In recent weeks there has been much public discussion about the role of community colleges in providing international education opportunities to their students. As president of Niagara County Community College, I wish to add my two pence.
Having been a college president for the past eight years and a teacher for more than 30, I have witnessed many changes in the skills and knowledge employers require of our graduates.
It is true that community colleges need to be flexible in adapting quickly to the needs of a rapidly changing job market. The emergence of computers in the workplace and the necessity of remaining on the cutting edge of new technologies are paramount to our mission of training students for the jobs that are available in Western New York.
One of the most profound changes to grow out of these rapid technological advances is globalization. The global economy requires employees who are academically and culturally prepared to interact in person, over the telephone and on the Internet with their counterparts around the world. We must prepare students to compete in such a world.
Community colleges are fully accredited institutions of higher education. Our mission is to provide students an education equal to the first two years at any university or college and to prepare them to compete in the workplace of tomorrow. For many students, that workplace will be a global one. Indeed, one of the largest employers of NCCC graduates is Delphi Thermal Systems, a multinational corporation.
Niagara Falls, where thousands of Western New Yorkers make their living from tourism, attracts visitors from around the world whom we must make feel welcome in our community.
NCCC's mission statement reinforces the concept of an international education. It states that "NCCC provides a variety of experiences (cultural, social and international), as well as community education and economic development programs, which positively impact the quality of life."
This goal can be accomplished in two ways -- through exchange programs allowing our students and faculty to study abroad, and by giving those students who remain at home the opportunity to interact with their peers from around the world. At NCCC, we provide both.
NCCC students have taken advantage of scholarships and international exchange agreements allowing them to study at colleges and universities overseas. These students have learned and worked in England, Spain, France, Italy and Costa Rica. The experience they have gained will no doubt prove invaluable to companies doing business with those nations.
Some NCCC faculty members travel abroad each year for conferences, workshops and sabbaticals. The knowledge and cultural perspectives these teachers bring to the classroom from these experiences directly benefits their students.
These faculty are also using the contacts they have made to help set up other study-abroad opportunities and faculty exchanges. In fact, one such exchange will occur this fall when a college professor from India comes to NCCC for five weeks to teach Asian history. I have no doubt that her students will gain as much from her unique perspective as from her expertise.
The college also participates in the Youth for Understanding program, which each year brings approximately 10 students from Europe, Asia and former Eastern Bloc countries to NCCC for a full academic year of study. These students, many of whom speak three or four languages, often speak to their classes about life and business in their home countries. The students who attend classes and become friends with these foreign students gain invaluable insights into what life is like in other cultures.
Some critics argue that these foreign students are heavily subsidized by area taxpayers. In fact, all out-of-state or foreign students attending NCCC pay one and one-half times the tuition of New York State residents. County taxpayers actually benefit from their presence, as foreign students tend to spend a great deal of money on American clothing and other products they cannot get at home.
In addition to the numerous benefits our students realize from these international experiences, NCCC operates an International Trade Resource Center in Niagara Falls. Last year it provided business counseling, seminars and electronic database linkages to over 350 area business persons seeking to do business overseas.
To survive in today's economy, businesses must have access to employees with the skills, knowledge and cultural sensitivities that allow them to work in a global environment. To withhold the opportunity to acquire this knowledge and to refuse to adequately prepare them for tomorrow's workplace is to deny our students the high-quality education they deserve from our community colleges.
GERALD L. MILLER is president of Niagara County Community College.