Why international students must remain optimistic in time of pandemic

The incoming Fall semester is yet another opportunity for us to further nurture these qualities and grow as individuals. While most, if not all, of our classes will be online, we consider it our moral responsibility and our steadfast commitment to offer the highest quality of education for all our students in time zones all over the world.
(Hindustan Times)
(Hindustan Times)
Published on Aug 13, 2020 05:51 PM IST
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ByYannis C Yortos

About five months ago the COVID-19 pandemic started. Five months later, the world still struggles to contain it. When the contagion started, I thought the most important challenge was that it would test what we valued. And, so it did, and will continue to do so in the near future and in the “post-COVID” world. What have we learned these past months?

We learned how important science and engineering are to help bring an end to the contagion. We learned that the virus, just like many other challenges we will face, is simply not deterred by public relations or by politics. We learned how much we should value education, particularly in times of exponential change like today, where uninformed decisions can lead to very impactful consequences.

We learned the importance of valuing our fellow humans: to uphold our collective humanity, to open our hearts and minds to inclusion and understanding, and to work to eliminate inequities. “We are in this together” is for all of us, for people of all races, in all parts of the world. This is a global challenge, like many of the challenges we will have to address when this contagion is over --from global warming to sustainability, from security to enriching life for all.

We also learned the importance of human contact. Paradoxically, in the era of spatial distancing, we are more connected than ever before. Distance learning has flourished. Yet in an unexpected way, it has further democratized many of our organizations, as each of us has equal presence in the zoom window real estate. More than ever, as we crave human contact engineering is helping do just that, even worlds apart.

But why are all these learnings relevant to engineering and to engineering education, particularly for international students?

As a former international student myself (well, many decades ago), I understand the aspirations, tenacity, and dreams of our students. Further, as the engineering dean of a leading engineering school, I am very optimistic about our future.

The world will impatiently need talented engineers with their skills and their mindsets as soon as possible to help us engineer a fast recovery and a new and bright future. But engineering will become increasingly human-centric. This mindset of Engineering + is amply reflected in novel engineering education programs, such as those inspired by the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges Scholars Program (which has international and global appeal). Creating the new engineer will change the conversation about our discipline: who we are, what we do and what we look like.

Almost right after COVID-19 became part of our vocabulary, the National Academy of Engineering launched a call to action against it. This cross-generational project includes engineers of all generations, from baby boomers to Gen Z’ers. Having the honor to chair its Executive Committee, I know how exciting it is to usher in innovative solutions by accomplished engineers or by bright new engineering students.

Indeed, I believe that more than ever before, our mission is to engineer a better world for all humanity. This mission is one that the present crisis has strongly reinforced. The COVID-19 crisis has helped us focus on the things that matter and the things we value as individuals and as a society. In many ways, it has challenged our true character. The USC Viterbi School is fully committed to keep advancing this overarching objective with activities that develop not only technical competence, but also character as the two together result in the formation of trustworthy engineers.

The incoming Fall semester is yet another opportunity for us to further nurture these qualities and grow as individuals. While most, if not all, of our classes will be online, we consider it our moral responsibility and our steadfast commitment to offer the highest quality of education for all our students in time zones all over the world.

I also believe that the post-COVID future will involve a creative combination of both spatial and online connectivity in forms we can only imagine. Those who can successfully predict such a blend, which is likely to redefine what it means to work, create, innovate and play, will win the future. I view this intriguing challenge with great anticipation and I believe that the experience we will have in the fall, unanticipated as it is, will nonetheless not only help us understand how to leverage it, but also how to use it to invent the future. Towards this goal, we will explore many different avenues for the creation of community for the active engagement with fellow students, including student groups, activities outside the curriculum, and other means that will help probe the boundaries of connectivity as far as possible. In many ways, our students will be the co-creators of such innovations.

In his book The Beginning of Infinity, quantum physicist David Deutsch writes: “There will always be problems. But all problems are solvable (through science and engineering).” I fully share this optimistic view of the future. I call all our engineering students to embrace it.

(Author Yannis C. Yortsos is Dean of the USC (University of Southern California) Viterbi School of Engineering . Views expressed are personal)

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Wednesday, December 01, 2021