Mark Jenkins swings his right leg through the air and drops the heel of his orange Scarpa mountaineering boot onto the desk in front of him.
“I bet they’re made in Vietnam,” Jenkins says as he examines the bottom of his boots for the country of origin.
He tugs at the leg of his pants. “And the wool in these socks, I bet it’s from New Zealand.”
The world—from the farthest reaches of Africa to the northernmost point of Alaska to the sandy beaches of Australia—is more interconnected now than at any point in the history of man. All you have to do, for proof, Jenkins says, is look at the clothes you wear, the cup you fill with coffee, the television you watch, the cell phone you hold to your ear.
“We are, every day, in contact with the entire world right here in Wyoming,” says Jenkins, who regularly shares his worldly adventures as a field writer for National Geographic with audiences around the state through the University of Wyoming’s International Studies Scholar Lecture Series.
“Wyoming is not this mythical isolated place. Maybe it was 100 years ago, but it’s not anymore. We’re no more isolated here than somebody in the heart of Manhattan.”
To better prepare its students for the world that’s changing around them, UW’s educational mission has grown to include an international flair, highlighted by a Study Abroad program that has multiplied by nearly 1,000 percent since 2000 and dynamic exchange programs that annually introduce some 750 foreign students to campus.
But the impact of the university’s internationalization efforts reaches beyond Laramie. The lecture series—the brainchild of Garth Massey, the former director of UW International Studies, which his successor, Jean Garrison, has helped build into a statewide movement—serves to promote discussion of important world issues and foster a stronger sense of Wyoming’s place in the global landscape.
A $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education, written by Garrison in 2008, allowed for the expansion of the lecture series beyond Laramie and Jackson and enabled two Wyoming community colleges to initiate degree programs in International Studies.
“It’s important for us, especially as the only four-year university in the state, to demonstrate to people across Wyoming that the world is wide,” Garrison says. “There are good things going on in the world; it’s not just what you see on the news. We want to touch people and help them to understand that we’re part of the larger world.
“We are one of the most powerful countries in the world, but we’re also one of the most insulated, and, if anything, we are trending more and more in that direction. It’s my job, as the department head for International Studies, to be one of the voices to help people make connections with the rest of the world."
About 5,000 students from some 400 colleges and universities across the United States gather each spring in New York City for the National Model United Nations (NMUN), the world’s largest and most prestigious collegiate simulation of the United Nations (UN).
It’s been happening for more than 40 years, yet, until this year, not a single student from Northwest College had ever participated in the experiential learning program in which each student delegation is assigned a country whose role and position they adopt in committees.
“We had students who had never left the Wyoming-Montana area,” says Steve Walker, director of International Studies at the Powell community college. “This was an experience of a lifetime.”
It’s a trip that wouldn’t have been possible if the University of Wyoming hadn’t succeeded in its request for Title VI funds, which are used by the U.S. Department of Education to increase the number of internationally focused programs at colleges and universities.
Northwest’s first trip to the NMUN was preceded in spring 2011 by the launch of an International Studies program and followed six successful UW-sponsored lectures in the Big Horn Basin that Walker says were “well received by the entire community.”
“That grant, and the University of Wyoming as a whole, has helped make so much possible here,” says Walker. “It has completely transformed our program.” There’s been a similar transformation at Central Wyoming College in Riverton, where Jim Thurman, a political science professor and former U.S. Army linguist, used Title VI funding acquired through UW to start the school’s first International Studies program in fall 2008.
“Before we even got the program in the catalog, we already had students declaring their majors in International Studies,” recalls Thurman, who works with Garrison to co-manage the grant.
“Whether it would have happened anyway, who knows? But our collaboration with UW and the Title VI funding made sure it did.” From the early days of UW’s alliance with the state’s seven community colleges—Massey, the former director of International Studies, spearheaded the initial grant in 2005 that led to the lecture series on a smaller scale— Thurman has played a role in ensuring articulation among International Studies programs across the state. Only Casper College and Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne had programs before UW began working aggressively to upgrade global awareness in the nation’s least-populated state.
“A few decades ago, you could put your head in the sand. But, today, you have to have a global mindset or you’re going to be behind,” Thurman says. “I tell students in my class that if they have any question about globalization, all they have to do is go to Walmart and try to buy something that’s all American.
“We live in a global world,” he says. “It’s almost impossible not to be touched by it.”
When B. Oliver Walter looked out across his classroom last fall, he saw a conflation of the world. His American Government course for international students had representatives from 15 countries—Bulgaria, Canada, El Salvador, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, among them—and Walter couldn’t help but be amazed.
“Where else would you have a mix like that?” asks the venerable dean of the UW College of Arts and Sciences and a longtime professor of political science.
While that degree of diversity is uncommon across Wyoming, particularly off the campus of UW, which boasts students from more than 90 countries, the International Scholar Lecture Series strives to provide a snapshot of what the world looks like outside the borders of the Cowboy State.
The lecture series relies on renowned speakers, including Mark Jenkins, the National Geographic writer who doubles as a writer in residence at UW, to spread the word. Since spring 2010 alone, the series has staged 11 different presentations at sites across the state covering topics such as populism and democracy in Latin America, the shared challenges facing the U.S., European Union and East Asia and the rise of Iran and the modern Middle East.
Jenkins has toured twice since last fall, including six presentations in February and March titled, The Healing Fields: The Legacy of War and the Search for Miss Landmine Cambodia, a powerful photo illustration of the devastation and suffering caused by Cambodian landmines.
“It’s part of the university’s commitment to bring the world to Wyoming,” says Garrison, author of the grant that has blossomed to serve the state.
“I think it’s important for everyone to realize that Wyoming is impacted by global events, whether we want to believe it or not,” says Anne Nickerson, president of UW’s International Board of Directors, whose mission is to build international competency at the university and across the state. “As the world becomes more and more interconnected, I think our students need to have much more global knowledge to better prepare them to work in a global world and to communicate across languages and cultures.
“But we all need to realize, whether we’re a student or not, that these are skills we need and that the university is Wyoming’s greatest resource.”
While Jenkins has memories to last a lifetime—whether atop a mountain, on a river or in the desert—he says his experiences pale in comparison to the people he has met and the kindness they have shown him. That’s the thread he works to weave into each of his presentations across Wyoming: We’re all in this together—no matter where we live or what language we speak.
“The human spirit lives. Unfortunately, bad news gets the press. That can be depressing, it really can. But what I find is that the spirit of humankind is so powerful. When you get away from the press and you’re just down on the ground, with ordinary people, that spirit comes through all the time,” says Jenkins, a UW graduate who continues to live in Laramie, in part, to ease his ability to give back to his alma mater. “The desires of people are the same, and I don’t care if you’re in China or Tibet or Nepal or Peru. They want to live safely. They want to raise their children with love. They want their kids to get a good education, and they want them to have opportunities in life.
“That is, at the basic level, what all humans on the planet want. We can tend to forget that when we see what’s happening in the news and, certainly, there are evil forces abound. But your ordinary person is so similar to you.”
He smiles and says, “We’re all ordinary people, right?”