The Power of Partnerships

Four partnerships offer lessons learned in building and sustaining successful, long-term relationships between institutions.
Though there is no single roadmap to creating long-lasting partnerships between institutions, success stories share important characteristics. Photo: Unsplash

It’s Wednesday night, and 10 faces appear on the screen as a team of researchers, medical doctors, and advocates log on to Zoom for their weekly meeting. The team, which represents two universities—one in the United States, the other in the Dominican Republic—and their nonprofit partners, greets their colleagues, eager to discuss the agenda for the evening. With both hearing and deaf individuals on the call from the two countries, interpreters provide seamless communication between English, Spanish, American Sign Language, and Dominican Sign Language.

The Wednesday evening Zoom calls are the latest iteration of a partnership that stretches back almost 2 decades. In 2017, the University of Rochester and the Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra (PUCMM) began to build on their existing partnership by collaborating with two nonprofits: Deaf Worlds, a U.S.-based international deaf advocacy organization, and the National Deaf Association (Asociación Nacional de Sordos de la República Dominicana  [ANSORDO]) in the Dominican Republic. 

The new project focuses on health disparities and outcomes related to language acquisition and deprivation in the deaf community in the Dominican Republic, and it evolved from relationships built by Timothy Dye, PhD, an obstetrics and gynecology professor at Rochester, who conducted research in Latin and Central America in the early 2000s. The two nonprofits have been instrumental in connecting the research team with deaf Dominicans. 

Screen shot of a zoom meeting
The weekly Zoom meeting between team members in the United States and the Dominican Republic. Photo: Courtesy University of Rochester

Dye says a vital aspect of the project is a strong personal commitment to the success of each individual on the team. “We trust one another, we have each other’s backs, and we support one another’s career development,” Dye says. “Even if individual people might come and go as the partnership goes along, the expectation is that everybody is committed to this, even if they move on and go do something else.”

The group is a shining example of what a sustainable, mutually beneficial international partnership can look like. In addition to a strong personal commitment to the success of each individual on the team, the researchers recognize each other’s strengths and contributions, acknowledging that everyone brings their own expertise to the table. 

Though there is no single roadmap to creating long-lasting partnerships between institutions, the success stories share important characteristics. The following examples illustrate the different forms that partnerships can take, focusing on the practices that sustain them: learning from team members, respecting each institution’s areas of expertise, building on shared accomplishments, fostering trust, and engaging leadership in the partnership. 

University of Rochester and Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra: Cross-Cultural Collaboration in the Dominican Republic

Strong, long-lasting partnerships often start small and evolve over time. Dye of the University of Rochester began working in the Dominican Republic in the early 2000s on a project that involved establishing digital technology centers so people in rural communities could access health information. 

“We realized this was an infrastructure upon which to build collaborative research activities because we already had a presence in these communities,” Dye says. 

It was in the Dominican Republic that he met physician Zahira Quiñones, MD, the former director of research in the faculty of health sciences at PUCMM. Quiñones was working with Deborah Ossip, PhD, a public health professor at the University of Rochester, who along with other collaborators teamed up for more than a decade on two projects that utilized the technology centers to help people stop smoking and prevent secondhand smoke exposure. Quiñones pursued a master’s in public health at Rochester and later began a PhD in transnational biomedical sciences. 

“We realized this was an infrastructure upon which to build collaborative research activities because we already had a presence in these communities.” —Timothy Dye

Dye and Quiñones began a new project in 2015 to develop a training program focused on maternal health priorities for groups in the same communities where they had implemented the technology centers. This laid the groundwork for collaboration with Wyatte C. Hall, PhD, and physician Shazia Siddiqi, MD, on the current project in the deaf community, which is funded with a two-year grant from the National Institute of Health. The team has applied for another five-year research grant to keep the project going. 

Deaf Worlds, a partner in the aforementioned project, is a deaf-led organization that provides capacity building and training for deaf communities in around the globe. With assistance from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Deaf Worlds has worked closely with ANSORDO since 2017 to provide human rights training and organizational and leadership development to support the association in achieving its goals. 

“We come in and ask the community what they need,” says Sachiko Flores, MA, Deaf World’s co-executive director. “We see them as the experts on their own lives and needs.”

Hall says that deaf people in the Dominican Republic have fewer opportunities to be exposed to a fully accessible languages, such as sign languages, which can affect their access to education—as well as vital information about health. The team is conducting interviews with deaf Dominicans to document their experience with language deprivation as it relates to health outcomes and disparities. The researchers are training eight deaf Dominicans to do interviews in their communities. 

Group of researchers in the Dominican Republic
“Everybody has a kind of a role and expertise, and we just bring everything to the same table. And we’re learning from each other,” says Zahira Quiñones. Photo: Courtesy University of Rochester

ANSORDO hopes to use the data about the experience of deaf Dominicans to advocate for more support and more inclusive policies from the Dominican ministries of health and education, says Pablo Taveras, president of the association.

Quiñones says that without the partnership with ANSORDO, the research would not have been conducted. “Everybody has a kind of a role and expertise, and we just bring everything to the same table. And we’re learning from each other,” she says. 

Several team members spoke about the importance of recognizing each other’s strengths and contributions and the need for cultural understanding. “I am deaf…[but] I don’t know anything about the Dominican deaf community,” Hall says. “I have to rely on and respect the expertise from the deaf community in the Dominican Republic. I have some shared experiences with those folks, but I'm from a different culture.”

Dye adds that the team has a shared passion for the work that they are doing: “We all believe in the science that we’re doing. And those of us who are hearing are allies to our deaf colleagues to get the science done so that policies can improve for them.”

Global Education Network: Leadership, Strategy, and Accountability 

Other groups have used approaches similar to those adapted by the University of Rochester’s project in the Dominican Republic to develop multipronged partnerships. 

Earlier this year, the Global Education Network (GEN) was supposed to celebrate its 20th birthday on the campus of Box Hill Institute near Melbourne, Australia. Instead, students, staff, faculty, and campus leaders joined together for a virtual gathering commemorating the two-decades-old relationship. 

GEN is a consortium of four technical colleges in four different countries: Box Hill in Australia, the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) in Singapore, Kirkwood Community College in the United States, and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) in Canada. 

A group of researchers at a stampede in Calgary
A group from the four GEN institutions at the Calgary Stampede while visiting SAIT. “There's a structure in place that ensures that it keeps going,” says Dawn Wood of GEN's multi-layered partnership approach. Photo: Courtesy GEN

The partnership began in 2001 when the presidents of Box Hill and SAIT met at a conference and discussed the challenges of finding suitable exchange partners in the career and technical education fields. The two colleges began working together, and over the next 5 years were joined by Kirkwood and ITE. 

The four GEN partners offer similar vocational and technical curricula, such as auto technology, welding, graphic design, healthcare, and early childhood education. The collaboration between institutions has resulted in hundreds of student, faculty, and staff exchanges; virtual exchanges; and joint faculty and staff professional development. The colleges also collaborate on curriculum, plan joint service learning programs, and share best practices. 

A key factor is learning from each other’s strengths. Kirkwood and Box Hill looked to ITE’s state-of-the-art facilities when developing their own health simulation labs, and ITE faculty spent 2 months at SAIT when they were launching a new aerospace program. 

During the pandemic, the partners held their regular meetings virtually and also increased the number of virtual exchanges for students. In November 2020, students from all four institutions participated in an esports tournament—organized, competitive video gaming. Welding faculty also led a virtual exchange in spring 2021 about the requirements and regulations in each country, and students produced videos about welding practices in their respective countries. 

Dawn Wood, PhD, dean of global learning at Kirkwood, says that one of the keys to maintaining a successful, long-term partnership is involving multiple levels of the institution. Prior to the pandemic, the presidents of the four institutions gathered each year for an in-person summit, rotating hosting duties between each college. Now, chief academic officers meet on a quarterly basis, and coordinators have monthly virtual meetings. “There's a structure in place that ensures that it keeps going,” says Wood. 

Sabrina Loi, MBA, chief officer of organization excellence and international partnerships at ITE in Singapore, says that having presidents and provosts intimately involved in the partnership also helps ensure that sufficient resources are committed to maintaining it. 

“If leaders are committed, then that will create that cascading effect down the line, and staff and faculty will also be committed,” she says. 

Each college has a staff member who works as a dedicated coordinator for the partnership and invests significantly in making the network run smoothly through funding staff travel and subsidizing students’ participation in study abroad, Wood says. 

“If leaders are committed, then that will create that cascading effect down the line, and staff and faculty will also be committed.” —Sabrina Loi

Another important aspect of the partnership is a two-year strategic plan that outlines joint program goals and priorities and features a score card that assesses progress toward meeting those targets. “It’s just really clear what we're doing and why we're doing it,” Wood says. 

The strategic plan provides a clear roadmap for the network’s joint activities. “We have very clear objectives of what we hope to do, agreed [on] by our leaders,” Loi says. “And then we also track what we have done and what more we can do.”

Colorado State University and Asian Institute of Technology: A Dual-Degree Program from a 60-Year Partnership 

The Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) and Colorado State University (CSU) have an especially long history of collaboration. This fall, three students from AIT in Bangkok, Thailand, are starting a new two-year dual-degree master’s program—just the latest development in a partnership between AIT and CSU that spans 6 decades.

The students will spend the first year at AIT and the second year at CSU in Fort Collins, Colorado, for a new civil engineering program that focuses on water engineering and management. Faculty from both AIT and CSU will jointly supervise students in their thesis work, and each institution will award a masters of science degree. 

“This collaborative academic initiative is the latest chapter in the more than 60-year story of mutually beneficial relations between the two institutions,” says Shawn Kelly, director of international affairs at AIT. “CSU played an instrumental role in AIT’s founding in the late 1950s and success in the 60s and later decades, providing key faculty and vital early leadership for the institute’s development.”

“It's much deeper than a one-off connection between two faculty members in one area. It extends across campus, and there’s that familiarity with AIT as a trusted and strategic partner that another institution wouldn't have.” —Sarah Olson

CSU engineering professor Maurice Albertson, PhD, who cowrote the paper that led to the development of the Peace Corps, was forefront in the creation of AIT in 1959. Through the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), the United States and other countries wanted to establish a graduate school of engineering in Southeast Asia. Other CSU engineering faculty filled leadership positions at AIT, including its first president, Milton E. Bender, PhD, throughout the 1960s and 70s. More recently, several AIT faculty members are alumni of CSU, and David McLean, PhD, dean of the CSU College of Engineering, serves as a member of the AIT Board of Trustees. 

Sarah Olson, senior coordinator of international partnerships, MA, says the longevity of the relationship has increased its profile at both institutions. She notes she would have to make more of a case when proposing a collaboration with a new institution, whereas AIT “is a known entity.”

“It's much deeper than a one-off connection between two faculty members in one area,” Olson says. “It extends across campus, and there’s that familiarity with AIT as a trusted and strategic partner that another institution wouldn't have.”

It has also been helpful to have senior leadership engaged in the partnership, Olson says. In October 2019, for example, CSU President Joyce McConnell, PhD, was the guest of honor and keynote speaker at AIT’s 60th anniversary celebration in Bangkok. Olson says that such high-profile visits have encouraged people to think outside their own discipline. 

Students in graduation robes
Students at AIT, which was founded with the help of a CSU professor more than 60 years ago. As part of the evolving partnership between the two institutions, a new two-year dual-degree master's program will commence with three Thai students studying on campus at CSU. Photo: Courtesy AIT

“Something that we talk about with our outgoing delegations is to try and keep an ear out for opportunities that make sense for other people at CSU outside of their home unit and opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration,” she says. 

Much of AIT’s and CSU’s collaboration over the years has focused on the institutions’ respective expertise on water resources, which will be the focus of the new dual-degree program. 

“AIT’s water education and research has a history of more than 60 years, and we are contributing to understanding and solving complex water resources problems in [the] Asian region,” says Sangam Shrestha, PhD, professor and department chair of water engineering and management at AIT. “Similarly, CSU has a legacy of world-class work in fluid mechanics, hydraulics, hydrology, water quality, and water resources planning and management to solve the global challenges of meeting the water needs of people and the environment.”

Charles Shackelford, PhD, professor and head of the CSU civil and environmental engineering department, says that CSU’s motivation for the new program is to recruit more highly talented master’s students, and possibly PhD students, if the Thai students decide to stay at CSU for further graduate work. In addition, he foresees the master’s program leading to an increase in AIT and CSU faculty and students partnering on applied research projects. 

“We’re hoping there’s an outgrowth of more collaboration from this specific program,” he says. 

Emerson College and Blanquerna School of Communication and International Relations: Collaborating on Global Communication

Committed to sustainable partnerships, Emerson College in Boston pursues partnerships that draw on the expertise of both institutions. Corey Blackmar, MA, director of Emerson’s Global Pathways Programs, says he appreciates the fact that Emerson focuses on institutional fit, rather than rankings and personal connections, when developing academic partnerships. He sees shared academic missions and complementary programs as vital to successful collaboration. 

“We take a very intentional dive into the academic programs a partner may offer to see if they are a good academic match to our own,” he says. “Being an arts- and communications-focused institution, we’ve been able to cultivate some very boutique types of experiences in those areas with institutions that may not be at the top of the mind of every international educator.”

He points to Emerson’s relationship with Blanquerna School of Communication and International Relations, which is part of Universitat-Ramon Llull in Barcelona, Spain. “We identified the niche within the institution that suits our School of Communication well in terms of courses and joint research interests between faculty,” Blackmar says. 

U.S. students standing in front of a cathedral in Barcelona
In addition to student exchanges—like the Emerson students in Barcelona, above—the Emerson-Blanqeuerna partnership encompasses a 4+1 degree articulation and a jointly run center for global communications. Photo: Courtesy Emerson College

Although the two institutions did not sign a formal agreement until 2015, the relationship started more than 20 years before when Blanquerna hosted Emerson students who were attending the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Emerson students can spend a semester in Barcelona studying international communication, international relations, journalism, advertising and public relations, cinema and television, and Spanish. Emerson hosts Blanquerna students at its campuses in Boston and Los Angeles. In addition to these exchanges, the two institutions also offer 4+1 degree articulations between Emerson’s MA programs in sports communications, public relations, and political communication. More than 60 students have participated in joint programs since 2015. 

The two schools also run a joint center, the Emerson-Blanquerna Center for Global Communication, which promotes collaboration in teaching and research in areas such as public diplomacy, international marketing, digital media, sports communication, public relations, and political communication. In 2020, researchers at the center worked on a study focusing on perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors of their respective populations during the COVID-19 pandemic. They found that residents of Spain were significantly more confident in their country’s health care system’s COVID response than their U.S. counterparts. 

“I feel as much a part of the Blanquerna community as I do the Emerson community.” —Gregory Payne

The center also hosts the annual Blanquerna-Emerson Global Summit, which brings together global communication practitioners to present academic papers in this area. Past years have focused on advancing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, gender advocacy, and strategic diplomacy. Faculty, administrators, and students from both institutions typically present at the summits. In 2021, the summit is slated to take place in early October at Blanquerna.

Gregory Payne, PhD, associate professor and chair of communication studies at Emerson, works closely with his colleagues at Blanquerna. Payne says one of the ways to develop a multipronged partnership is to involve people at different levels of the institution. Getting the dean of graduate studies involved, for example, has helped the partners develop new joint master’s programs. But he adds that it’s as important to engage faculty as it is senior leadership. He invites colleagues to participate in various programs in order to help continue the relationship when he eventually retires. 

The integration of the two institutions has helped foster a sense of trust and mutual respect. “I feel as much a part of the Blanquerna community as I do the Emerson community,” Payne says.  •

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NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA's 10,000 members are located at more than 3,500 institutions worldwide, in over 150 countries.