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A New Era Emerges: A Conversation with GLI Director Raluca Nahorniac

Raluca Nahorniac,director of the office of Global Learning Initiatives, shares her vision for the unit, the history that made it possible, and how global learning is transforming UMD.

UMD has always been a globally connected university; however, the last three years have fundamentally shifted the ways in which we define global learning and see our roles as contributors to the global common good. In February 2020, President Darryll Pines was named the university’s 34th president just one month before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the university has made significant strides toward integrating global learning into the student experience, including awarding the Office of International Affairs (OIA) a 2022 Fearlessly Forward Reinventing Teaching & Learning Grant, and greenlighting the launch of the office of Global Learning Initiatives (GLI). 

With the establishment of this new office, OIA’s Dr. Raluca Nahorniac will serve as director as she approaches her tenth year at the university. In speaking with her about the work that led to GLI, her goals for this new office, and what necessitated its creation, it became evident that a new era on campus is emerging; one that positions global learning as a critical tool to solve the grand challenges of our time. 

When Raluca joined OIA in 2013, she began researching the landscape of international virtual collaborations. Though limited, she was able to identify the strong potential of these global learning initiatives. That research laid the foundation for the highly successful Global Classrooms (GC) program, which focuses on virtual project-based learning in partnership with international institutions around the world. The first GC pilot ran in Spring 2014, “Capstone in International Development and Conflict Management” with Tel Aviv University in Israel, and in just one year the program was able to offer five new courses across five colleges at UMD. The program has steadily grown in size and scope over the years and served as an excellent complement to the very popular study abroad programs already taking place. 

Then the pandemic happened, and all travel came to a grinding halt.

“Once the pandemic hit, we were in a position where the Global Classrooms initiative became the only way through which we could provide global learning or international education for our students,” said Nahorniac.

This triggered rapid growth for the Global Classrooms program, which Nahorniac herself describes as messy. However, the benefit of the pandemic is that there was a credibility that was established for online learning practices and instructors were able to meet students where they were. Accessible online programs not only increased participation, but also began shifting student and faculty perspectives in viewing them as an equally valuable means of global learning; you don’t have to leave the country to receive a global education.

“We can’t ignore the fact that over 70% of our students do not get the opportunity to study abroad,” said Nahorniac.

To understand the significance of this metric, we first need to understand how global learning uniquely equips students to solve global problems. In Nahorniac’s view, “The unique proposition of global learning is really helping you understand who you are in the world, who other people are, and how you can work together to solve complex issues that affect you collectively.” Building off of the momentum of the Global Classrooms (GC) program, the launch of the Global Learning Initiative (GLI) this past October was a natural progression of re-imagining learning on campus. Understanding who we are in a global context, and how to relate to others, is critical to achieving the goals outlined in the Fearlessly Forward strategic plan released in early 2022. 

As part of the 2022 Fearlessly Forward Reinventing Teaching & Learning Grant that OIA received, GLI is partnering with academic units to develop and pilot “Global Learning for All” plans, with a focus on, as she notes, “bite-sized” experiences, meeting faculty and students where they are to implement these strategies into existing lesson plans and projects. Her goals for the future are expansive, that the work of GLI will not only be with UMD’s own colleges and academic units but will also serve as a hub for our international partners. They seek to establish themselves as a truly consultative and collaborative office that works to create new and innovative programming supporting internationalization at home. The needs of our international partners and UMD students will certainly be different, but they converge in their mutual efforts to create a better world that we can all share.

“These partnerships can take many different shapes and forms, as long as we are aware that they need to bring mutual benefit and reciprocity,” said Nahorniac.

One example of these differential benefits that Nahorniac cites is providing English-speaking opportunities, something we may think of as incidental but holds great value for our international partners. What the partner students get out of these collaborations is just as important, and this mindset is built into the infrastructure of this new office. Change is enacted through leadership, and as the new director of GLI, Nahorniac takes a sincere interest in avoiding the problematic model of centering American institutions as the keepers of global knowledge. “There’s a relationship that’s been set up where the American institution has the knowledge and the money and all the resources and they’re just coming and imposing these on the partner institution, preparing them to meet the needs of our American students. We try very, very hard, as we train our faculty and engage in these conversations, to avoid that model,” said Nahorniac. 

Fostering sustainable partnerships that are mutually beneficial has been a recurring theme as OIA strives to provide global learning for all students through the innovation of new initiatives. Leading with intentionality to support the needs of our partners, alongside commitments to justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, make all the difference in being able to provide these opportunities for the long term. GLI believes that every student can cultivate a global mindset with the regular practice of critical thinking, self-reflection, and engaging with the active, diverse communities on and around campus. OIA has been a long-standing champion of re-imagining learning in the global context, and the future is promising for GLI in championing the next generation of engaged, empathetic, and innovative global citizens.

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