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UMGC Global Media Center
The Global Campus as Crossroads

Gil Klein
By Gil Klein

One day last term, Frank Concilus—who has taught for UMGC in Asia since 1974—took his 10 students to one of Seoul’s main temples. They wrapped themselves in robes and, for much of two days and a night, meditated and took part in the temple’s ceremonies. Early in the morning, he was surprised when they all showed up for a service in the main Dharma Hall.

Some of his students call Concilus “Mr. Culture,” and Concilus embraces the role, working to introduce American servicemembers to Korean culture and history while simultaneously introducing American culture to Koreans.

“It’s possible [for military personnel] to come to Korea and never leave the base,” Concilus said. “But these younger troops certainly like to eat Korean food, and they are drawn to the K-pop mecca in Korea.”

Similarly, the young Korean servicemembers assigned to the base who take his classes also want to get to know Americans.

The groups begin to socialize during their time off, Concilus said, the Americans learn more about Korean culture and start to recognize Seoul as a vibrant city—though likely very different from their own hometowns—and soon a real cultural exchange emerges.

This process plays out across the university, in different ways and in different settings, shaping how the institution operates and its impact on students and employees alike.

This sometimes comes as a surprise to those who think of University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) as an online university. And while it is true that UMGC was an online pioneer, it also maintains a robust and long-standing relationship with the U.S. military, under contract with the U.S. Department of Defense, teaching American military personnel on bases around the world, with more than 175 locations in more than 20 countries and territories.

Few if any other universities must contend with natural and manmade disasters as a matter of course, nor must they navigate them without long-term operational gaps, moving instructors and staff on short notice as military forces deploy around the world.

As part of its everyday operations, the university acts as an ambassador to those countries while promoting cultural understanding among its American students.

This is a reality that dates back to 1949, when the University of Maryland answered the call of the Defense Department to send instructors abroad to teach American troops in postwar Europe, thus immersing the university in world cultures and the flow of international events.

“UMGC has to engage with various cultures around the world,” said President Gregory Fowler. “Our faculty, staff, and students go into cultures that are different. We engage with people who see the world differently, and who may not even always like us.

“So, as the university moves around the globe with U.S. forces, we have to think about how to promote American culture and life while at the same time respecting the cultures and lives of the people in the countries where we operate.”

For U.S. servicemembers and their families, being stationed on a military base overseas may be their first experience of being outside of the United States or even outside of their home state, said Lloyd “Milo” Miles, UMGC’s senior vice president for Global Military Operations. Often, they know little or nothing about the country in which they are called to serve.

“When they get on the ground, we are providing classes in the history, culture, and languages of the places they are assigned, and most of the places where they will be assigned,” Miles said.  

“It’s beneficial for our U.S. servicemembers to be the good face of the United States when they’re out there amongst the local nationals if they’ve had some of this education and training,” he said. “The other side of the coin is that it provides local nationals with a different perspective of the U.S. military personnel and U.S. citizens, as well, because there can be a lot of misunderstanding, in some cases, between the two nationalities, often for historical reasons.”

In Okinawa, for instance, distrust between the Okinawans and the thousands of U.S. military on bases all over the island was so great that, in 1987, UMGC launched what is known as the Bridge Program, offering English language classes to Okinawans as a way to begin their college education.

Okinawan Bridge Program students celebrate completing the year-long program.

The U.S. State Department now provides 10 scholarships a year to Okinawans who have completed the Bridge Program to come to the United States or to keep studying in Okinawa to complete their university education. Most choose to stay with UMGC.

“Many come back and thank me,” said Jackie Cillizza, the Bridge Program manager on Okinawa. “They tell me, ‘My world changed. Once my English became stronger, it changed everything. It changed how I look at the world. It changed how I thought. It just changed who I was.’”

Hinako Takahashi-Breines, a UMGC instructor who teaches English in the Okinawa Bridge Program, said one of her students was so intent on becoming fluent that, after class, she reserved the classroom and put up a sign inviting Americans to come in and talk to her.

She provided a snack and brought a United States atlas to serve as a conversational icebreaker. She would ask the Americans what state they are from and then open the atlas and get them to talk about home.

“The people coming in to talk to her are curious, and some of them want to learn Japanese,” Takahashi-Breines said. “So, it’s like a language exchange.”

The Bridge Program is also open to American soldiers and their families for whom English is not their first language, said William Stevens, associate director of Enrollment Operations in Asia. “It’s really become a cultural mix where we have students from South America, from East Asia, from Eastern European areas, and from Korea and Japan,” Stevens said. “It’s been really cool.”

On the other side of the world, Regional Director Mitzia Williams oversees 11 sites throughout the Mediterranean, including Spain, Turkey, Greece, Portugal, and now Romania. To get the students out into the community and immersed in the culture, UMGC has launched a field studies program for students taking language and culture courses.

Students from all over Europe meet in one city—Rome, Naples, Venice, or Nuremberg. They spend several days living in the city and interacting with members of the local community.

“It’s very condensed, but they learn so much, like a mini study-abroad program,” Williams said. “But it’s not just tourists visiting. Faculty members conducting the trips have a deep knowledge about the language, history, and culture of what they are seeing. Along with learning the culture, the students get to meet with more local people. It has a huge impact on them.”

Military family members also participate, including high school-age children, who may wish to learn more while in Europe and perhaps to earn general education college credits that they can transfer when they go to college back home.

“They can actually take that experience of being in Venice, in Naples, in Madrid, and take it with them to the university they are going to [attend],” said Patricia Sanchez, associate director for Enrollment Operations for Europe and Downrange. “They are never going to get that unless they do a study abroad, and they are already here. So, why not do it here?”

This process plays out across the university, in different ways and in different settings, shaping how the institution operates and its impact on students and employees alike.

Cultural opportunities like these are part of UMGC’s DNA, as it constantly packs up and moves personnel to serve U.S. forces wherever they are deployed around the world, and since the Vietnam War, this has included active war zones.

That can lead to some predictably tumultuous experiences.

In Saudi Arabia, for instance, UMGC is reestablishing its presence at the Prince Sultan Air Base, where Jackie Wilson, a program coordinator, gave a virtual tour of the large Quonset-style tents that make up the university’s facility in the middle of the desert. Inside the tent, the loud whir of the air conditioning can make talking difficult.

“Right now, we are in an expeditionary environment, so this looks temporary,” said Wilson, who had arrived at the air base 10 months before, shortly after joining UMGC. “You have to make do with what you have here. We’re just using our technology to make the most of it.”

Wilson was not new to Saudi Arabia, having taught Saudi women basic English at a technical college since 2017, and she knew a lot about the Saudi culture—as well as about what happens when the hot spring season transitions to the even hotter summer, generating intense dust storms that include rain and hail.

“We were in the testing center,” Wilson said. “There had already been dust storms for a couple of days when it started to rain, and [at first] it was little bitty drops until it started coming down, bam, bam, bam, bam. The rain just started coming very deep, very strong and small hail balls came along with it. We were in this tent, and the ground is literally the ground. The water has nowhere to go, so it flooded the tent, destroying tables [and] desks. It was just mud.”

That is when UMGC’s president showed up to see how things were going at the new installation. Wilson greeted him with her trademark grin. Things were going great.

Given the current tension in the Middle East, American military personnel are not allowed to leave base to learn about Saudi culture, Wilson said, and Saudis are not allowed to take classes on base.

That means that Saudi culture must be imported, and a visiting group of Saudi nationals provides that. 

The Hadyyah Organization, which specializes in reaching out to Westerners to teach about Saudi Arabian culture and life, encourages students to dress in authentic local attire.

“They teach [students] about Saudi culture, and then they give them an opportunity to dress in traditional Saudi clothing,” Wilson said. “They relax in a Saudi majlis tent—a traditional communal sitting area—where they try Arabic coffee and different teas that are made Arabic style. And, they learn to ride camels.”  Wilson said she also uses her own knowledge of Saudi culture to help explain it to the airmen and GIs as they do their rotation at the base.

“I have lived in it,” she said. “I also lived in Kuwait during the pandemic. So, I have a good understanding of Saudi and Arab culture.” She said that she hopes that soon, tensions will ease enough for students to venture off base and learn about the culture on their own by visiting nearby towns.

Similar interactions happen around the world. As the U.S. military establishes bases in Poland and Romania to boost NATO defenses, UMGC is right behind them. Patricia Coopersmith, vice president and director of UMGC Europe, based in Kaiserslautern, Germany, has to work out the details to make that happen—working with government representatives to find classroom and office space, hiring professors and staff, and getting ready to promote the benefits of a UMGC education to incoming service personnel.

In Poland, Coopersmith said the U.S. government is preparing buildings to serve as education centers, and UMGC will have staff there when they are ready. At Powidz in particular—which will become the hub of U.S. base operations in Poland—work is well underway to expand facilities there and at 11 base camps throughout the country, making Powidz a major hub for UMGC as well. When she heard that troops stationed in Maine were heading to Poland, Coopersmith set up a “Polish Jumpstart” webinar that explained the geopolitics, society, culture, and history of Poland. It also helped inform incoming troops about what UMGC can do to advance their education and explained how they could start courses while still in Maine and continue their studies when they get to Poland.

“We had one of our professors do a little intro to Polish—a couple of key phrases, a couple of words: hello, goodbye, please, thank you—and also talk a little bit about the culture. So, when [students] do land in Poland, they [will] know a little bit about what to expect to see out in the local community.”

In Romania, Coopersmith has the help of a staff member who is a Romanian citizen who accompanied them to take an initial look at where American forces will be stationed. But, as is so often the case when UMGC follows the military, it will ultimately depend on the base commanders and how much emphasis they want to put on education. 

UMGC’s challenge today is the same as it has been since the first professors arrived in Europe in 1949.

“We have to operate around the U.S. military’s mission,” Coopersmith said. “If we find out a group was supposed to be sent, say, down to the Middle East, and then they are not arriving for another couple of weeks, we have to adjust our classes around that. We have had soldier students who have gotten unexpectedly sent from England to Poland or Romania. We have to say, ‘Okay, well, you are not going to be sitting in my classroom anymore, but here is the Zoom link so you can participate virtually.’”

President Fowler summed up UMGC's international mission this way: “No other institution can say, ‘We have literally gone across seven continents and almost every topography to help students gain their skills,’” he said. “UMGC has never been a traditional university. Our success has been defined by our ability to figure it out. We are going to go wherever we need to go to meet these students’ needs.”

This article appears in the 2024 issue of Achiever magazine.