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Deep Focus


by Andrea K. Harker

The Big Picture

China, Jordan, and Ukraine may not seem to have much in common, but for two years they have been linked through at least one avenue: BYU. To become better known and understood in the international arena, the university has targeted these three countries to be part of BYU’s “Special Country Focus” (SCF).

The general goal of the SCF is “to coordinate the activities of various departments and schools on campus in order to make the most of our international contacts,” explained Eric Hyer, China program coordinator. “The hope is to eventually have one person generally overseeing all international projects for each country—not to control things necessarily, but create a consistent approach, help coordinate relations, and act as a resource.” Hyer continued, “We would like people to understand the vision. They will often be more successful in international initiatives if they go through the SCF program.” Those interested in working within China, Jordan, or Ukraine should contact the coordinator.

For example, during President Merrill J. Bateman’s recent China visit, Hyer scheduled meetings for him with influential people. Afterward, Hyer learned of others who would have appreciated such a meeting, but since he was not aware of their desire to make connections in China, they missed out on those opportunities.

Hyer, Howard Biddulph (Ukraine), and James Toronto (Jordan) were chosen as SCF coordinators because of their vast experience in the selected country. Each coordinator individually follows the goals of the university to coordinate its overseas projects, but all three meet periodically to discuss plans, fund-raising projects, and generally assess their relative progress.

The coordinators follow a “Centers of Strength” plan, which focuses BYU’s exposure—and the Church’s—on select major cities and universities. They also participate in the allocation of SCF funding to appropriate projects within the plan. Although they give other proposals consideration, the coordinators generally target three main programs: student, scholarly, or cultural exchange.“We communicate to promote academic exchanges and include a discussion of ‘educating the whole person’—including spiritual nourishment,” Hyer explained. Recently, President Bateman’s academic presentations were received warmly in all three SCF locations.

Additional information about the individual SCF programs are outlined below:

China Close-up

Program Coordinator: Eric A. Hyer has studied China’s people—their language, culture, and politics—extensively since 1971, and he has lived and traveled within China’s borders at various stages in his life. Hyer is an associate professor of political science at BYU, where he received his BA degree. He obtained his MA and PhD degrees and certificate in Asian Studies from Columbia University.

Goals: “BYU is already well known for our cultural groups—our current focus is to raise our academic and research profile in China,” Hyer said. This is one reason for President Bateman’s May 2000 visit there, coupled with a desire for “the Chinese to feel more comfortable with Latter-day Saints in general.”

Activities: Hyer coordinates closely with the Kennedy Center and Sandra Rogers, associate academic vice president for international and distance education at BYU. He has worked to place student interns in China, but so far has met little success, as he explained, “Internships are a very different animal in China. It seems that the strategy of multinational corporations is to recruit locals—even if that means recruiting Chinese students from BYU. Some BYU students will find internships in China, but comparatively speaking, they are not very substantive.”

Other projects include BYU’s McKay School of Education collaboration with Beijing Normal University on teacher development research and training and jointly sponsored conferences. This year, eight elementary education majors are completing their certification while teaching at the Helen Foster Snow School in Xi’an, China.

In October, President Bateman made a second trip to China, leading a delegation of BYU faculty. They made presentations in Beijing and Ningxia Province on distance education, ESL, technology transfer, and water and range management. Chinese leaders are interested in Utah as a model for developing China’s sparsely populated and arid western region. BYU is opening doors for further cooperation in these key areas.

Hyer also recently finished work on a China-related project of his own. The film Helen Foster Snow: Witness to Revolution (see Bridges summer online and fall print issues), he said, “was largely made possible because of SCF. We foresee it being influential in both cultural and scholarly arenas, and also a significant public relations tool.” A major multinational corporation has agreed to fund a Chinese version of the documentary and screenings in several major Chinese cities are scheduled for July 2001. The film will also be aired on KBYU and other PBS channels in 2001.

Progress: “Since the Young Ambassadors’ first visit in 1979, BYU performing groups have traveled to China nearly every year. Because of similar cultural exchanges, we are possibly the most famous American university in China. Our current strategic goal is to maintain these cultural exchanges, but open doors for broader academic exchanges as well. This is a new strategic initiative, and I think that it will take several years to develop a similar reputation for BYU’s academic programs and faculty scholarship. In the long term, this will also raise the profile of the Church in China,” Hyer summarized.

Jordan Close-up

Program Coordinator: James A. Toronto has worked and studied for ten years in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and recently returned from a three-year assignment as director of BYU’s Center for Cultural Educational Affairs in Amman, Jordan. Toronto received his BA in English at BYU, with minors in history and Italian and then obtained his MA and PhD in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University. He has taught courses in comparative world religions, Islamic studies, and Middle Eastern politics and culture at BYU.

Goals: “Jordan and the surrounding Arab countries (included in the focus) have traditionally not been understood in Western societies,” Toronto related. “And, likewise, Western Christian institutions are commonly viewed with mistrust and suspicion in the Islamic Middle East. Our presence and activities there are an important means of breaking down prejudices on both sides of the fence, dispelling stereotypes, and building friendships and contacts that are mutually beneficial.”

Activities: “I act as liaison in managing our academic agreements and interaction with Arab universities, and I communicate regularly with LDS Charities so that our academic programs mesh well with their humanitarian and development activities,” said Toronto.

Specifically, he said, “BYU has formal academic agreements with both the University of Jordan and the University of Damascus. We have had faculty and students from many departments across campus—including nursing, archaeology, business, engineering, agriculture, development studies, and Arabic—participate in exchanges and study in the Arab Middle East. We have also had a number of performing groups tour these countries.”

Progress: BYU has been involved primarily in three areas of the Arab world: Jordan, Syria, and the West Bank/Gaza. “I think that BYU and the Church’s reputation and opportunities to serve have been enhanced through our cooperative activities,” Toronto attested. “The students and faculty of our university and those with whom we interact have been enriched spiritually and intellectually through these experiences.”

Ukraine Close-up

Program Coordinator: Howard L. Biddulph joined the team in January of 1999. An associate of the Kennedy Center, he is an emeritus professor who not only specialized in Ukraine political science, but was also the first mission president for the Church there (1991–94). Consequently, Biddulph has solid contacts in the country. “I am very happy to be involved with the project,” he affirmed.

Goals: “This program is generally an effort on the university’s part to build relations with various countries and universities—which benefits both the institutions and the Church” said Biddulph. “We are working on several different projects right now to bring this goal about.”

Activities: President Bateman and Biddulph visited eight institutions of higher education in Kyiv, and established close relationships with three of the most prominent: The Ukraine Institute of International Relations (UIIR) of the Kyiv National Shevchenko University; Ukraine’s Academy of Public Administration; and the Religious Studies Department of the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences (UNAS). BYU established an annual MA fellowship in international relations for graduates of the UIIR and agreed to support the new Ukraine Center for Religious Information and Freedom (UCRIF), established by the UNAS.

Igor Darmogray, the first recipient of the fellowship, was awarded his degree in the December 2000 convocation, and the second and third recipients will arrive for the fall 2001 semester. The UIIR reciprocated by hosting nineteen BYU students and two faculty members summer 2000, to study the “Political, Economic, and Cultural Transition of the New Ukraine.” Seven Ukrainian professors helped Biddulph teach this course. Students were also involved in two volunteer service programs—antitobacco education and internships at the new UCRIF—and taught English. The Ukrainian media gave prominence to their work on television and radio, and in numerous newspaper articles, resulting in excellent contacts with top government officials. During summer 2001, a second group of BYU students and professors will continue this service-learning program in Kyiv, under the sponsorship of the UIIR.

Biddulph has also been working hard to get Ukrainian visitors to BYU. “In the past, members of parliament, scholars, prominent citizens, and even the ambassador (December 1999) have been invited to our campus. In fact,” Biddulph told us, “we will host the director of the UIIR at BYU sometime early this year.” Other Ukrainians shared their talents with the BYU community when the Veriovka Ukrainian National Dance Company performed last September.

Currently, Dodge Billingsley, Combat Films, and BYU are working on a film for PBS and Ukrainian TV. It will feature internationally acclaimed BYU violist, Dr. Igor Gruppman, who is a native of Kyiv. The film will discuss Ukrainian musicians under socialism and capitalism. “This will showcase BYU in much the same way that the Snow film did for China, and we hope it will be appealing for Ukrainian television,” said Biddulph.

Progress: Biddulph believes that the project in the Ukraine has succeeded very well so far. “I think it has had a very positive influence on those institutions we’re involved in and I hope it will on the government, but it’s hard to tell how that’s going to work out,” he remarked, “It’s encouraging to see that we’ve already made a lot of contacts and been so well-received.”