In one of the nation’s top international affairs schools, students struggle to get an education that fully covers the globe. Despite its stellar reputation and selective admission rates, the Elliott School of International Affairs’ options for regional courses leaves much to be desired. There is an extreme lack of diversity in content, hindering students’ ability to gain a well-rounded understanding of the world.
In order to ensure that students are knowledgeable about the whole region included in a student’s concentration, courses should strive to cover a larger variety of countries to better prepare students for their future careers. If current courses offered can’t be restructured to incorporate more countries into their curriculum, then the University should offer additional classes to give students the opportunity to learn about the rest of the region.
Elliott is home to four majors: Asian studies, Latin American and hemispheric studies, Middle East studies and international affairs – which has 14 different concentrations. These concentrations are split into “functional” and “regional” themes.
Regional concentrations and regional majors sound similar, but they differ in terms of the focus of their courses. The international affairs major is more broad, requiring students to take courses that discuss issues relevant worldwide and understand the U.S.’s role in them. Students then can pick five courses from a list of topics related to their concentration, and for regional concentrations, only those five classes would be on that area. Meanwhile, regional majors focus strictly on topics and issues affecting your chosen region, making the core classes of the major more specific and niche than those of the international affairs major. For example, while a student with an international affairs major can choose from one of more than 30 courses to fulfill their anthropology and geography requirement, an LAHS major would have to take Anthropology of Latin America and Geography of Latin America.
The issue with the regional concentrations and majors is that many of the topics covered in required courses get repetitive, especially in regards to historical context within the region. While it’s understandable that there would be overlap between courses that focus on the same region, too much overlap limits students’ breadth of knowledge.
I’m an LAHS major, which requires students to take a foundational course titled Latin America: Problems and Promise, as well as a history course and a political science course on the region. All of these courses also count for the Latin America concentration under the international affairs major.
Many courses on Latin America at GW focus predominantly on the major countries in the region, like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba and Mexico. If you’re lucky, you might get a slide or two of a PowerPoint about smaller countries like Nicaragua or Honduras, but even then the focus is usually on U.S. involvement in those countries. Courses also typically don’t discuss relations between Latin American countries, but rather how the U.S. has dealt with countries in Latin America. Even though this may not be the exact outline for all Latin America-focused courses, it grows tiring to hear about the same countries over and over again, especially if it means missing out on learning about other countries.
Having a limited knowledge of a region is detrimental in the long run. It’s necessary for international affairs students to be prepared to discuss a multitude of countries on the spot. If there’s a gap in your knowledge on a region, it can lead to some frustrating and even embarrassing interactions if you’re working with someone from one of the countries that your professors skipped over.
If I were to work with an intergovernmental organization, like I hope to do, and had to discuss topics regarding countries like Colombia, Ecuador or Panama, I probably wouldn’t be comfortable commenting. These countries have been skimmed over in my courses thus far, barely scratching the surface on the depth that I wish I had. Not feeling comfortable discussing part of a region that is the subject of my major worries me about how prepared I’ll be after graduation. If courses can’t cover all the countries, then students should be informed about what countries each course addresses beforehand. Students that don’t take multiple courses on a region are likely to feel even less prepared in professional settings when discussing countries that receive less coverage in the classroom.
The repetitive nature of the current regional courses offered can also be seen in regards to the Asian studies major and Asia concentration. The program has received criticism for the disproportionate number of courses offered on East Asia in comparison to the rest of the continent like South and Southeast Asia, which has nearly half as many options.
The course options for the Africa concentration are even more limited than their other regional counterparts, partially because the Elliott School doesn’t offer an African studies major. Many of the courses offered cover broad categories, leaving students at the mercy of their professor’s choice in case studies. However, Elliott is working to improve and expand its African studies program through the Institute for African Studies, which was established in 2016. Since the Institute’s conception, the number of courses offered with a focus on Africa have increased by either two or three in both spring and fall semesters, and they hope to continue this trend moving forward.
Other regional programs should mirror the Institute for African Studies’ efforts to increase the variety of courses offered. To prevent repetition in classes, program directors should take a look at the courses from different departments required for regional majors and discuss the curriculum to ensure they don’t all address the same exact topics.
If Elliott is considered one of the best schools in the country for international affairs, then we cannot afford to leave gaps in our education. We must set a precedent in our curriculum if we want to build leaders for the world.
Kris Brodeur, a sophomore double-majoring in international affairs and Latin American hemispheric studies, is a Hatchet opinions writer.
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