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Front Page - Friday, April 7, 2017

Suzuki builds bridge between UTC students

Quietly and under the radar, Takeo Suzuki has been working for the past 18 months to blend three different departments into a new Center for Global Education at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga.

“This is like a big bridge between American population and international student population,” says Suzuki, the Center’s executive director, who is fluent in Japanese and has lived in Wales, Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia and Malaysia.

The Center, which now oversees international student affairs, study abroad programs, and the English as a Second Language Institute, provides academic guidance when needed.

But, says Suzuki, “Our international students’ average GPA is pretty high. They graduate really strong, so from my perspective, they don’t really need a lot of extra academic support.

“However, some of the international students are a little shy to make friends on campus.”

Currently, students from about 50 different countries, including China, India and Saudi Arabia, are enrolled at UTC, Suzuki adds.

To help them feel more comfortable and encourage them to mingle with American students, the Center hosts events such as International Tea Time. Some local students also volunteer to mentor their global counterparts one-on-one.

As part of the recent International Women’s Day, a Japanese student talked about the role of women in that society.

“There were more American students than international students at that event,” Suzuki points out. “So, I can see that UTC’s domestic students are interested in meeting with international students.”

Suzuki is also charged with expanding the study abroad program – a number of UTC students are currently studying in Bhutan, Italy, South Africa, Brazil and other countries and will return this summer – and enrolling more international students.

To achieve the latter, the Center is participating in recruiting fairs and partnering with local community residents who have strong relationships with their home countries, or with those where they’ve lived or worked.

“[Until now] UTC never aggressively recruited students from overseas,” he says. “It was kind of word of mouth.”

One reason for the new push, Suzuki explains, is to help domestic students better understand the importance of globalization.

“Most businesses are in some way related to overseas. So, we are trying to help them see that slice of the world with the population we have at UTC.”

According to Suzuki, the Center for Global Education also serves as a resource for students who need help dealing with troubling or sensitive issues, such as the recent proposed bans on travelers from six predominantly Muslim, Middle Eastern countries.

In January, when President Trump announced the first ban (it was later blocked by a federal judge), the Center emailed UTC students, inviting them to voice their concerns, and also met with some individually.

“None of them actually really shared that they have any concerns or problems because of that new immigration regulation,” Suzuki says.

“I don’t know if UTC is fortunate or not, but we are telling them if they have any immigration questions, they can come and see us any time.”

The impact of the proposed travel ban and ongoing stereotypes about Muslims hasn’t hit UTC as hard as some other universities, says Dr. Nurhidajat Sisworahardjo, an assistant professor of electrical engineering.

Many Middle Eastern students are earning technical degrees in his department, and he has found himself an “indirect” advisor since joining the faculty in 2010.

“I don’t see any problems in general,” adds Sisworahardjo, an Indonesian native and Muslim who serves on a local interfaith panel that hosts public forums at churches, mosques and temples.

“We have a mosque close by, so if a student needs a place to pray, they can easily go to the mosque, especially during Friday service. Other than that, I don’t see any issues. I’m quite amazed on our campus we don’t see any negative feelings, so far as I know.”

Because Islam is a religion, not a nationality, it is difficult to know how many Muslim students are currently attending UTC. Even Warda Kahlot, president of the Muslim Students Association, doesn’t have an estimate.

“I know a lot of Muslim students end up coming here from other countries for the programs, and a lot of engineering students and Saudi students are Muslim,” she points out.

“But they don’t really get involved [with the MSA] as much because they’re just here for their education.”

The MSA, says Suzuki, is just one of the student organizations the Center manages.

“UTC believes in freedom of religion on campus and freedom of speech,” he says. “So, having [Muslims] as part of real American culture, the USA, makes other students understand not only about the importance of diversity, but also about different perspectives on life in general.

“I think students are hungry to learn more about what’s out there.”