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Arab Spring jumpstarts Center for International and Comparative Studies

Middle East revolutions highlight need for Center’s creation at University of Houston

In the Spring of 2011, demonstrations and protests led by Arab youth in North Africa evolved into political revolutions that pushed out rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Dubbed the “Arab Spring” by media outlets, the civil uprisings spread to Red Sea and Persian Gulf states, including Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, Syria and Sudan. Pro-government forces often met these resistance movements with violence and mass arrests.

As at universities around the globe, the University of Houston held three separate events in 2012 to evaluate the events, dissect the coverage, and make sense of the Arab Spring.

“One event was hosted by a student organization, the second was an event I organized in conjunction with the World Affairs Council of Houston, and the third event was a teleconference,” said Dr. Ryan Kennedy, assistant professor of political science.

However, there was not an on-campus resource to help the organizers of each event communicate with each other or cross-publicize the events to each group’s supporters.

“UH does have the Office of International Studies and Programs,” said Dr. Kennedy. “But that is a resource for students who are interested in studying abroad.”

To better facilitate cross-campus conversations about the world and times we live in, Dr. Kennedy and Dr. Jonathan Slapin, associate professor of political science, started last year the Center for International and Comparative Studies.

“No other place on campus serves as a clearing house for all international activities,” added Dr. Slapin. “The Center for International and Comparative Studies will host events, as well as provide information for any other campus events with an international angle.”

According to the UH Office of Institutional Research, there are more than 3000 international students on campus. The University’s diverse population is a reflection of the multicultural city that surrounds it.

The initial funding from for the Center came from the CLASS Dean’s Office. That money has been used to build the center’s infrastructure, including a website with an events calendar, a Facebook page, and a contacts database. In addition, the Center has funded lectures and workshops attended by undergraduate and graduate students and faculty.

“We want to create a center that is broad enough to cover the areas of the world that are not currently represented by the CLASS centers that already have their own specific mission,” said Dr. Slapin.

The College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences is home to the Language and Culture Center, the Center for the Americas, the Hobby Center for Public Policy, the Language Acquisition Center and the Center for Immigration Research.

Among its departments are Comparative Cultural Studies, which recently launched an India Studies program, and Modern and Classical Languages, which offers majors and minors in several foreign languages and Chinese Studies and Arab Studies programs – two areas of study considered critical to the United States national security.

During its inaugural year, the Center for International and Comparative Studies hosted several guest speakers, as well as promoted UH faculty lectures for programs geared toward undergraduate and graduate students.

One of Center’s best-attended events was the speech delivered by Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff for former Secretary of State General Colin Powell. Colonel Wilkerson lectured on the topic, We Need Not Be Enemies: Iran and the U.S. in the 21st Century.

The Center also plans to offer support for faculty and student research projects, as well as eventually secure funding to offer a variety of grant opportunities.

“UH has graduate students interested in doing field work and undergraduates who are getting very interesting internships, like at the U.S. State Department,” said Dr. Kennedy. “And we don’t have funds to help support these students in these endeavors. They may need help with travel and living expenses, for example. These are the kinds of things an international center would try to pick up.”

As a long-term goal, they hope to build the Center into a site that can be selected as a Title VI International Center for Excellence, a designation made by the U.S. Department of Education.

Title VI refers to the section of the Higher Education Act that provides grant funding and programming “to strengthen the capability and performance of American education in foreign languages and international studies,” according to the U.S. Department of Education. Money for Fulbright Fellowships is allocated through this section of the law.

“We want to put UH at the center of debate and discussion on international topics, as well as promote UH as an international university,” said Dr. Kennedy.

- By Monica Byars