By Laura L. Acosta

While traveling in the United States on business in 2006, a story in an inflight magazine about The University of Texas at El Paso piqued Professor Elizabeth Harman’s interest.
She was intrigued by UTEP’s mission to provide access and excellence to low-resourced, primarily Hispanic students who traditionally lacked access to higher education opportunities.

At the time, Harman was the vice chancellor of Victoria University (VU) in Melbourne, Australia. She had been searching globally for innovative strategies to expand educational opportunities for VU’s blue collar, culturally diverse, first-generation student body. That’s when she learned about UTEP and became engrossed in the prospect of forming a partnership with the University.

Harman discovered that UTEP and VU not only shared similar missions, but the two institutions also encountered many of the same challenges, despite being on opposite sides of the globe.

Of the 46,000 students enrolled in VU’s vocational and higher education programs, most are from migrant families hailing from countries in Europe, Asia and Africa with little experience or tradition in higher education. At UTEP, 80 percent of the University’s nearly 24,000 students are Hispanic and 62 percent of UTEP seniors are the first in their families to graduate from college.

When Harman returned home to Australia, she eagerly phoned UTEP President Diana Natalicio to exchange ideas on how best to serve their surprisingly similar student populations.

“Among my many treasured memories of President Natalicio was her warm and encouraging response when I first rang over a decade ago to introduce Victoria University,” recalled Harman, who retired from VU in 2010.

“It was essentially a cold call. UTEP was almost half a world away on the U.S.-Mexico border. I felt that despite our obvious differences, we might have much to share, and Diana agreed.”

Ten years later, the partnership between UTEP and VU has created a world of opportunities for student exchanges, faculty teaching and research collaborations at both institutions. UTEP also has gained international attention from other like-minded universities in Scotland, London, Mexico, and Central and South America eager to build educational programs and joint research initiatives influenced by the success of UTEP’s affiliation with VU.

“Liz (Harman) was clearly a kindred spirit eager to help VU more authentically serve a population whose talent was too often squandered through lack of higher education opportunities, and I was delighted to discover a university leader  who shared a passion like mine for UTEP’s access and excellence mission,” President Natalicio said.

She had discovered a very special partner in vice chancellor Harman. They were both determined to develop closer ties between their respective universities.                                              :

“And the rest, as they say, is history,” President Natalicio continued. “The sustainability of the relationship that we built – now with the leadership of VU Chancellor George Pappas and VU Vice Chancellor Professor Peter Dawkins – has validated the authenticity and alignment of our mutuality of interests and aspirations.”

Familiar Territory

For the past 100 years, UTEP and Victoria University have each provided students from diverse socioeconomic, cultural and educational backgrounds access to higher education opportunities that would create for them a pathway to prosperous professional lives.

VU has a large multicultural student population, with students coming from more than 100 countries.

Nearly a third of VU students come from non-English speaking backgrounds, with more thanone-fifth of families from low socio-economic backgrounds.

Eighty-four percent of UTEP students come from El Paso County, and nearly 70 percent of undergraduate students at UTEP come from the ZIP codes with an annual per capita income of less than $20,000.

“VU and UTEP students all have a willingness to improve themselves,” said Tegan Cockram, a 2015 VU graduate who traveled to UTEP in 2012 as part of a student exchange program. “(They’re) always looking for the next way to make a difference and give back to the community. Also, both groups of students understand it takes hard work to achieve good things these days.”

For President Natalicio, the challenge was to create, through the partnership, a strategy that would enable low-resourced students to gain the kind of international awareness and experience usually reserved for students in more affluent settings.

An exchange of visits between VU and UTEP officials resulted in a cross pollination of ideas for programs and initiatives that would enhance learning for  21st century students at both institutions.

Among them were the library exchange, which influenced thinking around libraries as interactive learning spaces at each university, and the VU Early-Uni Pathways (EUP) program.

Since 2013, hundreds of students in the final two years of Australian secondary schooling have transitioned into higher education through the EUP, which was modeled after the successful partnership between UTEP and Early College High Schools in El Paso.

“There is much we can learn, and each time we spend time with our UTEP colleagues, we can be deeply reflective about all aspects of our work,” Dawkins said. “In the early days, we learned about student retention, entering students and student exchanges.

Then we collaborated on the learning commons and UTEP was able to learn from us. Mutual benefit is important, and there’s a commitment on both sides.”

Online Connections

Although UTEP and VU exist in different hemispheres, technology has enabled faculty and students at both institutions to forge meaningful connections without physically being in the same classroom or in the same time zone.

Thanks to videoconference technology, Fabricio Saucedo, a student in UTEP’s Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Ph.D. program, presented his research on the effects of visual deprivation on balance during walking to faculty and students at VU’s School of Biomedical and Health Sciences in March 2016.

Saucedo’s presentation was part of the UTEP/VU seminar series between UTEP’s College of Health Sciences and the Australian university. During the monthly, hour-long video conference, UTEP and VU doctoral students each take 20 minutes to present their research, followed by a question-and-answer session where participants from both countries exchange ideas.

“They may have a different opinion on the research that we’re doing, and they can provide feedback that we could implement in our future research,” Saucedo said.

The VU/UTEP Global Engagement and Learning Program linked students in UTEP’s UNIV 1301 freshman seminar with their peers in the land down under via a social networking site on the Ning platform. Irma Montelongo, Ph.D., an associate professor of practice in Chicano Studies at UTEP, and Effy George, Ph.D., a lecturer at Victoria University, developed the program in 2009.

Through discussion boards, video lectures and real-time video conferences, students engaged in an international dialogue that allowed them to gain a better understanding of the world around them.

“When we first began talking through our video conference, it was a huge culture shock for all of us,” said Ilse Hernandez in 2010 about her experience with the program. She graduated from the UTEP School of Nursing in 2015. 

“We were talking to students halfway around the globe. It made me want to pursue a deeper and closer interaction with different people from different parts of the world.”

Trading Places

The VU/UTEP Student Employment and Exchange Program has been one of the partnership’s most successful initiatives, allowing UTEP and VU students to trade places for a semester to study and work at their institution’s sister university. The program is an affordable alternative to traditional study abroad programs because students work on campus while studying overseas.

VU student Sheridan Buesnel-May worked in UTEP’s Office of Student Life during the fall 2016 semester. The paid internship allowed Buesnel-May to cover her living expenses in El Paso and keep up with her financial responsibilities at home.

“I see a lot of similarities between VU and UTEP students,” said Buesnel-May, a first-generation college student. “They live at home with their parents and mostly work to put themselves through college, which is something I do also.”

Since 2010, 18 VU students and 19 UTEP students have participated in the program, including Audrey Russell, a UTEP organizational and corporate communication senior, who traveled to VU in 2012.

“Most of the students had jobs,” recalled Russell, who worked in the student life program at VU. “It was cool to be able to relate to the students that way. I was working and going to school at the same time, so that felt familiar to me.”

New Partnerships

UTEP and VU’s successful partnership serves as a model for new partnerships between UTEP and other international universities with similar missions that are also seeking new strategies
to educate historically underserved students.

When Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), the economic development agency for the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland, began searching for U.S. institutions to develop collaborations in research and education, UTEP was one of three Texas universities that NASA officials recommended to the HIE contact.

A visit by a delegation from Highlands and Islands to UTEP in June 2015 set the wheels in motion.

While still in its early stages, the partnership between Highlands and Islands and UTEP has the potential to create research collaborations between faculty at both universities in mass spectrometry, Arctic environmental science and archeology. Other areas of interest include distance education, student and faculty exchanges, sponsored and collaborative research, and fee-for-service models in economic development.

“This partnership provides an opportunity to get our students to make international connections as well as broaden their horizons,” said Stephen B. Aley, Ph.D., associate
vice president for research and biological sciences professor, who traveled to HIE in Inverness, Scotland, in November 2015.

The progress that UTEP and the University of the Highlands and Islands have made is a prime example of how international relationships can develop and make a global impact.

“If you look internationally, the research from top universities has a global footprint,” said Craig E. Tweedie, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences, who also is exploring research collaborations with Highlands and Islands faculty. “It’s very important to do research regionally to understand the environment that we live in and serve our community. But as a university, I think it’s important that we spread that knowledge and explore our understanding on a global level.”

Happy 100th Anniversary, Victoria University!

UTEP President Diana Natalicio received a very special gift from Victoria University (VU) on her birthday, Aug. 25, 2016. The Australian university bestowed an honorary doctorate on President Natalicio for her outstanding leadership and innovative practices in higher education for more than 45 years.

“Dr. Natalicio has pioneered strategies that have assisted traditionally underrepresented sectors of the community to participate and excel in their studies,” said VU Vice Chancellor Professor Peter Dawkins. “And in doing so, she has become an esteemed and influential adviser for higher education sectors across the United States and internationally.”

The event was one of many celebrations in 2016 that marked VU’s 100-year anniversary as an education provider.

“From all of us at UTEP who have been involved in one way or another in this partnership with our esteemed colleagues and friends at VU, we are truly delighted to be able to join you today in celebrating your centennial,” President Natalicio said to VU officials who gathered at VU’s City Flinders campus to watch her accept the honor via videoconference from UTEP’s Undergraduate Learning Center.

Gary Edens, Ed.D., vice president of student affairs, and Donna Ekal, Ph.D., associate provost for undergraduate studies, traveled from UTEP to VU to participate in the festivities on behalf of the University.

In 2014, a delegation from VU visited UTEP to celebrate UTEP’s Centennial.

“We all look forward to the many exciting opportunities ahead for our collaboration and our shared future,” President Natalicio said.

Victoria University began as the Footscray Technical School, which was founded in the western suburbs of Melbourne in 1916.

Like UTEP, VU has been committed to serving a 21st century student population characterized by students who are from largely urban backgrounds and who have been underrepresented in higher education.

The mutual interests shared by both universities resulted in a thriving partnership between UTEP and VU over the past 10 years.

To commemorate this partnership, UTEP and VU released a monograph titled, “Ten Years of a Global Partnership,” in time for VU’s centenary. The monograph highlights the stories of the people, programs, collaborations and knowledge-building activities between UTEP and VU since 2006. Limited print copies of the monograph are available.

Please contact Donna Ekal for information at dekal@utep.edu. The electronic version is available at books.vu.edu.au. -Laura L. Acosta