San Diego State University, through funding from the US Government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation and the Georgian Government, offers internationally accredited Bachelor of Science programs in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in Georgia.
This year they celebrated “Commencement” on June 8, a traditional annual graduation ceremony. SDSU Georgia held its first Commencement in 2019, when 55 students graduated in three programs. There will be 109 students graduating this year, among them the first Civil and Construction Engineering program graduates in Georgia, who will go on to address a critical need within the Georgian economy, in a variety of different roles.
The event was attended by approximately 155 students, and 100 guests, including the academic delegation from SDSU, headed by the 9th permanent President of SDSU, Dr. Adela de la Torre, representatives of the Government of Georgia, US Embassy, and Millennium Foundation, rectors and deans of the three partner universities (Tbilisi State University, Ilia State University, Georgian Technical University), Advisory Board members of SDSU Georgia, Public Private Partnership Fund (PPPF) donors, and other partners of SDSU Georgia.
As part of the ceremony, an MOU between SDSU and the Ministry of Education and Science of Georgia was signed.
GEORGIA TODAY was lucky to grab a sit-down interview with Dr. Adela de la Torre prior to the Commencement to get her view on Georgia’s progress in the past seven years, how self-sustainable the project is, and SDSU’s plans for further collaboration in future.
“I wasn’t president when the call for applications came through the Millennium Corporation [Georgia],” Dr da la Torre tells us “[Our desire to get involved came from] the idea of sharing expertise and creating a partnership in a region where it would create the right kind of synergies of interest. They discovered Georgia could be a very important niche that would enable synergies of faculty from SDSU and local institutions, but more importantly, that here they would be able to create a longer term relationship with San Diego State, which is critical in global partnerships, as you want to have something seeded that will grow. Georgia appeared to have those elements and now you can see that there are deep roots here.
Dr. Adela de la Torre is here in Georgia on her third visit, and she professes a love for the country, particularly its nature and cuisine. She says she can see the potential here, which is what fuels her work here through San Diego State.
“We’re here this week [not only for the graduation ceremony, but], to look at sustainability,” she says. “The local universities have been very important for us in helping the Republic of Georgia develop the workforce needed to create the kind of economic development critical for its own success. And we’ve been very successful. We already have 250 graduates (and will have up to 500 in total), many of whom go on to get advanced degrees, with the idea of them coming back [to ultimately benefit Georgia], having studied Chemistry, Computer Engineering, Computer Science, Construction, or Civil or Electrical Engineering, all of which are backbones for any country that aspires to greatness.”
Tell us about the students here and how the SDSU programs benefit them. We understand on a prior visit, you went to the regions to visit schools and students.
The students are from all over Georgia, and from different economic backgrounds. One of the areas we’ve been tackling is trying to create opportunity and access for students independent of their income, and have developed programs with the private sector to provide scholarships. Within the US, the custom is to pay tuition, but that model is unfamiliar here in Georgia. We had to construct something to create broad access and find funding mechanisms to support the students. We developed that successfully through public-private partnerships. But, more importantly, we began to create a very important brand of excellence, so that students understood that once they entered these programs, they could really develop a career pathway that allows them to become experts in STEM fields.
It wasn’t that these fields didn’t exist before we came along, but they weren’t at a level of quality to allow for that area of expertise. In the US and Europe, you have accredited programs. Accreditation is vital to ensure you are at the top of the game in your field.
What is notable is not just that we brought our faculty to work with the faculty here, and recruit students, but we also have been key in providing a pathway for engineering and chemistry via better accreditation. This has allowed us to cross-train faculty, encourage the hiring of new faculty, and create programs in Tbilisi State University [TSU], for example.
This year, TSU had an application for one of their Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) accredited programs and got over 2200 students applying for 120 spots. What we’re seeing is that quality attracts students to STEM. Quality implies opportunities with employers who see students who can help accelerate their own capacity to grow. And it also attracts other institutions across the globe who want to have Georgian students in their doctoral or graduate programs. All these are very important success metrics.
How would you rate the sustainability of the project? What is being done to ensure this?
Applications have increased in the programs that have just become accredited in the local institutions. The goal was to transfer the knowledge and skills [from SDSU] so that the local faculty could then teach the curriculum [without us]. For the first few years, the faculty at SDSU were largely the key areas of translation of information, because the programs are accredited at SDSU.
Since those first few years, this transferred knowledge and these relationships have created opportunities for trust so that now the faculty at San Diego State feel very confident that they want to continue the relationship.
All these programs really require the faculty and the deans to be in support in order for them to be sustainable. And because this has been ongoing successfully for several years, the faculty are very positive about it.
Sustainability is no easy proposition because you really have to have “buy-in” at the local level. This program does. That’s why it will be successful.
We are at the stage now where we can become equal partners [with Georgian universities] because they have the facilities and staff and the knowledge to work with us and to determine where we could have joint degrees. Joint degrees are where a student is able to get a degree from SDSU as well as one of the sister institutions here. They allow us to partner in areas of interest to both institutions, as well as to develop a sustainable financial model, because it has to be self-supporting. Currently, we are trying to “graduate” the current model, which was largely supported through state department funding, towards a more self-sustainable version. This will build on the partnerships and resources we’ve been molding over the past seven years, and will allow us to amplify the project’s influence.
It’s going to start funding itself from 2023, and we’re beginning to transition now, so it gives us some running room to develop this sustainable financial model. We’ll be looking at external funding mechanisms and synergies.
In terms of recruiting, students are contacted in their schools throughout the regions, but are largely attracted themselves to the San Diego brand and all the opportunities it offers. And now we also have alumni who can [share their experiences and] help recruit. But more importantly, many parents see the direct benefits, particularly of the joint degrees.
We understand you are diversifying activities in Georgia. Tell us about San Diego’s new directions/programs.
One of the areas we’re looking at are other programs that might come up, such as a college of education- there’s a great interest in teacher education. SDSU has one of the best colleges of education in the US, and a wealth of knowledge in the field, so there are opportunities there to work with the US systems and develop more optimal ways to encourage teacher competency areas in Georgia, particularly in STEM education.
Other areas are in the social sciences, digital humanities, and public health. These are the conversations we can have [with the Georgian side] based on the successful programs in STEM.
We’re working with TSU, Iliauni, the Technical University, and we’ll be working with Kutaisi International University (KIU) too.
Any program that’s developed with San Diego State, you have to have faculty who are interested in being committed to that relationship so that it can be sustainable.
We hope to be able to expand in some programs- the current ones are very important and viable, and have a better footing because they’ve been developed and the relationships established. Newer ones will take a little more time.
And we hear you’ll be signing a memorandum with the Ministry of Education?
Yes, that will hopefully solidify the relationship with San Diego State so that we can be committed to working in a collaborative manner to enhance higher education in Georgia, as we have in the past, most likely through our joint degree process.
What we would like to have is an opportunity for students to travel [to SDSU], because that is also a very important educational process. We have exchange programs, but there’s a competitive process for the funding of exchanges, so not all the students get a chance. Right now, the programs are done virtually. And we have faculty that come teach here. But we’re going to be exploring different options of pedagogical delivery.
So, you are confident in Georgia’s educational potential?
The thing about Georgia is that you have a wonderful community with tremendous opportunities, and it is so important from a geopolitical sense that this country become exceptional. The key to any diplomatic strategy is education diplomacy. And that means advancing the opportunities for young people. For Georgia to achieve success, it has to invest in its youth. Education is the key.
Interview by Katie Ruth Davies