The Philadelphia Inquirer
A column by Trudy Rubin, originally published on Wednesday, May 21, 1997
A month ago, I attended a fascinating symposium on "The Future of Democracy" organized by an unusual group: students at Tufts University in Massachusetts in a program called EPIIC, which stands for "Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship."
These young people -- from freshmen to grad students, both American and foreign -- enroll in a yearlong course that features a different international topic every year. Not only do they spend two academic terms doing rigorous course work and organize the symposium (to which top speakers come for no fee), but many also do on-site research in communities around the world. This year, the students' projects ranged from researching war crimes against women at The Hague tribunal on Bosnia, to observing Chinese village elections, to studying the illegal trafficking of Nepali girls and women into the brothels of India.
The purpose of the program is to give students some idea of the complexities of international issues and disputes, then inspire them to get actively engaged in resolving some of those problems. That's a noble goal in an era when most young Americans have little interest in the world outside America -- except maybe to surf the Internet or join a multinational corporation after graduation.
Judging by the students I met, EPIIC works and in ways that offer a model for other universities that want to expand the way their students think about the world. The key seems to be in EPIIC's unique combination of idealism and practical involvement, which not only plunges students into direct contact with the problems and people they are studying but makes them grapple with the intellectual issues as well.
The program was started ten years ago by Sherman Teichman, then teaching political science at Tufts. The hijacking of a TWA flight in Beirut in 1985 inspired him to organize a 1986 symposium, with student help, on international terrorism and what might be done to stop it. That grew into the EPIIC Institute, which draws on the whole university -- and indeed the world -- for its lecturers and raises money from donations, foundations, and anywhere else it can.
Since then, EPIIC's yearly topics have ranged from covert action and democracy, to human rights and foreign policy, to ethnicity, religion, and nationalism, with next year slated to focus on refugees, migration and conflict.
The students also organize a second symposium for high school students from around the country. This year they had the high schoolers role-play the various problems of establishing democracy in Latin America. They got Nobel laureate Oscar Arias of Costa Rica to assist.
To get an idea of the originality of the program, consider the way Teichman pulls together his students and get them organized to think ahead about the year's big symposium. In cooperation with Outward Bound, he hauls all the kids, along with an expert on the year's topic, to Hurricane Island off the coast of Maine for three to four days at the beginning of the school year. The goal is "to create an intellectual team" by physical and mental exercise.
It works. This year, with a budget of about $7,000, his students rounded up the likes of Hong Kong democracy activist Martin Lee, Arias, and a stellar cast of foreign and American experts to debate whether and how democracy can prosper in different parts of the world.
Mallika Mathur, a 20-year-old EPIIC student from India, says the best thing about EPIIC is that it shows how theory can be merged with practice. Mathur, who grew up in Japan, China, Germany, and Singapore, doubts that one variant of democracy can fit all comers. She'll spend time studying how Muslim women relate to politics in India and in Muslim countries.
Serge Todorovich, 21, from New York City, has a personal stake in the democracy question: he was born in the former Yugoslavia and came here as a baby. His whole extended family had to flee their Bosnian Serb village of Bjelina during the war when it was taken by Muslim forces. Their experience made him skeptical about the effect of democracy in ethnically divided countries.
But the EPIIC program got Todorovich involved in the issue of Bosnian reconciliation. With a foundation grant, Teichman took some students to London to a reconciliation conference. That let to Todorovich's EPIIC project: an effort to look at reconciliation prospects in the sister cities of Bjelina and Tuzla and whether Serbs and Muslims who have been driven out of their homes can ever return.
Mathur and Todorovich both want international careers, as do most EPIIC students. She wants to work in international development, he in international law. EPIIC grads work on the U.S. National Security Council, in the State Department, in foundations, relief organizations, journalism, for the United Nations, and in international business.
But I have to believe that they are more prepared than students who are steeped only in international economics or in law and diplomacy. They have been exposed to hard questions about the common wisdom about global politics. And they have been exposed to each other.
At a time when most American students get little exposure to the world outside their borders, EPIIC is a breath of fresh air.