Humans, by nature, can be a bit clannish. They cluster around others like them – whether in an elementary school lunchroom, a college classroom or the larger world – and, as a result, become trapped in a bubble of their own making.
Professor Kathleen McKenna of the Liberal Arts Division does her best to break those bubbles – albeit in a gentle, supportive way. Students never know where they’ll be sitting in her class; she likes to “mix things up,” organizing seating arrangements in different ways, and getting classmates to leave their bubbles and interact.
McKenna, a former U.S. Customs attorney who came to SUNY Broome in 1993, does more than inspire individual students to reach out of their comfort zones. With initiatives such as Collaborative Online International Learning, or COIL, she helps students cross international boundaries and meet fellow students from different cultures – even if they never leave campus.
“We just hope there might be a little bit of an increase in understanding, compassion and curiosity about getting to know places,” McKenna said of COIL’s impact on students.
A native of Rome, New York, McKenna became fascinated with the world beyond the United States in high school, when she was an exchange student to Turkey for 10 weeks with the American Field Service. Everything fascinated her: the language, the food, the people, the customs. While earning her Bachelor’s degree in French at LeMoyne College, she studied abroad in France, and followed that up with a law degree and Master’s of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University.
Fluent in German, competent in French and able to survive in Spanish, McKenna worked as a U.S. Customs attorney for a year in Washington, D.C. Her husband at the time, who had been born in Cuba, owed the American military three years of service, and the couple headed off to Germany. McKenna taught college courses on the bases, where the University of Maryland offered open admissions courses, a job she loved.
They lived in Bavaria when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, but McKenna had a chance to see the Iron Curtain’s impact, if anecdotally. Back in November 1989, an East German family joined the Americans to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner, she recalled.
“They were more interested in the fruit salad than the rest of the meal because they couldn’t get fresh oranges and fresh bananas,” she explained.
After returning to the U.S., she taught French at Vestal High School, but yearned to return to higher education. In 1993, she came to SUNY Broome as its Affirmative Action Officer, serving in that position until 2000, in addition to teaching courses. She served as chair of the Department of Criminal Justice, Fire Protection and Homeland Security from 2007 to 2012, followed by a stint as interim chair of the Department of Foreign Languages, English as a Second Language and Speech in 2015.
She has taught a wide range of courses at Broome, from academic planning and effective speaking to American government, criminal justice, criminal procedures, legal ethics and much more. While she’s a faculty member in the Liberal Arts division, she also teaches courses in Business and Public Services, where she has been a dedicated advisor to Criminal Justice and Emergency Services students, as well as a mentor and friend to CJES faculty, according to Professor Kerry Weber, chair of the Criminal Justice & Emergency Services Department.
“She is an extremely sentient colleague who is passionately devoted to the campus community and to the successes of her students,” said Dean of Liberal Arts Michael Kinney. “She is a consummate professional on every level and an inspiration to anyone who ever has had the pleasure of working with her.”
Starting in 2012, McKenna began working more with students in the Scholarships for Education and Economic Development (SEED) program, which gave students from economically disadvantaged countries in Central America and the Caribbean the chance to both pursue higher education and improve their home communities. To improve their communication skills, the students became involved with Speakers of the House, SUNY Broome’s chapter of the international Toastmasters Club, which hones public speaking skills in a supportive environment.
Toastmasters, too, is one of McKenna’s passions; she won second place in a public speaking contest while in high school. She became involved with Binghamton University’s chapter of Toastmasters in 2003, and started SUNY Broome’s chapter with public speaking instructor Matthew Papkov. In 2015, McKenna won the Distinguished Toastmasters Award (DTM) for her service to the club, donning a cape and tiara as fellow club subjected her to a good-natured roast.
The club is currently fairly small, but they’re a passionate bunch and hail from around the globe. They learn to speak eloquently on the spot – and, just as important, give useful feedback that mingles suggestions with praise.
“Toastmasters gives feedback after the speech – a lot of praise, a gentle suggestion, more praise. It’s very laid back and gentle. I use this technique in my classes, too,” McKenna said. “When you give feedback, imagine you’re their coach. What tips do you have for them? The skill is useful if you want to work in management. Speak up, but do it in a way that’s effective.”
Watching the international students mix with their American peers in Toastmasters, McKenna worked on more bubble-bursting initiatives: deliberately designing classes that consisted of half U.S. and half international students. The classes – both public speaking and a walking/fitness class taught by Minnie Daub and Sandy Alter-Ballard – helped break down international boundaries and cultural misunderstandings.
“Human nature is such that people gravitate to the folks they know,” McKenna explained. “I try to get them to mix it up so that folks will really interact more. There have been really good experiences.”
Established in 2006, SUNY’s Collaborative Online International Learning initiative is another way to mix it up, giving students an international experience without leaving campus. On the community college level, this kind of exposure can be extremely beneficial, as students don’t always have the resources to afford studying abroad.
“I taught one class where a couple of kids in class had never been on a plane before. I’m hoping that it opens up the world to them,” said McKenna, who became involved in COIL in spring 2014, when she and instructor Jan McCauley attended a conference. McKenna taught her first COIL course in Fall 2015: Public Policy, paired virtually with a class at the Universidad de Celaya.
The program has grown over the past few years. In addition to Mexico, McKenna has worked with partners in Potsdam, Germany. Lynda Carroll taught an archeology course in collaboration with two different professors in Mexico, located in Monterrey and San Luis Potosi and will continue her collaboration in the Fall. Myriam Stanton’s English as a Second Language course was paired with a Mexican entrepreneurship class in Chihuahua, while McCauley – a co-coordinator of SUNY Broome’s COIL program with McKenna, and currently a SUNY Fellow at the SUNY COIL Center in Manhattan – paired her Cultural Anthropology course with a communications class in Mexico City. Gina Eckert’s History course works with students in Istanbul, Turkey.
The latest round of COIL classes will feature partnerships with even more countries; Marcia Blackburn’s Media and Society class will be paired with students in Morocco, and Alice Caroompas’ Effective Speaking class with students in Mexico. Two additional faculty members, John Sterlacci and Richard Schleider, will be taking SUNY’s online COIL course orientation workshop in March, preparing to join the ranks of the COIL faculty. Many years ago, Dr. Alberto Miller, the Director of International Programs, established a partnership with Tecnológico Comfenalco, in Cartagena, Colombia. They have now joined the COIL movement as well, and are interested in partnering with SUNY Broome classes in STEM and English.
The partnerships don’t always require high technology to work; a smartphone can be used for networking, McKenna pointed out. Students also work with each other via Facebook groups, and other social media and networking programs. With the help of Media Services and the Teaching Resource Center, though, the COIL classes have had top-notch synchronous and asynchronous connections with their partners.
COIL classes can raise awareness of the nuances of communication, McKenna points out; students learn to avoid jargon and consider how they express ideas. Collaboration can also shatter stereotypes. Many students in Celaya, for example, went to bilingual schools before coming to college and speak English well, for example.
While she’s covering ground virtually, McKenna also has tallied her own flight miles. She’s visited Mexico three times, traveled in Europe and paid a visit to Argentina while her daughter studied abroad there. One place she would like to visit: Cuba, perhaps as a possible location for a short-term study abroad program.
McKenna has been an academic innovator since arriving at SUNY Broome, said Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Officer Francis Battisti. He noted that the COIL initiative has helped the college continue to internationalize its curriculum, increasingly important in a global world.
“While some students may not be able to take advantage of our Study Abroad programs, all students can work with and meet other students from around the world by registering for a COIL course. Under Kathleen’s leadership and commitment, the number of COIL courses and faculty teaching these courses and developing relationships with other scholars from around the world has steadily grown,” he said. “Professor McKenna has clearly distinguished herself as a dedicated, creative educator.”