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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Northwestern Hosts Inaugural U7+ Worldwide Student Forum

This summer, 85 students from 22 universities in 12 countries convened virtually to address one big question: How should universities best prepare students for life after graduation in light of the global COVID-19 pandemic and global and local events since its onset? The students participated in the inaugural U7+ Worldwide Student Forum, which Northwestern University hosted as a precursor to this year’s U7+ Alliance of World Universities Summit.

The U7+ Alliance of World Universities is the first alliance of university presidents aimed at defining concrete actions universities can take to collectively address global challenges in coordination with government leaders in G7 countries and beyond. 

Northwestern will host this year’s Summit in partnership with U.S. co-sponsoring institutions, Georgetown University, Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley. The inaugural summit, held last year in France, included 47 universities representing 20 countries and more than two million students. This year’s Summit will build on work initiated in France to establish the role higher education institutions can play in addressing key global issues from COVID-19 to climate change—and students’ voices will be heard.

The students who participated in this summer’s U7+ Worldwide Student Forum prepared video messages for their institutions’ leaders, with recommendations on U7+ Alliance Commitments, Principles and Actions, and creating meaningful learning experiences amid COVID-19.  Here are some of the top takeaways and recommendations from students’ forum discussions:

  • Student mental health must be a priority. Students are under such pressure in university, and especially in this time of lockdown and limited human interaction. Forum participants called on U7+ Presidents to create pathways for students to seek support throughout their time in university, including during the pandemic when they may be off-campus. “At the end of the day, we can’t be part of making change unless we are healthy,” students reported.
  • Universities should help students filter through misinformation, and play a stronger role correcting falsehoods. Students noted that universities are the champions of truth and scientific inquiry and are uniquely positioned to help vet and preserve the integrity of information that reaches the public and shapes decision-making at all levels of society. They also recommended programming designed to teach students to parse fact from fiction. “Truth is what you study in university. After graduation, we will have to venture out and find the truth for ourselves,” they said.
  • Build support of the arts into the commitments of the U7+. Students asserted that the arts, in addition to the sciences, are a powerful tool for fostering dialogue across cultures and called on U7+ leaders to recognize their importance. “To omit the arts from the commitments of the U7+ is to ignore an important aspect of our humanity,” they said.
  • Digital technologies are replacing in-person experiences, and the U7+ can work to improve the quality of digital learning. During the COVID-19 pandemic classes were moved online very quickly in many countries around the world. While classroom learning migrated to a new format, many of the other experiences that students expect during their time in university—such as internships and study abroad programs—were cancelled. Moving forward, students called for online learning opportunities that foster engagement not just with their university professors, but also with their classmates, with community leaders and with future employers across professional sectors.
  • Universities should do more to equalize the experience of domestic and international students. Students recommended that university leaders work together to provide a better and more supportive experience for international students, calling for lower tuition rates and more funding opportunities for international students, in particular. “International students are bringing their cultures to campus with them. Universities are not just giving a service to international students, but they are benefiting from them as well,” they said. Students also called for more engagement between domestic students and international students. “We need to talk more—to talk to people with diverse experiences and backgrounds.”
  • There should be more emphasis on the cultivation of personal abilities in addition to knowledge development. Students recommended university leaders create more programs to support the development of skills and accumulation of life experiences during their time in school. They recognized the links and gaps between classroom learning and action in their communities, and encouraged their universities to prioritize programming that will prepare them for careers beyond academia. “Internship programs and experiential learning opportunities would support student preparation for creating the futures they want to be part of,” students said.
  • Create concrete goals and accountability measures as part of the U7+ actions. Students recommended U7+ university leaders develop targets to measure the progress of U7+ universities toward broad, far-reaching U7+ Alliance goals such as “equity and inclusiveness in the world” and “combating polarization in society.” They suggested setting improvement targets for each U7+ institution, regardless of its starting point in a particular area, and recommended creating baseline requirements for U7+ Alliance membership.
  • Expand opportunities for student engagement with the U7+, including at the U7+ Presidential Summits. Students called for more communication about the U7+ Alliance and what universities are doing as part of the network. “More students would be interested and more students would be part of supporting the actions of the U7+ if they knew more about it,” they said. In light of that, students suggested making the U7+ Worldwide Student Forum an annual convening, creating a U7+ student board to ensure ongoing communication with U7+ university leaders, and ensuring student representation at the U7+ Presidential Summits or creating opportunities for students to participate in work to achieve U7+ Alliance goals. “Our discussions are important enough that they need to be [covered] in depth with university presidents,” they said.
U7+ university leaders will have an opportunity to hear students’ video messages and engage in discussions about their recommendations during this November’s U7+ Summit.