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An International Connectedness

An interview with Renata Forste

Photography by Bradley H. Slade

Renata Forste became director of the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies in January 2017. Forste received a BS and an MS in sociology from BYU and a PhD in sociology with an emphasis in demography and statistics from the University of Chicago. She taught at Western Washington University for three years and has been teaching at BYU for twenty-two years. Forste and her husband, Mike, will celebrate thirty-two years of marriage in August. They are the parents of three daughters. The oldest is married and has a little girl, the second works in Salt Lake City, and the third is an illustration major at BYU. The two oldest are both BYU alumnae.

How did your international interest begin?
I served a mission in Argentina. That is when I got a passport and traveled outside of the United States. I was hooked; I loved it. I came back and took a world religions class from Spencer Palmer. He was taking a group of students to Korea on a spring term study abroad.

It was very cheap at that time. I had enjoyed the world religions class, so I talked my dad into helping me with the funding. We went to Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong. It was such a different experience. I had been in Latin America, but now I could see Asia and better understand that part of the world. I went to high school in St. Louis, and I didn’t understand the history of and the differences between the U.S. and China, Japan, and Korea. That study abroad broadened my view. After I got married, we went on a study abroad to Vienna. This was back when we could do a rotation and tour all around Europe. Then, as a faculty member, I went to London three times.

It all started with my mission experience, when I realized there was a whole world out there and another way of seeing things. Yet people are the same. As a demographer, I’m interested in universal human experiences. Everybody is born, everybody dies, everybody has family, and most everybody moves. But how we do those things—and the cultural expectations and norms surrounding birth and death—are different. That’s what is really interesting.

As the previous Latin American studies coordinator, what is your interest in and experience with Latin America?
My interest with Latin America also began on my mission, where I learned to speak Spanish. When I was Latin American studies coordinator, Tim Heaton and I started a project in which we traveled to Bolivia multiple times to look at patterns of family formation and family interaction. Infant mortality rates are high in parts of Bolivia, so we worked through the Benson Institute and researched children’s health. We also studied how giving resources to families could help parents make better decisions so that they could better help the health of their children. In some cases, when we give money to the family, it is the wife who knows what the children need, but it is the husband who controls the purse. If the couple doesn’t have good dialogue, then the children often don’t get the resources they need. We looked at how we could promote healthier family interactions to deal with issues like domestic violence and in turn provide better health for children.

Recently you gave the Cutler Lecture. Could you share some themes from that talk?
The Cutler Lecture is sponsored by the BYU School of Family Life. My interest is in women’s and children’s health. An undergraduate student and I worked on and published research that used an international sample of thirty-eight countries. We looked at family satisfaction and the gender division of household roles. Basically, households in which husbands and fathers are involved have higher family satisfaction. Then, having just come back from the London study abroad, I used more recent data from the U.S. and from Britain that looked at men’s and women’s differences in terms of family roles and housework. Essentially, a lot of the patterns are still the same; women still do more housework than men. However, families in which the husband is more involved have higher satisfaction, and the wife is happier.

Part of what I focused on in the lecture was how, as a society, we don’t tend to value housework and what women do in the home. We don’t put a dollar amount on it. It’s not prestigious. As members of the Church, we really should value housework, because we value family. If we truly value family, men should be willing to participate in housework; we should all participate, because we think it’s important.

What administrative positions have you held prior to this one, and how will they influence your work as director?
I was an associate dean over curriculum in the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences working under David Magleby. Then I was department chair for six years. Being an associate dean before I was chair helped me have a better idea of how a college works. The dean’s office deals with the bigger picture, but it’s really with the department chair where the rubber hits the road. That’s where you deal with faculty members to help them get rank, status, and tenure; take care of the hiring; and work with student issues. We were also working on learning outcomes. I had a lot of experiences as department chair that are helping me now as director of the Kennedy Center.

These positions have given me a better sense of both the academic side and the educational support side, though this is the part I need to learn more about. I have a sense of how colleges operate, how the different entities on campus operate, and how we can draw from those different resources. By pulling together these groups of people from across campus, we can create a synergy here at the Kennedy Center to address important global and international issues. That’s what I’d like to see happen.


What value do we at the Kennedy Center add by having students major or minor in area studies programs or participate in international experiences?
I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the subject. Some people refer to it as international literacy, and some call it global competency. Essentially, it is value added through international participation. What value do we at the Kennedy Center add by having students who are either majoring or minoring in area studies programs or participating in international experiences? What is it that we give students that they couldn’t get any other way? I think we give them cultural competency and cultural sensitivity.

The international experiences we offer are different than what a mission gives, because students get the academic aspect, too. A mission experience, for those who serve internationally, can help them with language and give some sense of the culture, but they don’t have the history, the economic understanding, and the social understanding of the culture.

How do Kennedy Center programs fit into the larger globalization of the world we work in now, where everything is connected? How do we prepare students to work in that kind of world? How do we serve in a global church? What can these programs do to develop cultural competency? We’ve been looking at different models and ways we can measure and ensure that we are preparing students. Our goal is to help students have reflective experiences in which they begin to develop the attitudes and skill sets they need to be culturally competent and to think and translate that into the workplace or church service. That’s the direction I see us moving, and part of the question is, how do we articulate that move?

An international study program is required with the MESA major. Is it possible to require international study for all majors?
Most of the Kennedy Center programs heavily recommend international study. What will have to be confronted—and this is what Middle East studies/Arabic has struggled with as well—are financial challenges. As we move forward, can we encourage more global opportunities? Can we fund-raise? With President Worthen’s move to more experiential learning, we could reach a point where every student has that kind of experience.

Right now the question is how we can make international study affordable. There aren’t a lot of majors that require students to go abroad; to expand that expectation will require making international study affordable to all students. Certainly, if we could make it more affordable to more students—if not most students—a lot of students would choose to go. If we start telling them early on that it is an expectation, then they can plan for it if they declare a Kennedy Center major or even if they come to campus as a freshman. We can fold it into the president’s initiative.

Why is global competence so important?
I just finished reading a report that Alan Parkinson in the BYU Department of Mechanical Engineering wrote. He talks about thirteen reasons why engineers should be prepared to work in a global world. Increasingly, whatever your discipline is, we have to recognize that we are all interconnected. Even though you may not work internationally, you’re going to be working with companies associated with different global entities. Global competence is critical, and that’s why I first said it was a literacy.

We used to talk about literacy—people needing to learn to read and write to function in the world. Now we talk about media literacy—people needing to learn to consume media, because students are now constantly connected, and they need to understand how media works. It’s the same thing with globalization. The decisions students make are going to affect the lives of people across the planet. It’s important for students to develop skill sets that allow them to interface internationally and to understand appropriate communication and behavior in a cultural context. They need to be sensitive to those differences. They need to have the background to understand how we all are interconnected, how history works as a connection, and how to think and problem solve in a way that connects across global resources.

This applies in the Church. We have more members outside than inside the United States. We need to be sending out Church leaders. I think a lot of people, especially at BYU, go on to become leaders in their communities and leaders in the Church. They need to think globally, not just in terms of our Utah roots.


What are your thoughts on the future of the Global Opportunity Initiative?
I think it’s absolutely critical to expand it. I had a student with us in London last fall who was a Global Opportunity student and who had never been outside of the United States. He served his mission in Ogden, Utah, and he grew up in a single-parent household. He worked all summer driving a bus in Alaska so he could raise money to go abroad. Even then it wasn’t quite enough. Without the Global Opportunity Scholarship, he would not have come back to school. He would have had to take another semester off to work. With the scholarship, he participated in the fall semester in London and then came back in winter to finish up his classes and graduate.

The enthusiasm, the excitement, and the engagement he brought to that program were intoxicating. Everything was new to him, everything was exciting to him, and it filtered to all of the other students. The experience gave him a lot of confidence and helped him know that he can compete in a global environment. Studying abroad gives students a competitive edge when it comes to applying for graduate programs or for jobs.

Increasingly, studying abroad is not an opportunity just for students who can afford it but for all of our students on campus. It’s there for those students who don’t have families who travel to Europe or elsewhere for a family vacation. These are the students who are going to benefit from the scholarship. Global Opportunity is critical to extending the reach of Kennedy Center programs to more and more students so that the financial aspect doesn’t become a barrier that keeps them from progressing. It ties into President Worthen’s Inspired Learning initiative.

What are the implications of President Worthen’s Inspiring Learning initiative for the Kennedy Center?
We are very much a part of it. President Worthen continually mentions examples of inspired learning as study abroad programs, field studies, and internships. He brought up a point in one meeting that part of inspired learning is for students to have “life-changing” experiences. Inspired learning is also about helping students learn how to receive inspiration. We need to help them not only to develop academically and intellectually, in terms of their discipline, but also to develop spiritually. We give them the confidence that they can go any place in the world and receive inspiration that will help them move the work forward.

Wanting to give back is an important aspect that international experiences can give our students. It’s these students—like those with Global Opportunity Scholarships—who have been given this opportunity to see what the experience does for them. They want to turn around and share that blessing with other people. That’s my hope!

I see us interfacing exactly on board with what President Worthen wants this inspired learning experience to be. We want to make sure we are giving students the richest opportunities we can while instilling within them the desire to receive inspiration and to use the blessings and resources they have to better the world around them. President Worthen has said that you can go on a study abroad anywhere, but the difference here is that you also receive inspiration.

What has surprised you most since becoming director?
I didn’t know beforehand all that the Kennedy Center is involved with. I didn’t understand how complex it is. You have everything from developing strong, rigorous academic programs to trying to be the hub of research associated with international work. This is done by drawing faculty together, bringing intellectuals to campus, and hosting the international academic and intellectual rigor that is a component of all student programs. The Kennedy Center also deals with prominent international security issues, publishes CultureGrams and Bridges, updates the website, and connects with alumni. It’s a very busy place.

What is your vision for the Kennedy Center?
In my view, the Kennedy Center can be a place to bring together students and to create an energy around problem solving. There are a lot of our brothers and sisters who are suffering, and they don’t have the opportunities or resources we have. How do we address these global issues? If we can think globally and internationally about what the challenges are, we will bring people together from across campus and across disciplines to a place where they can start to think of solutions to these problems. That’s what I would like to see the Kennedy Center do—help campus be more issue focused rather than area focused.

For example, I was talking to one of the engineers on campus, and he brought up the issue of clean water. In my mind I said, “Sure, we can have a discussion about clean water.” Clean water not only affects engineers but people in public health and in women’s studies, because it’s the women who have to walk miles and miles to get the water. These are problems that do not have a single-discipline solution. If we can be the place that brings people from across campus together, then we can train our students to think about these issues more broadly and to think about potential solutions. When we send them out, they will be better at thinking outside the box in a global context and will pull from multiple places to problem solve. At the Kennedy Center, we bring together disciplines, students, and faculty to learn and problem solve. We will become the place that encourages discussion and synergy.

What have you learned from students while on study abroad?
We have phenomenal students at BYU. What I really like about the students—and I see this every time I teach—is that they get it. They understand how blessed they are, and they want to give back. It is exciting to take them someplace and to have them immersed and to see the lights come on. They start to think, “What could we do to expand opportunities for others so that they can have these kind of experiences?”

BYU students are unique. Because of the gospel, they have a desire to live a Christlike life. When they are exposed to the world around them, they take that understanding and use it to think beyond borders about their brothers and sisters everywhere. They use that Christlike perspective to address issues and challenges that people are dealing with anywhere in the world.

When I was at other universities, it wasn’t necessarily like that. Often it was all about themselves and how they could make money or get ahead of others in their career. Whereas BYU students, generally because of the gospel, come with the understanding that we are all interconnected spiritually. When students understand how we are interconnected globally and culturally and understand the history and culture, the economics, and the politics, they are prepared to serve. They start to see how they can make a difference. International study provides such an invigorating environment.