Wisconsin in the World

Wisconsin stamp

So many jobs—from manufacturing to the innovation economy—are inherently global. It’s hard to imagine that a person’s first experience working with an international counterpart must wait until one’s professional career starts. Many states have forged international exchange programs to ensure students have not only global knowledge and skills, but also experiences, which will prepare them for the future workplace. We’ve asked Gerhard Fischer from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to share with us why and how his state went global. –The Editors

by Gerhard Fischer

Wisconsin’s oldest international partnership dates back to 1976, when Governor Patrick Lucey and Minister President Albert Osswald of the German state of Hessen signed an agreement of cooperation in the historical context of the American bicentennial celebrations. While this partnership honors the strong German heritage of our state, the reason why Hessen chose Wisconsin over the heavily favored California or Texas was uniquely personal: The Minister President’s press secretary had spent a rewarding high school year in Wisconsin in the early 1950s and suggested this particular partnership in memory of his beloved host family.

The significance of personal international relationships cannot be over-estimated. They provide the energy and bond for active connections; they drive meaningful partnerships and bring well-intentioned yet often abstract partnership agreements to life. And they close a perfect circle: Those who have personally benefitted from international study-abroad experiences give back to future generations: Formalized partnerships eventually pave the way for similar growth experiences for the youngest generation of students. This is what sustains Wisconsin’s most successful international partnerships.

Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction has active partnership relationships with regions in Germany (Hesse) and France (L’Académie d’Aix-Marseille and L’Académie de Bordeaux), with Japan (Chiba Prefecture), Thailand, and China (Heilongjiang Province). The ultimate goal is the same for all of them, even though the specific approaches differ depending on what is possible in different regions of the world:Connect students through learning, familiarize communities in an otherwise domestic-centric country with people from other cultures, and contribute to a future of a globally connected and competent population.

Wisconsin school districts make their own decisions about international partnerships, but the state can build the bridges of opportunity for them to walk on. And here are some examples of how that works.

Under our agreement with Thailand, we host thirty of Thai students and six teachers every spring. They are in Wisconsin for three weeks and spend most of their time in six different school districts, hosted in the homes of Wisconsin families before coming back to Madison for a couple of days of activities in the state capitol and on the university campus. Some of the hosting school districts have launched their own partnership programs with the schools of the visitors. Lodi and Sa-nguan Ying School in Suphanburi now even teach online classes to each others’ students in real time.

Our ties with Hessen have included ten bi-annual teacher professional development seminars, strong school partnership programs, and a unique full-year student exchange program. Up to fifteen students in each state spend one semester in each others’ homes and schools annually, a full-year exchange program on two continents. Our “Trading Places” online video is powerful evidence of the relationships forged through this program and reminds us of the roots of this sister state partnership in a study-abroad experience many decades ago.

The French partner regions send many student groups every year. We have held professional development seminars with their teachers and again witness the power of personal relationships among young students. “American teachers are cool,” say fourteen-year old French students visiting Lake Geneva (Wisconsin) from their partner school in Terrasson (France). Their two teachers met during our Department of Public Instruction Teacher Seminar in 2008 and started working together immediately. All our teacher seminars include one week of sessions and workshops on cultural and historical topics, followed by a week of stays in the homes and schools of their partners.

Chiba Prefecture in Japan has connections with Wisconsin that go far beyond education and have long been supported by Kikkoman Corporation in our state. This partnership is strengthened by Wisconsin-Chiba Inc. through the exchange of citizens all over the state and several school and sister city partnerships. The Department of Public Instruction partners with Chiba Prefecture in the selection of young assistant language teachers (ALT) to spend between one and three years in schools in our partner region. The program is similar to the national JET program [link], yet our ALTs appreciate the small size and close relationships provided by regional oversight. In any given year, Wisconsin places up to fifteen young people in Chiba’s schools as cultural and linguistic ambassadors.

How can one possibly plan all the desired yet unpredictable outcomes of such international partnerships? The knowledge that people tend to form strong bonds when they get an opportunity to meet and get to know each other is what drives our work. The Dean of the Division of International Studies at UW-Madison, for example, was raised in France and received his PhD at the Université d'Aix-Marseille. You can imagine the strength and sincerity of his support for our partnership with L’Académie d’Aix-Marseille. How can you possibly plan the unlikely friendship between a superintendent of a 200-student K-8 school district in northern rural Wisconsin and a middle school principal in Daqing, Heilongjang? They stayed in each others’ homes through our principal and superintendent shadowing program, and they have started to exchange students and teachers with much bigger ideas for the future in mind. And finally calculate the odds of this scenario: A visiting teacher from Thailand and one of the host moms, herself a former AFS student in Bangkok, discover that his sister is one of her former teachers in Thailand.

None of this can be planned, but we can create the conditions and prepare the ground for such personal relationships. And that is precisely how we view our work on international partnerships at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction: We construct the framework and build the bridges, our school districts follow through, and our students benefit and it creates a better future for our state and nation. This is rewarding work. It requires personal investment beyond job descriptions. It is one of the best investments in the education of our students.

Dr. Gerhard Fischer is the International and World Languages Education Consultant at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.