The new face of international affairs

After reporting on the Rwandan genocide for six years, Ugandan journalist Dismas Nkunda wanted to do something more than write about victims of these tragedies. Quitting journalism, he joined the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and worked on sanitation and health projects for Sudanese refugees.

Then he entered the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., where he has just completed a master's degree in humanitarian assistance.

Twenty years ago, Mr. Nkunda would have been an anomaly on the campus of a US graduate school for international affairs. It used to be that Fletcher and other top institutions primarily groomed Americans for careers in public service and diplomacy.

Today, however, the schools find themselves educating students of all nationalities, often training foreign public servants and diplomats.

In the 18 US institutions that belong to the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs, foreigners account for an average of 30 percent of master's students. Their presence ranges from as low as 20 to 25 percent at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to a high of 51 percent at Fletcher.

This influx of non-Americans, along with the trend toward globalization, has prompted these schools to redefine themselves. While the schools' curricula once focused almost exclusively on security issues and East-West relations, today they offer concentrations as varied as international development, environmental and health policy, and international trade, along with geographical specializations ranging from Latin America to South Asia. Fletcher, for example, adopted the phrase "global perspective" as its motto.

After the cold war

Many attribute this sea change to the fall of the Berlin Wall. "When you have a serious cold-war condition where your national security is perceived to be very much at risk, that can overshadow everything else that you're doing," says Joel Trachtman, academic dean at Fletcher. "Ten years ago, we didn't recognize a trade and environment problem; we didn't have an international labor standards issue. A lot of these globalization-related issues were not on our horizon yet."

At the same time, the job market for American graduates has changed dramatically. The State Department is no longer the only branch of government with a foreign service; the Departments of Labor, Treasury, Commerce, and other government agencies now also need employees with an international-affairs background.

The line between public- and private-sector jobs has blurred as more consultants work for government agencies, handling everything from national security to privatization.

The number of nongovernmental organizations has also exploded, with many groups taking on tasks that were once the exclusive domain of governments. And international businesses have proliferated, luring a growing number of graduates from international-affairs programs.

Emphasizing skills and ethics

While none of this may have altered the overarching mission of the international-affairs programs - they are still in the business of preparing students for international careers - it has affected how they go about accomplishing it. In addition to offering an ever-widening range of courses, schools are increasingly emphasizing skill development.

Georgetown University's Master of Science in Foreign Service (MSFS) program, for example, supplements its curriculum on international development with skills clinics that walk students through the various stages of a development project, from designing it to evaluating its efficacy.

In the process, MSFS director Carol Lancaster has discovered other areas that need to be addressed. "Any conversation on development, as on other foreign-affairs issues, has an ethics component," she explains, "because questions about universal versus local values inevitably come up." To help students "apply their logic to figure out what is the right thing to do," Ms. Lancaster is planning to offer an ethics retreat during the fall semester.

There is also an across-the-board stress on economics. "It's not just that people are getting jobs in the private sector," says Stephen Szabo, academic dean at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Baltimore. "It is that the private sector and finance are getting more important, so that even if you are bored silly by finance, you can't ignore what happened in Mexico or in East Asia if you want to understand international relations."

As a result, students may find themselves learning the nuts and bolts of econometrics, which emphasizes statistics, along with the twists and turns of macro- and microeconomics as they apply to their particular area of concentration.

American centrality

If foreign students flock to US institutions, it is partly out of a desire for an American approach to education - with its mix of practice and theory - and a reflection of the impact US culture has had globally. It is also, Mr. Szabo says, because "we're the imperial center right now, and we influence so much financial and military policy."

Fletcher student Lisa Karanja agrees. With one semester left to complete a master's degree in conflict resolution, peacekeeping, and human rights, the Kenyan lawyer feels that "not to have the North American experience is a gap in terms of global issues."

Similarly, US student Kelly Simms says her experience at Fletcher has been enhanced by being able to get "entirely different perspectives" from foreign classmates as she gains a grasp on international energy policy.

The degree to which schools hope to preserve a distinctly American imprint varies. "As a whole, we don't try to give students the US perspective or any particular perspective," says Mr. Trachtman of Fletcher. But even though much could change in the next 20 years, Szabo of SAIS says that "for now, we certainly want a substantial American presence." So far, SAIS has not had to apply quotas to achieve this, thanks to a large pool of qualified American applicants.

Whether foreign students are one-fifth or one-half of the student body in a program, there is general agreement that the exchanges among classmates are, as Lancaster puts it, "inestimable in terms of value."

The diversity enriches class discussions and lays the foundation for an informal global network of individuals who share a basic set of tools and knowledge.

After they leave the classroom, the common denominators they have discovered can help move things forward when, as often happens, alumni find themselves on opposite sides of a negotiation or collaborating on a development project.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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