B.U. Bridge is published by the Boston University Office of University Relations.
BU's International Visitors Program among group nominated for Nobel Peace Prize
By David J. Craig
BU's International Visitors Program, which hosts academic and political leaders from around the world, soon may share the highest international honor bestowed for fostering peace and diplomacy.
The program acts as an arm of WorldBoston, which earlier this year was nominated for the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize, along with 96 other private, nonprofit organizations comprising the National Council for International Visitors (NCIV), by U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). NCIV's mission is to promote democracy and peace by bringing together intellectuals from around the world to share information and learn about one another's cultures.
Elizabeth Shannon helped launch BU's program in 1990 and is its director. She coordinates between 300 and 400 visits to BU each year by prominent leaders in business, academia, the arts, the sciences, and politics, and puts them in touch with University faculty members who have expertise in a similar field.
"I think the Nobel Peace Prize nomination is an affirmation of how enormously important is the work done by international visitors programs," says Shannon. "We give up-and-coming leaders from around the world a chance to get to know Americans in their professions, usually on a one- to-one, informal basis. They may talk about anything from legal questions to U.S. education policy to the way curriculum is arranged at American universities."
In his nomination letter, Specter wrote that after participating in several forums organized by NCIV, he was "very impressed with the organization's management." NCIV, founded in 1961, is funded partially by the U.S. State Department and is comprised of exchange programs, including WorldBoston, in 44 states. WorldBoston hosts about 1,000 visitors to Boston each year, many of whom meet with academics at BU, Harvard, and Tufts through international visitors programs at each of the schools.
Visits to BU, which usually last one day and are part of longer NCIV-funded trips to the United States, can lead to long-term professional relationships and even research collaborations between the visitors and their BU hosts. "There are a lot of African scholars who know faculty members at the Center for African Studies through our program," says Shannon. "And many BU faculty members who have helped host visitors later arrange to visit the nation of those they've hosted. It's a great way for academics to stay in touch with people around the world who are working in their field.
"It's really a two-way street that benefits BU as much as the other countries," she sdds. "Because BU has an international focus, it's fitting that these sorts of professional interactions are woven into the fabric of faculty life."
Those who visit BU through the International Visitors Program usually are selected by U.S. foreign embassies and are referred to Shannon through either WorldBoston or the State Department. She receives their biographical background, a description of their professional interests and the purpose for their trip to the United States, and then arranges for them to meet the appropriate members of the University community. Often greeting the visitors in her home, she gives them an orientation to the University and arranges their BU itinerary.
On April 2, she brought 31 high-ranking German university administrators to meet BU Chancellor John Silber. For two hours in the SMG executive dining room, they discussed with Silber how American universities are organized differently from their own, and about how to undertake education reforms.
"They asked Silber questions about distance learning, how BU markets itself, how a department reaches a decision on tenure for professors, and whether it is more important for professors to be good teachers or to publish," says Shannon, who later the same week hosted academics from Finland, China, Chile, Tunisia, and Japan.
Shannon, wife of the late William V. Shannon, the U.S. ambassador to Ireland under President Jimmy Carter, became interested in international diplomacy while living in Ireland in the 1970s, when she became involved with Irish feminists and often appeared on television discussing the American women's movement.
"I've always been interested in the whole international picture and looked abroad for experience and understanding," she says.
Shannon also directs BU's Trustee Scholars Program, which awards full scholarships to undergraduates who exhibit outstanding academic performance and leadership qualities. She is a member of WorldBoston's board of directors and is instrumental in the group's fundraising activities. The organization, which currently is merging with Boston's World Affairs Council, gets about a third of its funds from the federal government.
"At BU, our program has grown every year," says Shannon, who is also a journalist, playwright, and author. "The number of visitors I'm hosting this year is double what I had the first year or two of the program. That's partly because the whole international visitors movement is growing, but also because BU is so well-known. Many people who visit Boston say they want to come here specifically, and often even have the name of a particular professor whom they want to meet.
"BU has a large and talented faculty, and the faculty members are the ones who validate our program," she says. "They are always gracious and willing to talk to the people we bring here."
Nobel Prize awards are announced in October and presented in December.