Professors and Professionals Meet to Discuss Global Professional Competencies at BYU

The Global Professional Competencies Symposium was held on October 12 and 13 at BYU. Leaders from the College of Humanities, along with visiting professors and professionals, discussed the professional skills that students gain from a humanities education and how those skills apply in a global setting. 

The Need for Global Professionals

IMG_5846PROVO, Utah (October 13, 2015)—Academic vice president Brent W. Webb offered the opening remarks, welcoming the participants to the conference and to BYU.

To Webb, BYU is a natural choice to host a discussion about global competence. He explained, “We at BYU inherit a very interesting, globally oriented student body.” Seventy percent of students on campus speak a second language (one in six speak a third), two-thirds have a lived outside of the United States for two years or more and six percent are from other countries. These students bring their love for international experiences to BYU, and the university seeks to add value in the form of certification and deeper study, aimed at preparing students for the global workplace.

That workplace is in a constant state of change, said Scott Miller, dean of the College of Humanities. Therefore, students need skills that will allow them to adapt to whatever situation they may encounter, skills like flexibility, cultural awareness and critical thinking.

“In other words,” Miller said, “what we need are close readers and good writers. We need people who are multilingual and multicultural.” With that in mind, the symposium’s task was to identify those classes and programs that best foster these attributes and skills and produce students ready to participate on a global scale.

Helping Students Develop Lasting Skills

In a session entitled “Professional Competency Development,” three educators spoke on the academic challenges and opportunities of developing students’ language skills to create productive professionals. Danny Damron, the internship instruction and development coordinator for the College of Humanities, moderated the session.

“We are trying to prepare students for experiences that will move them toward the working world after the academy,” said Damron.

Renée Jourdenais, dean of the Graduate School of Translation, Interpretation, and Language Education at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, spoke first. She first describe Middlebury’s aim to integrate language skills into careers with the goal of creating peace. To this end, the school does several things: integrate language within the curriculum, explicitly address intercultural competence, and create interdisciplinary challenges. Jourdenais explained several difficulties that come with teaching languages and preparing future global professionals, including teaching and learning languages for a purpose. Jourdenais explained that she has two degrees in French literature, but when she received her degrees, she did not realize all the opportunities that her language skills opened up to her, not just in teaching.

“I want everyone studying a language to know no matter what you’re interested in, there’s an opportunity for you out there,” said Jourdenais.

Matt Christensen, director of BYU’s Chinese Flagship Center, presented next. He explained how the Chinese Flagship Program works to prepare students for to become global professionals. When developing the program, he and his co-director asked the question, “How can we address multiple domains in the program?” The program has accomplished this by allowing students to drive their own language study. Students in the program create a domain specific lexicon, give a professional oral report on a domain specific research topic, write a research paper based on the oral presentation, and create a portfolio that includes a Chinese résumé. Allowing students to choose their own domain, explained Christensen, enables them to bring in topics from their major and to create a vocabulary that will be useful in their professional futures.

Gary Oddou, Professor Emeritus at California State University at San Marcos, was the final speaker. He began by stating the importance of learning other languages in a global and interconnected world.

“You will never be able to get the depth and quality of relationships in a culture without speaking the language,” said Oddou.

He explained that to become globally professionally competent, students must become unbiased continuous learners, develop and maintain quality relationships, and be self-aware. To achieve this, professors and administrators must pivot their curriculum to focus on the students instead of their own academic endeavors.

“You at the College of Humanities have to ask, ‘How well are you doing in teaching these things?’” said Oddou.

Rebranding Language

IMG_5873Near the close of the symposium, Slavic languages professor Richard Brecht, founding executive director of the University of Maryland Center for Advanced Study of Language, presented a keynote address on the concept of rebranding language.

Brecht explained that advanced language skills are directly linked to advanced cognitive abilities, such as creative and critical thinking.

Though only 11% of employers actively seek language talent in prospective employees, Brecht suggested emphasizing the marketplace value of skills that are acquired through advanced language acquisition, such as critical thinking or tolerance of ambiguity. In other words, “rebranding” the notion of what second language acquisition can do.

So how are these valuable global competencies acquired? Brecht explained that second language acquisition, especially second languages acquired in a maximized language environment such as study abroad, correlate with an increase in working memory ability.

“It is this intercultural communication, it is this cross-cultural competence, it is this increase in working memory ability that increases your working memory capacity,” said Brecht. “This controls things we call language ability, and it controls the same thing which we call critical thinking, creative thinking, inhibiting distractions and tolerance of ambiguity.”

Brecht added that because advanced second language speakers must switch back and forth between languages they are able to intentionally inhibit biases. “An educated human with advanced language will be willing to suspend what they believe long enough to listen to what another believes,” said Brecht. “And that’s what humanities is supposed to be.”

Individuals who have the language capacity to truly engage the world build global competence not through taking information or exchanging information, Brecht said, but through building and maintaining intercultural relationships through this language acquisition.

“Language is the enabler that puts you into a circumstance where you have to task switch or get creative, or cognitive conflict where you have to resolve the conflict by stopping one thing, focusing on another and then trying to resolve them both,” Brecht concluded. “Language is the heart of global professional competency.”

Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16), Kayla Goodson (B.A. Communications/French studies ’17), Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)