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College collaborations better connect Utah to the world, presidents say

University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins, left, Utah State University President Noelle Cockett, Salt Lake Community College President Deneece Huftalin, Westminster College President Bethami Dobkin and Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez pa
University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins, left, Utah State University President Noelle Cockett, Salt Lake Community College President Deneece Huftalin, Westminster College President Bethami Dobkin and Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez participate in a Utah Global Forum panel at the Grand America in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018.
Marjorie Cortez, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As a research geneticist, Noelle Cockett's early collaborations with international researchers took place by snail mail.

"Needless to say, it was fairly difficult to significantly connect with international partners to set up collaborations that can tap into expertise from other countries," said Cockett, president of Utah State University.

Now it is more common than not that research projects include international partners, said Cockett, speaking on a panel of five Utah college and university presidents — all women — Thursday during the Utah Global Forum at Grand America.

The connections enable researchers to leverage funding available from different countries, personnel and opportunities for students, she said.

"So when I hear the world is flat … that's really, really true with research. I think those connections are a wonderful way to leverage Utah into new markets, new businesses and new discoveries," Cockett said.

University of Utah President Ruth Watkins agreed, adding, “Research really knows no boundaries."

The university attracts researchers — and students — worldwide, she said.

“Our graduate students are coming from everywhere and our faculty are doing research around the world. I think about areas like global health, which is literally on every continent in their work in their research mission and operation,” Watkins said.

The U.'s Asia campus is one of the founding institutions of Incheon Global Campus in South Korea. Other founders include George Mason University and Belgium's Ghent University.

U. students attend school on both the Salt Lake City and Incheon campuses while they earn their degrees.

Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez attended Brigham Young University as an undergraduate, moving to the United States from the Philippines. Community connections were key to her success, she said.

"I already knew English, but what was really important was the community support. I had a host family. They actually helped me understand why we had to eat turkey for Thanksgiving and climb the cherry tree in the backyard. That was a different addition to my experience as an international student, not just improving language but improving my ability to fit in the community and knowing I could thrive in it. Let's remember it's language plus, plus, plus,” Tuminez said.

Westminster College expects its students to be global learners, which happens in classrooms, through curriculum, internships and travel ranging from short experiences to study abroad terms, said President Bethami Dobkin.

“What we tend to do is treat our international engagements too much, I think, at times as tourist or travel experiences,” Dobkin said. “We don’t go and immerse ourselves in a culture and figure out with a sense of humility what might be important to that population.”

Sometimes the most valuable connections occur in the classroom, where students born and raised in Utah connect with international classmates, said Salt Lake Community College President Deneece Huftalin.

This regularly occurs at SLCC, which serves a significant numbers of international students, among them refugees served by the Refugee Education and Training Center. The center is a partnership among the college, the Utah Department of Workforce Services and USU, she said.

“We have over 230 international students that come to the college. In a small class of 20 students, if two of them from international countries are sharing that international perspective, that changes the learning environment significantly. They just bring a perspective that our students, our local students from Utah, need to hear,” Huftalin said.

One of the state's unique advantages in recruiting international students and faculty is the population of return missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who attend Utah colleges, Cockett said.

"These students are incredibly welcoming to people of other cultures. They practically embrace them once they realize a student has come from another country. This goes a long, long way in making sure that these international faculty and students feel welcomed here in Utah,” she said.

Tuminez, former regional director for corporate, external and legal affairs in Southeast Asia for Microsoft, said "the world today is both bigger and smaller. Globalization is a real thing."

Asia has been the world's economic engine for the past decades, said Tuminez who lived and worked there 13 years.

As institutions of higher education in Utah, colleges and universities need to prepare students who have the skills and competencies to compete in the global marketplace and engage with international partners, she said.

"Our people need to know how to work with other people," she said.