiring faculty with international interests - no matter what the field - became a priority, as did courses that exposed students to foreign points of view.
In addition, the school began concentrating on what it saw as its natural focal point: the Caribbean Basin and South America. Today FIU sponsors a long list of exchanges and research projects with Latin American institutions, earning it an international reputation in the field.
Still, bringing a global perspective to a school in Miami, with its cosmopolitan population and international business community, might seem easier than in other parts of the US. But according to William Taylor, head of the Center for International Education at the University of Southern Mississippi, the ''internationalization'' process at a school serving a small, ''inwardly turned'' region of the country was similar. ''We had to work on the faculty first,'' says Dr. Taylor, who lists financial incentives for broadening courses, hiring practices that put a premium on international interests, and encouraging faculty to study abroad as ways they have begun the process.
As for students, college officials say foreign-language study is still one of the best ways to pique interest in the world. To attract more interest, many language teachers are placing more emphasis on conversation and business or science vocabulary - and less on literature.
The strategy may be working. According to Richard Brod of the Foreign Language Association in New York City, there are some indications that language study in the US is on the rise. ''Still, only about 50 percent of colleges have a language requirement for the BA degree,'' Mr. Brod notes - down from a high of 89 percent in the mid-'60s. He says that in the past two years about 70 colleges have added or toughened foreign-language requirements for graduation.
Now, a number of cities and school districts around the US are increasing, or reimposing, language requirements for high school graduation. Such trends, say many educators, are part of what is most needed: to expose American youth to the world at an earlier age. Colleges from Florida to California report efforts to help train primary and secondary school teachers to teach international subjects; to encourage those teachers to travel and study abroad; and to bring college faculty to high schools for team-taught courses.
As S. Frederick Starr, president of Oberlin College, told the House Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education in Washington recently, the study of foreign languages and international affairs ''must be firmly rooted in our primary schools. Until this happens, even the best-conceived (international education) programs will fail.''
First of four articles: Tomorrow: Americans studying abroad.