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Answering the Call for Multilingual Professionals

For students, businesses and, increasingly, governmental institutions, cultural diversity is one of the California State University’s most attractive attributes. Our student population, which will reach more than 450,000 this year, speaks roughly 100 languages. This is why state and national leaders are increasingly turning to the CSU system to help create a more dynamic international workforce, to locally employ multilingual professionals and to better prepare the country for its growing security threats and conflicts.

Diverse universities have always served public and private industries well by developing bright, multilingual students. However, today it is crucial for higher education to be more strategic and creative in the development of language curricula.

To do its part, the CSU recently launched the Strategic Language Initiative (SLI), which consists of immersion courses designed specifically to develop educated professionals who speak Arabic, Korean, Mandarin, Persian and Russian.

The SLI is a collaborative effort that integrates language learning with professional majors and career opportunities, and could serve as a national model for training in these critical languages. The primary goal of the program is to help our nation meet the need for strategic and diplomatic expertise in global business, trade and transportation, plus develop the domestic capability to communicate in response to international situations.

Six of the 23 CSU campuses began their immersion programs this past summer, which entailed having students live and study together. This first batch of SLI students is now in the second phase of the program — back at home and on campus studying their languages throughout the academic year. They will conclude their programs next summer while studying abroad. In the future, additional CSU campuses plan to participate.

At the state level, the need for SLI-type programs and college-educated multilingual professionals has never been greater, and the multitude of heritage language communities in metropolitan areas like Southern California represent a largely untapped resource to help meet these needs.

Public higher education institutions will continue working to increase educational equality and the enrollment of students from underserved communities, which both the CSU and California community colleges have done well in. Our state higher education systems should and will continue to address these concerns. But even with the success of this outreach, there is still a valid and growing concern regarding where California businesses will go to find multilingual professionals in the future.

However, within these communities the need for locally employed multilingual professionals continues to grow. In Los Angeles County, for example, areas such as Korea Town and Glendale, with its large Armenian and Lebanese populations, are flourishing. Businesses that cater to these cultures are expanding into these areas, and it is higher education’s role to teach students the linguistic skills to take advantage of these opportunities.

As ideological conflicts continue around the world, meeting the need for multilingual dignitaries and intelligence agents able to communicate with other populations is critical. The U.S. Department of Defense has called for a collaborative federal and academic effort to fill critical national foreign language shortfalls. The mandate for higher education is to provide translation, interpretation and cultural competencies in the field, and in strategic planning and intelligence. The CSU has been specifically called out, and we have responded.

This year the CSU opened the Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence on our San Bernardino campus with a multimillion-dollar grant from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The center is the headquarters of CSU’s seven-campus initiative that will create student programs in language acquisition, critical thinking and writing, foreign studies, GIS-related skills, national security and intelligence studies, and graduate studies in related programs.

Many U.S. universities, whether funded by the government or not, work to create awareness among university and high school students regarding the career opportunities in the intelligence community. But only a handful have developed curriculum skill sets relevant to intelligence community careers.

No single university has the resources to meet this rapidly changing need for global and regional expertise in the wide range of world languages. But by employing a little ingenuity to develop curricula that are attractive to our multicultural faculty and students at universities and college across the country, we can definitely start to make an impact. — Dr. Charles B. Reed is chancellor of the California State University, the nation’s largest senior system of public higher education. D

–Charles B. Reed

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