Global Engagement in the Pandemic Era

By Maxwell Robinette, Associate Editor

The Quainton Center sits tucked-away on campus. A quiet corner of Bold Hall.

Commuters might have to wait by the door. But an unwitting accomplice will eventually help you into the building.

Turn the corner down the hall. Knock on the door and walk-in. The room is warm and inviting. It feels like a peaceful oasis. You don’t even mind the spotty wifi.

There, you’ll find Emily Markham. She is the Assistant Director of Global Engagement. It’s the campus office charged with raising cultural awareness and social engagement in the La Roche community.

Markham sits at a clean desk. Behind her is a map of France and a few framed news articles. On the wall to her right hangs a big whiteboard with a calendar that looks like advanced calculus.

She is the similitude of friendliness. She introduces herself and invites you to take a seat.

Global engagement. How do you connect with the world during a pandemic? During constant political trouble? What kind of character does it take? Come to think of it–what is global engagement, anyway?

Markham says she’s happy to talk.

The following interview took place Thursday, November 18, 2021.

Q: How would you define global engagement?

A: I see it just like the name implies: engaging on a global scale. But there are a number of different paths to get there. For my particular role here at La Roche, we create platforms for different global dialogues, and engagement with different cultures on campus. We have a very diverse student body here.

Q: Why does La Roche have a center like yours? Is it because of the diverse student body?

A: In part. It’s also a strong aspect of our mission. We have a general global mindset and orientation that comes from the Sisters of Divine Providence as well. Way back when we had the Pacem in Terris program that provided education to students from countries that were in conflict. So we’ve had this global emphasis surrounding education here at La Roche for a long time.

The role I fill here is actually somewhat unique among universities. Not a lot of schools have centers like the one we have here. It’s really a testament to the vision of the administration and its focus in this area.

Q: What aspect of global engagement hits home with you? What parts of the world fascinate you and what problems seem most urgent?

A: My global area of passion is Europe. I’ve always been fascinated with its history and cultures–I studied history and the European Union throughout college and grad school. And one issue that’s growing in Europe, and around the world, is the rise of populism in many countries. It’s greatly affected the systems and lives of people within countries. And it’s been disruptive on an international scale too.

Poland and Hungary have both seen seismic shifts in their political landscapes over the past ten years. Right now we’re seeing this problem spark the border crisis in Belarus, where Belarussians are trying to flee to the EU and the Belarussian government is causing all kinds of problems. It’s so fascinating to look at these political movements and forces in the world. And it doesn’t take long to see how interconnected we are.

Q: Do you think Pittsburgh is an interconnected, global engaged place? Is La Roche a globally engaged school?

A: I think yes and no. To both.

I would say La Roche is very much a global campus. But there’s always room for more engagement and learning. I think it’s natural for people to flock to groups they know well. The ability to fully interact and engage and learn about other cultures can be intimidating and scary. And, honestly, it takes a lot to be able to do that. But that’s also part of my job: to make it easier.

I would say Pittsburgh is still growing. It’s not as global as I would love it to be, but it’s come a long way from where it was when I was younger. For one, we have the Sister Cities initiative here now, which is a global program wherein different cities around the world make agreements with each other to host idea-sharing conferences or exchange programs. It’s a way to connect Pittsburgh to the bigger world. And I’ve seen things like this growing in the past few years, which is positive progress.

Q: Is going beyond your comfort zone is a central aspect of global engagement?

A: I think so. It’s important for people to have that skill and to not shy away from that hurdle. I think as people realize how interconnected we are, we’ll realize that we have to connect globally in our daily lives. Any job you’re in, you’re going to have to connect with someone from a different country. Maybe it’s a coworker, or a client, or a support service, etc. But no matter what we do, we need cultural awareness. And the more we engage with people around the world, the more that initial fear or discomfort breaks down.

Q: You mentioned the rise of populism. A lot of people say online communication is a huge disrupting force in that respect. And while the internet brings many important issues to light, it feels like those real problems often turn into nonconstructive talking points. With all its merits and capabilities, does the internet actually help with global engagement?

A: Technology is amazing and awful all at the same time. But I think its emergence is something we can’t wish away, and we have to rethink the way we understand news and information.

I don’t think it’s bad to get your news online. But it’s really important to see where that information is coming from. That’s my biggest gripe with online information. Social media has made it so we’re always consuming news that’s aligned with how we think. Because of that subjective fog, weshould always take a step back and look into where this information came from and whether it’s reputable and accurate. I’ll get news off of Facebook or Instagram, but I’m always clicking that link and scrolling the page to find out whether I should trust the information I’m reading.

Even then too, with reputable sources, it’s really hard to find a completely unbiased news source. For example, if you’re reading an MSNBC article vs. a FOX article, keep that in mind. Think to yourself, “Okay, this information likely sways in a particular way.”

Q: The last time I went to a Quainton Center event you hosted a panel that discussed Pittsburgh nonprofits’ role in the Afghan refugee crisis. It’s been on my mind since. Things like the pullout of Afghanistan are such complex issues, and many well-intended people have vastly different opinions on how the US should have handled it. You think about these issues all the time. When you’re confronted with these morally gray, complicated issues, how do you ground yourself? How do you find your moral compass?

A: That’s a difficult question to answer. I think a big aspect for me is, if it’s something like Afghanistan–I’m continuously educating myself on the issue. I went to grad school and undergrad to study these things, and, in many ways, I feel like I’m still scratching the surface on a lot of these complex issues. There’s history, and cultural components, to all parts of the world that we don’t fully understand. So when people quickly jump to conclusions about what’s right or what’s moral in these situations, it’s important to remember the variables they don’t know about, and that I may not know about too. And that goes back to navigating information sources responsibly as well.

That world is massive. It’s hard to understand all aspects of history for the entire world. We’re not experts on the world and we’re not supposed to be. I try to remind myself of that. The best we can do is to have constructive conversations and continue to learn from one another.

Q: Are you hopeful about the future?

A: I am. We’ve had a pretty rough couple of years, there’s no way around that. But one thing that I’m hopeful for–and it’s a contested opinion–is that the pandemic has shown us how much we need each other. We’re very much interconnected. And I think this may cause some resentment in certain people over how much we rely on other countries or the world at large. But I’m hopeful that it will strengthen the international relationships that countries have with one another, and that the clear benefit of being connected becomes evident.

Q: Has there been a speaker who’s come to the Quainton Center who has really stuck with you in that hopeful sense?

A: One that comes to mind was during the Global Problems, Global Solutions conference right before the pandemic. So November/December 2019. It was with Dr. Barry Kerzin, who is a personal physician to the Dali Lama.

He talked about the importance of mindfulness. You brought up earlier whether or not I was hopeful about the future. And there’s a lot of negativity across the board: wars, conflict, natural disasters, disease–this awful pandemic. And it can really take a toll. So this idea of the importance of mindfulness, meditation; taking a step back, and realizing that you aren’t supposed to solve all the problems, is really beneficial. And it can also help you focus on the good out there.

I think a lot of people, myself included, have a hard time clearing their heads, so it’s neat to learn those tips and tricks for getting to that point.

Q: What does global engagement look like after COVID-19?

A: I think a big effect of the pandemic is that it’s limited our chances to engage globally. One of the many downfalls of the pandemic is the hit that tourism took around the world. And there are a number of countries that rely on tourism to survive. And it’s going to be a while until those countries can get back to pre-pandemic income levels. So, the ability for people to interact face-to-face has been drastically cut.

I believe one of the best ways to learn about different cultures is to experience them firsthand. And when you can’t physically go somewhere, it makes it tricky.

That being said, I don’t think it’s the end-all-be-all of global engagement. It takes resources to do that, and we’re lucky if we have that chance. So, programs like ours are a way to expose people to those other cultures, and, in a sense, provide that “first taste” of cultural awareness, with the hopes that they continue to grow in their global understanding. And the pandemic has affected this too.

Q: How so?

A: In a lot of ways, we have to reimagine what engagement looks like. And things like Zoom and similar platforms have been a great asset.

I studied abroad in China. This was in 2008, so all we had was Skype. I had such a terrible time with it. My mom ended refusing to use it because every time we would try to video call each other, it sounded to her like I was crying. We’ve come a long way in communicating with people since.

I do think that relying on technology is a double-edged sword, though. There are regions of the world that aren’t technologically connected. So, we need to make sure that these regions aren’t left out of the picture. It is easier said than done, but that’s why awareness is vital.

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