Minnesota Colleges on Front Line of Global Changes

By MaryAnn Baenninger, president of the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn.

Published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Feb. 5, 2006

When Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty returned from his November trade mission to China, he noted the sense of urgency that faces America when it comes to retraining workers to compete in the global market.

"U.S. citizens need to recognize China's economic changes as an opportunity," Pawlenty said. "A more rigorous and relevant U.S. education system is critical to economic competitiveness as labor-intensive U.S. jobs fade."

It's a message that resonates every day for Minnesota colleges, universities and businesses.

According to the recently revised Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education, five of the top 16 American baccalaureate colleges sending students abroad are located in Minnesota. So, too, are two of the top 15 comprehensive universities and one of the top 20 doctoral institutions.

I'm proud to say that the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph and Saint John's University in Collegeville are among those schools - and have been for quite some time. At the College of Saint Benedict, nearly two-thirds of our students study internationally before they graduate, a participation rate nearly twice the national average for liberal arts colleges. For the past two years, Saint Benedict and Saint John's have together been among the top three undergraduate liberal arts colleges nationally for students studying abroad.

In November, CSB/SJU celebrated its 20th anniversary of relations with Southwest University in Beibei, Sichuan Province. The 25 Saint Benedict and Saint John's students studying at Southwest University last fall were the only Western students among 50,000 resident students attending the college. We hope to send a group of students to the school in May and June for research with an undergraduate partner from Southwest University. In July and August, the Chinese students will visit central Minnesota to continue their research.

Each year, we send graduates to Southwest University and other colleges in China to teach English. After a year or two, these graduates pursue entrepreneurial opportunities in China, or enter graduate programs to prepare for careers in China-related education, business, diplomacy and non-governmental organization work. Many of them maintain a Minnesota connection.

In dozens of creative ways, they are adding to Minnesota's "bank" of human capital with their experience and expertise. In this sense, they are valuable bridge-builders between Minnesota and the "Asian Century."

We need students to continue their reach across the world. It's clear these connections are fueling business opportunities down the road and building long-term cross-cultural relationships. That education prepares our students for the more complex global environment, be it in Spain, Central America or Australia.

But much attention has been focused on China - for good reason. With 1.3 billion people, China provides the U.S. with a large and growing market.

Minnesota already has its foot in the door in China, from leading global companies like 3M and Best Buy to smaller, central Minnesota businesses like DeZurik, Komo Machine, Creative Memories, Stearns Inc. and Gold'n Plump.

In 2004, Minnesota businesses sold goods to China valuing $672 million. China ranks fourth among countries importing Minnesota manufacturing goods. Clearly, Pawlenty hopes it could be more.

"If you want to see the future, we need to understand what's going on in China and position Minnesota for that change," Pawlenty said.

It's a change that's already happening at Minnesota schools and businesses.