Global Engagement Office dedicated to helping School connect across borders

Adam Nelson, Li-Ching Ho, and Kate McCleary lead the Global Engagement Office

Ask Li-Ching Ho about her background and research interests, and it’s easy to start thinking of her as an expert in “global education.”

Similarly, it doesn’t take long to understand why she was named co-director of the UW–Madison School of Education’s new Global Engagement Office in June 2019.

Ho, who is an associate professor with the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, grew up in Singapore before moving to the United Kingdom for college and majoring in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. After teaching geography and social studies in Singapore for several years, she made her way to New York City, where she earned a PhD in social studies education in 2008 from Teachers College at Columbia University.

After returning to Singapore and working for six years as a faculty member at the National Institute of Education at Nanyang Technological University, Ho returned to the United States in 2014 to join the faculty at UW–Madison as an assistant professor of social studies education.

Her research, conducted primarily in East and Southeast Asia, focuses on global issues of diversity in civic education, equitable access to high quality citizenship education, and environmental citizenship education. Ho has also worked closely with scholars, teachers, and students in China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Brunei, and the Philippines.

But ask Ho to expound on the value of her “global research,” and she pauses before pushing back.

“My work isn’t ‘global research,’ it’s just research,” says Ho. “The longer I’m here the more strongly I feel about this. There should not be, for example, global social studies research and U.S. social studies research. I’m hoping to change how people think about this.”

Ho adds: “There are so many shared problems that are common across national and cultural contexts, that doing research in different parts of the world contributes to deeper and richer conversations about how we can address persistent and significant education questions. We have to break out of these containers.”

Building on a tradition of global connectedness

While global connectedness is a cornerstone of UW–Madison’s highly ranked School of Education and its scholarly community, in 2016 Dean Diana Hess identified this realm as a vital area of interest for the School.

Nancy Kendall, a professor and current chair of the Department of Educational Policy Studies, and Kate McCleary, now the associate director of the Global Engagement Office, were selected by Hess to lead a deep dive and strategic planning process that led to the development of a Global Education Strategic Plan.

The Global Engagement Office (GEO) was born out of this process and launched in September 2018, with Ho and Adam Nelson, a Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor with the Department of Educational Policy Studies, named co-directors in June 2019.

The GEO is a home for connecting faculty, staff, and students with resources, knowledge, and support to engage in and carry out globally focused initiatives. These efforts are inclusive of work with immigrant, migrant, and refugee communities, as well as tribal nations.

Guided by the Global Education Strategic Plan, the office is centering its work on:

  • Cultivating a School of Education community in which international students and visiting scholars find the support needed to flourish in Madison
  • Ensuring a global perspective is integrated in the School’s coursework and programs, and that all 10 departments and units are able to create programs open to students and visitors outside of the United States
  • Managing and expanding the School’s institutional partnerships abroad
  • And, when it becomes safe to do so once again, supporting efforts within the School to pursue study abroad, global internships, and fieldwork outside of the United States. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, these efforts — which include working with faculty and departments to lead study abroad programs — have been paused.

“Though some of our work related to study abroad, and international research and travel, isn’t currently allowed due to COVID-19 safety restrictions, bolstering our global engagement strategies remains an important aspect of Impact 2030 — and our commitment to providing transformational and innovative learning experiences for our students,” says Hess. “These efforts are more important now than ever, and the Global Engagement Office will undoubtedly strengthen our historic emphasis on global connections.”

An intercultural learning community

Going abroad certainly isn’t the only way to learn about diversity of perspectives or hear about a range of experiences.

“We are so fortunate to be at a university and in a community where there are individuals from around the world,” says McCleary. “It is important to recognize that we can all learn and grow from the diversity of perspectives and experiences of others around us.”

At the start of the 2019-20 academic year, there were 25 international visiting scholars within the School of Education, while 291 international students were pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees within the School.

Global Research Poster Fair
Pallavi Chhabra, a doctoral candidate with the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and Wanli Zhao, a visiting scholar with the department from Xianyang Normal University, talk during the Global Research Poster Fair in November 2019.

That fall, the GEO helped host a Global Research Poster Fair to showcase School of Education faculty, student, and visiting scholar research during International Education Week.

“The poster fair is an example of one way the Global Engagement Office seeks to bring researchers doing globally focused work into conversation with each other, and opening the door for others to learn more about their work,” says McCleary.

Another example of making the most of this intercultural learning community is the Global Higher Education (GHE) master’s program — which is purposely comprised of a mix of international students and those from the United States. The GHE is administered through the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, and led by Weijia Li, a native of China who has studied in Germany and the United States.

Li says it’s imperative that institutions prepare leaders and researchers for our rapidly changing world. GHE is designed to give students the global competencies they need to think critically and help solve issues in this realm.

Another unique aspect of GHE is that it’s a cohort program, which has 15 to 20 students working collectively on much of their coursework.

“When I was trying to find a master’s program that was the right fit, Dr. Weijia Li said something that stuck with me,” says Emily Pinderski, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs before majoring in political science and French as an undergrad at the University of Miami. “He said I’d be learning from the people in my cohort just as much, if not more, than I’d be learning from my professors. I recognized this was an incredible opportunity.”

Li adds that while the coursework itself is important, it’s the interaction between, and perspectives of, the students that plays an integral role in bringing a range of views to the table and helping students learn and grow.

“It’s an amazing cohort and great to learn about the different experiences people have,” says Lingtong Yu, who grew up in China and earned an undergraduate degree in elementary education from the University of Minnesota. “Even being an international student, being a part of this cohort is allowing me to hear and gain new experiences.”

Students studying with the School's Global Higher Education master's program
Yuriko Sato (left-to-right), Emily Pinderski, Emily Harris, and Lingtong Yu are students with the School’s Global Higher Education master’s program.

Transformation through an expanded world view

At the heart of the School of Education’s renewed focus on global connections is a belief that these efforts can provide meaningful learning and interaction that drive how people conceptualize and seek solutions to problems we are facing locally, nationally, and globally.

“This work not only can provide a different point of view — but it can help us reframe issues in different and more productive ways,” says Li-Ching Ho, the co-director of the GEO.

To help put the value of intercultural work in perspective, McCleary notes how she often uses the analogy of an iceberg to help people think about cultural difference.

“There is the small part of the iceberg that you can see above the water that is the expected differences,” she says. “But there is the much larger piece of the iceberg that lies below the water and is much more difficult to see and decipher, such as differences in systems, structures, and values. Accessing the understanding below the surface is something that takes time, patience, openness, empathy, and cultural humility. Spending time in other places, once it is safe again to do so, or learning with colleagues from around the world allows one to understand things in a way that reading, searching the web, or watching a YouTube video or documentary never can.”

Indeed, one of the guiding principles of the Global Engagement Office is the value of a global lens.

“If education isn’t global, it’s not education,” says Faisal Abdu’Allah, an associate professor with the School of Education’s Art Department and an internationally acclaimed artist who grew up in the United Kingdom as the child of Jamaican immigrants.

“If I’m preparing my students to be successful, I have to set them up to think as citizens of the world,” adds Abdu’Allah, who — before COVID-19 travel restrictions were put in place — was planning to lead a two-week study abroad course during the summer of 2020 called, “UW Exploring Cuba Through Art.”

To gain an appreciation for the Global Engagement Office and the depth and breadth of its efforts, visit: