A gift of unprecedented generosity from alumna Roberta Buffett Elliott ’54 is expanding the College’s global view in new and creative ways.
A gift and a mission
It’s hard to find a college or university that doesn’t tout its global focus.
Study-abroad programs, language studies and international programs are now the norm on most campuses. And they have long been available at Northwestern, where students today can study about 20 different languages and take courses in dozens of programs and departments that focus on global cultures and transnational studies.
But now, a gift of unprecedented generosity from 1954 Weinberg College alumna Roberta Buffett Elliott is expanding that global view in new and creative ways.
In the year since the $100-million-plus gift was announced and the Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Studies was formed, new partnerships around the world have emerged. Major faculty research groups have been created to explore global politics and religion, the humanities, and capitalism and the law. Five new working groups, focused on areas as diverse as Andean cultures and histories and Russian and eastern European studies, are already gaining steam. Funding for globally focused graduate students and postdoctoral fellows is spurring new research. More undergraduates are pursuing studies and internships overseas.
And that’s just the beginning. In the years ahead, the fruits of these initiatives will continue to broaden the University’s scope exponentially.
Read on to learn about just a few of the ways that the Buffett Institute is expanding global horizons and fostering cross-disciplinary collaboration at Weinberg College and Northwestern University.
We examine three initiatives that bring Weinberg College to the world — and the world to Weinberg College
1. Home and Away: The definition of “study abroad” is changing — and thanks to the Global Engagement Studies Institute, so are the students who are going
When Bonnie Daniels ’69 was a student at Northwestern, overseas experiences were hardly the norm.
“A few people did so-called ‘study abroad,’” she recalls. “And some of the students who could afford to would go to Europe and backpack around for the summer.”
That’s changed dramatically, thanks in no small part to Northwestern’s Global Engagement Studies Institute.
One of the most popular study-abroad programs at Northwestern, GESI pairs students with local organizations in Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, India, Kenya, Nicaragua and Uganda to advance community-driven change.
Prior to their departure, students prepare through two academic classes, country-specific training and language courses. Once in-country, they live in homestays and gain professional experience with grassroots organizations.
The program’s focus on issues such as public health, education and the environment broadens the scope of “study abroad”— and the types of students who go, too.
Thanks to Roberta Buffett Elliott’s gift, and with the added support of Daniels and her husband, Mike Daniels ‘69, GESI has awarded a record amount of financial support to students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford the experience. Last year, 78 percent of all students in GESI received full or partial scholarships and financial aid, compared to 59 percent in 2013. Additionally, more than 70 percent of all GESI students are nonwhite, compared to the national study-abroad average of 24 percent.
“I think it’s very important to level the playing field among students who come from varying backgrounds,” Bonnie Daniels says. Providing study-abroad oppor-tunities to a wider array of students is important not just to students but to Northwestern as a whole. “If Northwestern doesn’t increase its global presence and train its students to operate in a global world, it’s going to be left out,” says Daniels. “That is the world we are living in and that is the kind of education that students are looking for.”
2. Art as Language: The Global Humanities Initiative reframes the arts as a means to advance policy, tolerance and diplomacy
Can a music video change the world? More than you’d think.
In 2011, the Pakistani pop group Beygairat Brigade (or “Shameless Brigade”) made headlines (and garnered more than a million views on YouTube) by releasing a poppy, satirical song called “Potatoes and Eggs.”
The song poked fun at the country’s military, religious conservatives, nationalist politicians and conspiracy theorists — a brave act considering that that same year, a governor who opposed the country’s strict blasphemy law was killed by one of his guards.
Northwestern professors Laura Brueck and Rajeev Kinra created the Global Humanities Initiative in 2015 to illustrate the importance of art as a means of international communication. To that end, they brought Beygairat Brigade frontman Ali Aftab Saeed, along with producer and musician Saad Sultan, to campus in April, inviting them to perform concerts, teach courses on arts and society in Pakistan, and screen Saeed’s documentary
on the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan.
“We want to focus on the ways the understanding of the humanities is important to thinking about global issues of the world today,” says Brueck, an associate professor of Indian literature.
A global view of the humanities isn’t just a matter of having a broad cultural palate. Artists like Saeed and Sultan can influence policy, tolerance and diplomacy.
“They see music and popular culture as a way to convey an accurate picture of Pakistani society to the rest of the world, which mostly knows about Pakistan because of Islamic fundamentalism,” says Brueck.
The humanities can even be used as a diplomatic tool. In 2015, President Obama quoted the words of the 14th-century Persian poet Hafez in a video sending Iranians best wishes for the holiday Nowruz.
The Global Humanities Initiative aims, over time, to bring increased attention to other areas of the non-Western humanities that have long been underrepresented in the American academy — Iraqi poets, Egyptian artists, African novelists, Afghan archaeologists, South Asian filmmakers and Chinese activists. To make these works accessible to new audiences, the initiative will bestow an annual monetary prize on the best new translation of a non-English literary or academic text and will publish the winner through a partnership with Northwestern University Press.
Northwestern has been increasingly looking outward, and Brueck and Kinra want to foster that perspective. Brueck’s own department — Asian Languages and Cultures — was only just created in 2013. Other areas, such as indigenous and Israel studies, have also been expanding. Brueck is encouraged by the addition of new faculty at Northwestern who study other cultures. “There’s been a real growth of non-Western studies on campus,” she observes.
“There was already this buildup of momentum to focus more on Middle Eastern studies and North Africa, even after Northwestern already had a robust program in African studies,” adds Kinra, who joined Northwestern in 2007 and specializes in South Asian intellectual history. Buffett’s donation, which seeded the Initiative, is a culmination of that momentum. “An interesting energy was already percolating, but the gift came at a perfectly opportune moment,” Kinra says. (The Initiative is also funded by the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities.)
While visiting Northwestern, Saeed and Sultan also recorded some new tracks at the School of Communica-tion, with students assisting with the production. If the songs make a splash the way “Potatoes and Eggs” did, Brueck and Kinra will be that much closer to achieving their goal of establishing Northwestern as a locus for preserving and examining the global humanities.
“For young undergrads, finding out they’re working with two of the most important artists in South Asia is astounding,” says Brueck. “They’re actually creating new art and new ideas at Northwestern that will go out in the world and influence others. It’s an extraordinary opportunity for our students to participate in that process.”
“These students are going to be leaders of the next generation,” adds Kinra. “They’ll remember that.”
3. A Deeper Look: Graduate students gather scholars to dig beneath the narrative of “Islam as the problem”
A swirl of geopolitical events in the spring of 2015 caught the attention of Northwestern graduate students Mona Oraby, Bilal Nasir, Nathaniel Mathews and Nurhaizatul Jamil.
The self-proclaimed Islamic State had redrawn state borders and reconfigured regional power dynamics in the Middle East. The drowning of hundreds of migrants off the coast of Libya had raised critical questions about cross-national migration and the policing of state borders. The killing of Charlie Hebdo journalists in France was provoking polarizing debates about secularism and the freedom of expression.
Meanwhile, in the United States, anti-Islamic rhetoric escalated as the 2016 presidential election season gained steam. And the detainment of Muslims without charge at Guantanamo Bay continued, stripping individuals of their citizenship and political rights.
Oraby, Nasir, Mathews and Jamil — all of whom are pursuing Ph.Ds. in areas related to Islam — were troubled by the narrative emerging around those incidents.
“Instead of evaluating these events through the prism of regional political shifts, border contestations and the dilemmas of religious pluralism, analysts constructed the notion of Islam as the problem,” Oraby said.
So when Roberta Buffett Elliott’s historic gift inspired the Buffett Institute to solicit proposals from graduate students for a conference on an international theme, the four knew immediately what area they wanted to explore.
The group submitted a proposal for “Islam and the Modern State,” a conference that would address the entanglement of religion and modernity and how it bears on modern debates about statehood. Rather than framing Islam as “the problem,” the event would probe how states grapple with nationalism, neo-liberalism and secularism as they relate to their understanding of Islam. Panels would focus on the territorialization of Shar’ia; mediation and the media; and the institutionalization of Islam, among other topics.
“It was obvious that these students knew what they were doing,” said Bruce Carruthers, a professor of sociology and director of the Buffett Institute. “And they had a great vision.”
That vision was realized in April, when several dozen scholars from around the world gathered for the conference at Northwestern. Graduate students traveled from as far away as the United Kingdom and Germany; the event also drew faculty from across North America. Participants discussed topics that ranged from Syria’s wartime Shar’ia committees to geographies of Islamophobia, presented by scholars from institutions including Oxford, Harvard, Yale and the Universities of Toronto and Michigan.
“The Institute was very interested in how our conference could facilitate a conversation across disci-plines and across institutions,” said Oraby.
Such conversations are nothing new for Oraby and her co-organizers. Friends as well as colleagues, the four are pursuing a variety of academic paths, all of which intersect with Islam and governance.
“I originally wanted to study the Muslim roots of the Tanzanian freedom struggle, and from there I thought that I should learn Arabic. Through that, I got more interested in Islamic texts,” said Mathews, who studies history. Jamil, an anthropology student who hails from Singapore, has been interested in the Islamic-themed self-help classes women take there. Nasir, also an anthropologist, studies the impact of community-based counterterrorism programs on Muslim-American communities, and Oraby, a political scientist, studies the legal regulation of religious difference in the modern Middle East.
The students hope that the conference will help establish Northwestern as a place where scholars can advance significant cross-disciplinary collaborations on timely and relevant issues. “When I think back to the calls for papers that I’ve seen in the past eight months, no call approximated the way we described this conference,” said Jamil.
Nasir noted that the event had a “deep ethical component,” fostering discussions not only about scholarship, but also about pressing issues such as Islamophobia, migration, refugees and climate change.
“In this regard, the conference brought scholars together to think through very pragmatic issues,” Nasir said.
Oraby and the rest of the group believe that the event will situate the University in the middle of an important — and timely — conversation.
“I think the announcement of our conference surprised many people because you might expect an event like this to take place at the University of Chicago,” which has hosted a number of programs on Islamic themes, Oraby said.
“But this is happening at Northwestern. I think that speaks volumes about the intellectual richness here. We are casting the lens on modern governance in a way that hasn’t been done before.”
GESI Student Takeaway
Meet three GESI scholarship recipients who came home forever changed by their experiences.
Yaritza Sandoval ’16
Location: South Africa
Fieldwork: Teaching entrepreneurial skills to residents of communities with high rates of unemployment
Home away from home: “I remember the first couple of days after arriving, a neighboring family brought a cooked snook fish to my homestay. They had heard I was not eating well because I was vegetarian and my homestay mother was confused about what I could or could not eat. It warmed my heart because it showed how caring the community of Doringbaai is.”
A return trip: “After my first experience, I came back to conduct research as a community-based research fellow. Coming back to Doringbaai allowed me to learn more about the community’s history, culture and language. I learned more words in Afrikaans and asked more questions about why there were limited opportunities for youth and women to thrive.”
Different perspectives: “It’s important for international and minority students to go abroad to learn about the histories of countries that are not often taught in history classes in school. There is also the component of being able to better understand shifting racial and social identities. Students can shed light on experiences that are often not heard, such as what it means to be a low-income student of color at an elite university.”
Hayeon Kim ’17
Location: Dominican Republic
Fieldwork: Studying asset-based community development while assisting locally owned businesses, including sugar cane plantations and grocery stores
Helping a homestay: “This project was special to me because we worked with my homestay family in Barahona. I stayed at their home and frequently visited their family store — a mini-storehouse-turned-grocery-shop — and helped them out. It demonstrated for me the importance of relationship-building and community trust.”
Mixed feelings: “I can’t selfishly carve out my own college experience at the cost of community members’ real lives. Going abroad was great and I learned so much, but I can’t take the people that I met and worked with for granted. My GESI experiences weren’t just a grade in a class. I was dealing with actual people’s lives.”
Community empowerment: “I like GESI’s emphasis on what the community is already doing for itself. We can’t just go there and assume we have the solutions, the answers, the ‘saving light’ to bring them out of ‘darkness.’”
Representing everyone: “GESI runs into the paradox of teaching students to be critical of the very thing they are doing — global development. But that’s an important conversation to have at Northwestern, because the University is heading toward a global education.”
Alaa Mohamedali ’16
Fieldwork: Creating and implementing peer-led adolescent health programs for local villages
Leadership in action: “One of my favorite memories was when one student stood up to deliver a presentation on male development. He did it with such confidence and understanding that my cohort and I were greatly moved. He had morphed into an effective teacher right before us, and we were proud to have been able to work with him.”
Neighbors on the other side of the world: “Possibly because of my hijab or my skin color, when I would say I was from Sudan, the people I worked with would always smile and say, ‘Hey, we’re neighbors!’ So I was always comfortable no matter what identity was bestowed upon me.”
Career takeaway: “The rooms in the clinics were so full that some people were doubled up in beds. That, in addition to very poor sanitary conditions, left me in awe of the physicians there. I met the people that I wanted to become. Seeing these doctors work long hours every single day with smiles on their faces reinvigorated me to continue to pursue my pre-medical education. I am now set on becoming a doctor and then going back to Africa. I feel like it is my duty to share my skills, and I will feel more fulfilled working in a place where my help will be most needed.”Back to top