University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Graduate global learning gets a boost

The International Virtual Academic Collaboration, an initiative of the German Academic Exchange Service, has awarded a one-year, €50,000 grant (nearly $60,000) to support graduate students in mathematics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at the Universität Hamburg as part of a global learning pilot effort. UNC-Chapel Hill will also partner with Humboldt Universität Zu Berlin on a co-teaching seminar.

The funding will support coursework and teaching in the Universität Hamburg’s Faculty of Mathematics, Informatics, and Natural Sciences and in Carolina’s Department of Mathematics in the College of Arts and Sciences. Outgoing Director of Graduate Studies, Jingfang Huang, a professor in the department, said the grant will be a boost to graduate students and to its faculty, which have experienced recent budget challenges.

“It means more opportunities for our graduate students,” Huang said. “It’s a good thing for the University and a good thing for The Graduate School.” Within the department, grant funding will support three research-based courses: one offered by UNC-Chapel Hill, one offered by Universität Hamburg, and a joint course offered by both institutions. The courses are slated to be available to students in 2022.

Jennifer Gerz-Escandón, associate vice president for academic programs and research with the University of North Carolina System, said the grant is an opportunity to expand global learning, especially for a population of graduate students who may be exploring a topic area that is not traditionally the focus of global exchange. Previously, Gerz-Escandón worked at The Graduate School and launched this initiative during her time as its associate dean for interdisciplinary education and fellowship programs.

“Because these are people-to-people connections, there are opportunities to develop deeper intercultural competencies,” Gerz-Escandón said. “Prospective and current graduate students know that if they pursue graduate education in North Carolina, that means that they may be physically sitting in Chapel Hill, Raleigh or Greensboro, but they also have the opportunity to participate in real-time global learning at the highest level.”

And during the COVID-19 pandemic, when higher education largely moved online, Gerz-Escandón said access to high-quality education is an initiative that extends beyond the geographic borders of the University.

“When we can’t move people, we can always move ideas. We can use digital technology to do that,” Gerz-Escandón said. “This is a terrific example of championing digital learning to enhance graduate education. Academic programs featuring international virtual collaboration will hopefully become a fixture of graduate education.”

The grant dovetails with Collaborative Online International Learning, an initiative of UNC Global, which aims to develop shared learning experiences at Carolina and global partner universities.

Janie Wermter, the advisor for internationalization and support for doctoral and early-career researchers at the Faculty of Mathematics, Informatics and Natural Sciences of Universität Hamburg, said the International Virtual Academic Collaboration is a good fit for both institutions.

“I think many graduate students will benefit from the digital aspects of this coursework, both in international mobility and in intercultural exchange,” Wermter said. “IVAC supports institutions of higher education to develop and to intensify partnerships around new models of blended learning for our graduate students. That is most important of all of my work: To develop partnerships with international universities and to involve graduate students.”

Jason Kinnear, interim associate dean of study abroad and exchanges at UNC-Chapel Hill, said institutions’ receptiveness and openness to global digital learning are encouraging and far-reaching.

“In a way, mathematics is a global language,” he said. “It’s totally natural that Carolina would be a place where global graduate studies take shape.”

Jörn Behrens, professor for numerical methods in geosciences at the Department of Mathematics at the Universität Hamburg, took the lead during the grant proposal process.

Tori Ekstrand, named the Caroline H. and Thomas S. Royster Distinguished Professor for Graduate Education in July 2021, spearheads the Royster Society of Fellows, including its annual Royster Global conference. A graduate student from Universität Hamburg participated in the 2021 conference — an opportunity brought about as the grant began to coalesce. Ekstrand is also an associate professor in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

Carolina joins nearly 60 additional institutions around the world and is one of two universities from the United States to be selected for funded initiatives.