Reimagining Mason's global reach: new efforts take off

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The political, cultural, and economic upheaval that followed the pandemic has resulted in what a recent report by Deloitte calls a “moment of change” for higher education, prompting colleges and universities to reinvent themselves to stand out and remain relevant. Four years ago, leaders at George Mason University weren’t entertaining the idea of expanding educational programming to countries other than South Korea, but with international student and faculty numbers returning to where they were prior to the pandemic along with the upcoming 10th anniversary of Mason Korea, the focus on global education shifted to more centralized efforts which required a change in the university’s strategic direction. 

Over the years, Mason has cultivated a reputation for evolving its innovative programs to meet the needs of its students. As part of this decisive moment, the Office of the Provost launched several new areas such as the Community Engagement and Civic Learning Office, the revised Mason Core structure, and the Community College Partnerships Office. Today these efforts play an important role in the university’s strategic direction to improve the student experience, grow the research enterprise, and exemplify a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

Through it all, Mason—which is home to the largest and most diverse student body in Virginia—values building sustainable pathways for growth that include creating opportunities for student success such as community engagement activities and advanced research projects. For decades, the university has facilitated global learning opportunities and fostered international research. It has also leveraged university partnerships to bring thousands of international students to Mason from more than 130 countries speaking 80 languages while providing programmatic learning for those who wish to study abroad in nearly two dozen countries each year. Mason Korea has grown from a small outpost to the gateway to Asia, hosting and graduating students each semester. And because Mason is a student-first university with numerous clubs, performances, and cultural events, those who are unable to physically study abroad can still experience a multicultural, and diverse learning journey within a vibrant international community in Virginia through virtual international programs. 

In a post-COVID environment, preparing students for success in an increasing international and interconnected world while expanding and enriching Mason’s global footprint is now a university priority—making it critical for the Office of the Provost to reimagine and redesign Mason’s global vision and establish a path forward. Enter Chrishon Blackwell, an organizational development leader with a deep understanding of international education, as senior international officer and executive director of the Global Education Office (GEO).  

Chrishon Blackwell, SIO
Chrishon Blackwell, senior international officer and executive director of the Global Education Office

“It is a testament to Mason's global engagement that we now have Dr. Blackwell in her role as the Senior International Officer (SIO),” said Janette Muir, vice provost for academic affairs. “As Mason's SIO, she is the one who can continue to guide Mason into the next phase of global engagement, post-pandemic, and we are excited to see where this engagement takes us.”

Since arriving at Mason less than a year ago, Blackwell has spent months identifying how to leverage and utilize the university’s resources in ways that will further enhance students’ experiences while simultaneously exploring ways to maintain global competitiveness and strengthen relationships with its global partners  

“The goal is to create stronger global citizens and to do that, it is critically important to identify, help facilitate, and advance what’s already happening on campus,” she said. “If GEO is to provide students opportunities to immerse themselves in holistic activities that result in individuals who can compete on [an] international scale, we need to think more intentionally about what impacts them across the disciplines.”

And while international education encompasses the mobility of students in other parts of the world, it is also about the scholars who come to Mason to conduct research and share different styles of teaching, faculty who go to other destinations, and those who do community-based service learning. It further includes thinking intentionally about international partners and engaging in deeper relationships [with] them” while leveraging existing affiliations and memorandums of understanding by establishing practices such as exchanges with universities, delegation visits, and sister city partnerships, Blackwell said. 

Following a thorough review of Mason’s current international offerings, Blackwell recently identified and set forth a series of priorities in research, teaching, and engagement to expand and enrich the university’s global footprint. These priorities include initiatives such as exploring ways to support Mason’s global research activities and collaborations, examining strategies to globalize the student learning experience, and conducting a comprehensive review of Mason’s international partnerships.

A vital part of implementing these priorities consists of utilizing the recently formed Global Assembly and Global Operations Team, which engage a broad cross-section of the university to advance Mason's global initiatives, activities, programs, and services. Both teams consist of representatives from each college, offices that deal directly with global related activities for students, faculty and staff, and other relevant parties. By leveraging the expertise of the members of the Global Assembly, the aim is to collectively identify resources and opportunities that facilitate university-wide internationalization strategies while keeping internal stakeholders informed. The Global Operations Team, meanwhile, coordinates knowledge about Mason’s global footprint within a decentralized context, then directs and advises the university community on globally focused services and policies.    
The establishment of the Global Assembly and Global Operations Team demonstrates a collective approach involving a variety of stakeholders across Mason’s campuses and by doing this, we are fostering a more globally aware and engaged environment for faculty, staff, and student,” she said. “By centralizing our global engagement efforts, we aim to create a more collaborative approach to managing global learning, teaching, research, and engagement. 

Mason’s revamped global engagement and emphasis on global learning signifies a deep commitment to advancing the university’s internationalization efforts. Not only will it elevate the student experience and provide valuable opportunities for faculty to globally engage, it will also include perspectives from alumni and partners who can assist in establishing new initiatives. Over time, members of the Mason community will be able to navigate a variety of cultural and political environments resulting in empathetic and inquisitive individuals who are educated in cross-cultural contexts and have the yearning and ability to collaborate. 

Looking forward, Blackwell said this new centralized direction will allow the university to “think creatively and boldly about ways to expand international capacity” and is what will “make Mason a rich and diverse tapestry that will ensure the university is competitive around the world while meeting the community’s needs.”