URBANA — From Southeast Asia to Africa, from Latin American to Russia, from arms control to international security, few universities have built broader expertise across diverse areas of the world than the University of Illinois, says UI Professor Jerry Davila.
The Brazilian history specialist says the "tremendous" reach of the UI's global studies and area studies programs gives students almost-unlimited ability to ask questions about their world and develop the tools, including specialized language training, to pursue them.
Now the university is launching the Illinois Global Institute, pulling together those units under one academic roof in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to support work that fosters understanding of cultures around the world.
Launched in August, and headed by Davila, the UI's newest institute will pull together 10 different programs: the Center for African Studies; the Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies; the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies; the Lemann Institute for Brazilian Studies; the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies; the Russian, East European and Eurasian Center; the Center for Global Studies; the European Union Center; the Program in Arms Control and Domestic and International Security; and the Women and Gender in Global Perspectives Program.
Bringing the units together will give them visibility, foster collaboration across campus on international programs, provide more organizational support and could lead to new fundraising opportunities, UI officials said.
"This is a really exciting step for the centers and for international teaching and research on campus," Davila said.
The centers and programs are home to academic programs themselves but also support work across campus, raising more than $2.5 million in grants, gifts and endowment income that funds faculty research, academic and cultural experiences for students, outreach, scholarships and fellowships, according to the UI. Four are Department of Education National Resource Centers.
They bring together faculty and students from different departments who might have a shared interest in a particular region of the world or global topic. A professor in East Asian Studies, for example, might work with a researcher in a different field who has a connection to that region — say, a crop scientist who collaborates with a colleague in China.
The centers also support students and professors who want to add an international component to their work in agriculture, economics, engineering or another field.
Many students have received funding to study a language over the summer, such as Korean or Wolof, a West African language, to help prepare for their doctoral research on those regions, Davila said.
The centers also bring speakers to campus, organize symposia and support course development and teaching.
The idea is to provide an environment where people can develop expertise in regions of the world that are "frequently under-studied on American university campuses," Davila said.
Scholars in almost every part of campus do work that has an international dimension to it, Davila said. They may collaborate with researchers in other countries, have a formal relationship with a lab or foundation overseas, or supervise students who come from other parts of the world.
The UI is also known for fostering interdisciplinary collaborations between scholars in different fields.
Both approaches bring new perspectives to their work, new ways of approaching problems and "a fresh set of eyes, and our work is enriched by that," Davila said.
The institute will help strengthen those connections and give the programs more visibility, Davila said.
Federal funding for programs that study specific areas of the world grew out of the Cold War era, when emphasis was placed on understanding other societies, cultures and histories, Davila said.
That work "is as relevant today as it's always been," he said.
Interpreting things that happen around the world is "a really critical role for a public university to play," he said, and "I think we do it really well."
A 2018 task force recommended that the 10 units be brought together.