Knowing and Understanding Our World

Annually, only 25,000 or so Canadian students, or roughly 3 percent of the entire undergraduate population, have an experience at a foreign university.  Hence, over the course of a degree about eleven percent of students cumulatively undertake an international mobility experience, such as an exchange, internship, co-op placement or volunteer opportunity.

Canada is a trading nation.  About 31% of its GDP consists of exports of goods and services. Therefore, two thirds of Canadian hiring managers are worried that our nation will be disadvantaged in comparison to rapidly growing economies, like China, India and Brazil, unless young Canadian students learn to think more globally.

There are four significant obstacles to student mobility, namely the cost of the experience, the relevance of the international curriculum to students’ Canadian degrees, how different the host culture is from Canada’s, and the student’s circumstance.

In the mid 1990s, Giancarlo Spinelli, of Politecnico di Milano in Italy, and I developed a strategy though which North American students could be assisted to overcome these obstacles. We evaluated many such strategies a decade later with other collaborators and found that, once an international experience is properly constructed, student demand increases significantly.

When we surveyed students, they indicated their gains from international experiences in personal dimensions, such as self-reliance, ability to work in multicultural teams and global perspective, rather in professional terms. That is what hiring managers want.

Giancarlo and I found that it is important to create multiple and gradual entry points into international experiences. These should begin early during baccalaureate university study and be complemented with opportunities for joint and double degree program later on at the Master’s and Ph.D. levels.

In terms of nuts and bolts, for student exchanges to be more prevalent, the academic credit systems at the home and host partner institutions in the two countries should converge.  The two universities should also be able to reinforce the local language competencies of exchange students.

Giancarlo had a big impact on my life. He visited all four homes that my wife, Beth, and I have owned, and came to know my entire family, including my children, parents and in-laws. He insisted that our dog Buzz, who became half blind with cataracts, recognized him each time he visited and, in inimitable Italian, called out to him, “Booz!”

Over time, through the international student exchange consortia that we initiated, our friendships extended further on into to North America, Latin America and Europe. Knowing Giancarlo led me to a greater appreciation of Italian and other cultures.

The undergraduate exchanges led to relationships with students. I’ve had the privilege of attending several weddings. Two such students, one incoming from Italy and the other outgoing to Germany returned to my laboratory to conduct their doctoral theses under my advisement.

Both met their spouses while they were at their host institutions, and both of them have children and successful lives now.  A set of grateful parents send me a box of Olio Carli extra virgin olive oil every year all the way from Italy for Christmas.

Beth and I watched opera with Giancarlo at La Scala, which is one of the leading opera theatres in the world. We followed this with a meal that included the post-opera tradition of eating risotto al salto, a crispy fried rice cake that began as a way to take care of leftover risotto, at the storied Biffi Scala in Piazza della Scala which opened its doors to diners in 1830.

I visited Lago di Como with Giancarlo a couple of times. He cherished the lakeshore as the setting of the quintessential model Italian novel I Promessi sposi, The Betrothed, which is the most widely read work of literature in the Italian language.

Over a decade ago, he gave up his tiny two-door car in favour of public transport.  I trudged with Giancarlo across many cities – Milan, Madrid, Hamburg, Lund, Vienna – on foot, and by bus, subway and train. Predating Uber and Lyft, on the few occasions that Giancarlo required an automobile, he turned to local car sharing.

Giancarlo passed away last Friday after an affliction with cancer. He had never smoked. Even though he was Italian, he consumed remarkably moderate helpings of wine. He only drank a couple of cups of coffee a day.

He lived all his life in Milan in the same apartment. He inherited two apartments, both on the same floor from his mother. Frightened, she had peeked through the curtains of one of these to see Nazis execute members of the Italian resistance in the 1940s.

The second of the two apartments was Giancarlo’s storehouse for old, antique and rare books, which he collected as a hobby. I accompanied him to antique bookstores and have a memory of one in Boston. I received a call on my cellphone in Boston a few years later and a few paces away from that shop. It was a search firm asking me if I was interested in being dean of engineering at McMaster University.

I recall Giancarlo’s quaint coffee aphorisms, “Coffee should be roasted in the Mediterranean and brewed the Scandinavian way.”  “Drink cappuccino in the morning and not after a meal.” His affectionate laugh discussing my youngest son, Krish’s, interest in math with him. Invoking Ramanujan and Einstein during lunch at Naschmarkt in Vienna he exclaimed, “Being both Indian and Jewish is an explosive combination!”

Giancarlo, Krish and I at Naschmarkt, Vienna, July 2011.

The world associates all of Italy with pasta. I learned from Giancarlo, who had heard this from his mother, that pasta became popular in Milan only during her lifetime. Before, the traditional starches eaten at mealtime were typically rice and polenta. He introduced me to the classic risotto alla Milanese prepared with saffron and a little grated Parmesan cheese.

We wrote our first and successful international cooperation proposal while Giancarlo was on a short layover in Zurich en route to Brussels and I was visiting ETH-Z. He recalled his frustration when he couldn’t see me at Bahnhofplatz, our planned meeting place, Giancarlo standing on the northern end, and I south at the corner of Bahnhofstraße. It made for an amusing story, him calling his office in Milan who called my ETH-Z hosts who sent a runner to unite me with Giancarlo standing just twenty metres away. We told it over the years to great laughter, much of it our own, to whoever cared to listen.

Giancarlo and I began to collaborate when I was living in Chicago. Although he eschewed hard liquor, on his first visit Giancarlo arrived with a present, a bottle of Canadian Club whisky.  It seems prescient now about where I would eventually be.

I visited him last year after he had concluded his first round of chemotherapy.  He showed me the stent under his shoulder through which he received chemotherapy infusions. Typical of Giancarlo, he recited the list of the heavy metal compounds that were introduced into his body. While the purpose of my visit was to simply check in, he wanted to work and work we did, discussing new strategies for transatlantic exchanges.

Our last conversation was in July. Giancarlo told me, somewhat weakly, that he would be going in for yet another round of chemotherapy, which led to a sinking feeling in my stomach. Again, we discussed the chemical composition of the compounds he would be infused with.

Giancarlo left an important and indelible mark on my life by influencing it over the past two plus decades.  He made me into a more cultured, more international and a better person.

International experiences help us understand and know each other better. How can you go to war with someone you have broken bread with time after again? How can you not empathize with a person you have discussed literature and culture with on long walks or subway rides? How can you not relate to someone you have worked with shoulder to shoulder on successful project after successful project?

Therein lies the value of international experiences. We get to know and understand our world.

Arrividerci Giancarlo. Grazie mille. 

Capisco meglio il mondo grazie a te. I understand the world better because of you.

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