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East Carolina University is among seven colleges and universities nationwide recently named as winners of the prestigious 2016 Senator Paul Simon Award for Campus Internationalization.

The Simon Awards are granted through the NAFSA: Association of International Educators and recognize outstanding and innovative achievements in campus internationalization.

ECU was recognized as a Senator Paul Simon Spotlight Award recipient which honors a specific international program or initiative that contributes to comprehensive internationalization on campus. Global Academic Initiatives (GAI), a unit within Academic Affairs, earned ECU the award. Other universities recognized in this category include University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Texas Tech University.

"Over the years I have looked to the previous Simon Award winners as a source of inspiration and ideas, so it is a huge honor to now be among that elite group," said Dr. Jami Leibowitz, ECU's interim GAI director. "Receiving this award is also a testament to ECU's willingness to invest in and allow to flourish innovative ideas that support its mission." 

The GAI program partners with 62 institutions in 33 countries to provide an interactive, student-driven global experience for approximately 300 ECU students each semester. "The focus of GAI is to provide ECU students direct international experiences through the use of technology," said Leibowitz. "We work with faculty and departments to develop and support semester-long courses that incorporate significant interactive collaboration with partner students and faculty from our network of international institutions." 

Since the program's inception in 2004, more than 17,000 students have participated in GAI activities worldwide. GAI's largest section is Global Understanding, a course where students work with three distinct partner institutions for three to four weeks. Students lead real-time discussions about college life, family and cultural traditions, meaning of life and religion and stereotypes and prejudices. Sixty percent of the class time is spent in video connections with students from other countries. 

"This is not a class, it is an experience," said Meg Matthews, a sophomore majoring in public health. "GAI put a focus on trying to better interactions between people with differences which is extremely important in our globalized world." 

Based on program assessments, students indicated an increased interest and awareness of other cultures, including a desire to study abroad. "They demonstrate that they are more confident and comfortable when interacting with people from different cultures and have developed strategies for effective intercultural communication and collaboration," said Leibowitz. 

NAFSA will feature ECU's GAI in its report, "Internationalizing the Campus: Profiles of Success at Colleges and Universities," which will be published this fall. 

"This year's winners exemplify a diversity of unique and shared approaches available to higher education institutions. The 2016 Simon Award institutions prepare our students for success in the thoroughly interconnected environment in which global learning is becoming a prerequisite to success, both in the classroom and beyond," said NAFSA Executive Director and CEO Marlene M. Johnson. 

The award is named for the late Senator Paul Simon of Illinois, a strong supporter of international education and foreign language learning. For more information, visit NAFSA.org.

By Jamie Smith - ECU News Services

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