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The international studies major, run by the University of Michigan Program in International and Comparative Studies, is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

In 2005, the Center for International and Comparative Studies was founded by Professor Ken Kollman. The minor in international studies was created to provide undergraduate students an interdisciplinary, globally focused course of study and was created in 2007.

Due to the minor’s success, the major was created in 2009. Students enrolled in the major can select one of four sub-plans: international security, norms and cooperation; political economy and development; comparative culture and identity; and global environment and health. Kollman said the major was created based on the requirements for the minor.

“It started very small, but it’s become a really important program on campus,” Kollman said. “It’s very much engaged in student experiential learning and tries to encourage students to go places, study abroad and learn languages, but also to think about things in a very intelligent, structured way.”

As soon as the major was announced it became popular, quickly reaching over 700 students, according to Robert Franzese, director of the program in international and comparative studies. Currently, the international studies major is the eighth largest within LSA. 

Franzese said the major was created to give undergraduate students a global background. The Center for International and Comparative Studies was renamed the Program in International and Comparative Studies to better align with its mission of providing undergraduates with an internationally focused education.

While other majors with some overlap in areas of study, such as public health and public policy, began springing up after the major’s creation, Franzese said international studies is unique because of its focus on understanding large-scale issues and intersections within different areas of study.

“The students are primarily driven by this problem that they want to understand and begin to do something,” Franzese said. “They’ll want to learn from the disciplines, what they can take from the disciplines to understand the problem, and understand what might be the start of certain solutions. So, sometimes I would say that the international studies student is not interested in the substantive realm of politics, per se, they’re interested in the realm of a particular problem or dynamic that challenges them.”

The major is assembled from courses across numerous departments, with two core lecturers teaching the only three International Studies courses — an introductory course, intermediate course with offerings based on subplan and an advanced seminar. The students’ other coursework is composed of courses from across the University’s schools and departments.

Because the coursework is pulled from many departments, Kollman said students graduate with a strong understanding of the various disciplines that play a role in studying international issues.

“Good disciplinary training makes good interdisciplinary training,” Kollman said. “Students are getting a number of skills, but also a kind of grounding in some of the core social science disciplines.”

Nataša Gruden-Alajbegović, global projects manager at the University’s International Institute, said creating a curriculum based on course availability is a challenge for program faculty. But she said the ability to pull from a wide range of courses, paired with the opportunity to select a sub-major that more aligns with each student’s interests, contributes to the major’s opportunities for personalization.

Gruden-Alajbegović said there is a pre-approved list of more than 400 courses which satisfy International Studies requirements offered each semester. She said there is also an option for students to come to advisers and request a course not already on the list be added.

“Interdisciplinary is a very key word,” Gruden-Alajbegović said. “It’s almost like putting together your own major with different disciplines that you decide to focus on.”

Franzese said putting together the coursework is an administrative challenge each semester, but there is never a shortage of courses being taught among the schools and departments at the University.

There is also a third-year language requirement, which goes two semesters beyond the four-semester language requirement in LSA. This can also be fulfilled by a student taking four semesters of one language and two semesters in a second language.

This requirement has been in place since the minor’s creation. Kollman said the strong quantitative requirements, in addition to the third year of language, are components of the program that make its graduates qualified to assist in solving international challenges.

Moving forward, Franzese said he hopes to expand the emphasis on having a global educational experience. Though not a requirement, he explained the program has worked with LSA and the Opportunity Hub to provide funding for these global opportunities and would like to see this grow in the years to come.

Global experiences, Franzese said, include studying, researching or working abroad, but is not limited to opportunities outside the U.S. Franzese said internationally focused experiences housed in the U.S., such as working for immigration or human rights law firms, have the same global impact.

LSA senior Ayah Kutmah, who majors in International Studies, received a fellowship in 2018 to work at a human rights law firm in New York City. She said PICS has financed her trips to conferences to enrich her studies and is thankful for the department’s commitment to supporting student experiences outside of the classroom.

“I was obviously elated to be accepted (to the internship), because it was a very competitive process, but, all of the sudden, I realized I couldn’t afford it,” Kutmah said. “I appreciate (the department) so much because it’s not just strictly academics — it’s the way they’ve supported my endeavours individually and organizationally.”

Gruden-Alajbegović said her goal is to have an endowment with enough funding for every student to have one of these experiences. Currently, Franzese said there are multiple fellowships and funding opportunities for International Studies students, but he would also like to see these increased in the future.

Now that the program has built an alumni base of more than 2,000, Franzese is hoping to involve the alumni in more conversations with undergraduates. Career-oriented coursework and programming — which the program offers currently in the form of a minicourse — is something both Franzese and Gruden-Alajbegović would like to see expanded upon.

Franzese said, ultimately, the goal of the program is to train students to be able to identify and contribute to solutions for the problems impacting the world. As the program continues to evolve, he is confident the major and minor will remain rooted in the mission of PICS: providing an interdisciplinary study of problems which transcend borders.

“The students’ focus is on the problem, and they really want to learn everything they can about the scope of the problem, the content, how it manifests for the people that are experiencing it and, also, what is it that we have at this great University,” Franzese said. “That will help us understand not only the scope and breadth of the problem, but also maybe some ideas we may have about beginning to surmount or overcome these problems, or at least make a dent in them.”

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