What more could Penn do to promote equitable and sustainable development in the world? Professor Dan Wagner, who leads the International Educational Development Program (IEDP) at Penn GSE, hears this question quite often.
When Irina Bokova, Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, spoke on campus February 9, Wagner asked her that question. In leading UNESCO, Bokova has focused on improving education opportunities, gender equality, stopping human trafficking, and the smuggling of stolen antiquities. She did not have to think long before answering Wagner’s question.
“We lack data,” Bokova said. “We’re all talking about the data revolution because without data, you cannot have the right policies. We need more studies about international development … speaking about water, about literacy, about education, about energy, about gender. There’s a vast area of need for international development studies, and universities like yours are so well placed to do this.”
While UNESCO has long focused on aiding and improving primary education, Bokova added she hoped universities like Penn could do more to make a difference—in research, through its students and faculty, and in partnering with universities abroad.
UNESCO and Penn GSE share close ties. Dan Wagner holds the UNESCO Chair in Learning and Literacy, and has received the UNESCO Confucius International Literacy Prize for his work in South Africa. Together, Penn GSE and UNESCO co-established Penn’s International Literacy Institute (ILI). Further, each year, one or more students from a developing country attend Penn GSE’s International Educational Development Program (IEDP) on a fully funded Masters fellowship through its partnership with UNESCO. In addition, more than fifty IEDP students have served in UNESCO internships around the world.
Bokova’s visit to Penn was co-sponsored by Penn GSE and the Fels Institute of Government. Bokova shared the stage with Marjorie Margolies, a Senior Fellow at Fels and former Member of Congress.
Wagner opened the conversation by praising Bokova’s humanistic approach. “This is a woman who is usually surrounded by diplomats and high-ranking professionals. And she insisted on a private seminar with students,” Wagner noted. “This is a leader grounded in the future, who believes in bringing people and ideas together.”
Bokova, who is a formal candidate to succeed Ban Ki-moon as the next UN Secretary-General, spoke about UNESCO’s educational initiatives, its role in combating violent extremism, its work in Syrian refugee camps, cultural heritage preservation efforts, and efforts to protect the safety of journalists. Margolies, herself an experienced journalist, guided Bokova to speak not only about her work, but about her trailblazing role as a woman in the organization.
Bokova also discussed what she believes are the United States and UNESCO’s shared core values, noting, “We talk about freedom of expression, we talk about media, we talk about safety of journalists, we talk about combating violent extremism…we speak about education and literacy. We speak about gender equality, and girls’ education.” In informal discussions, she thought these same important values could see even greater emphasis at the UN, if she were to move there.
Before the formal presentation began, the entire cohort of IEDP master’s students swarmed Bokova for a photo-op backstage. This was no ordinary grip-and-grin, though, as Bokova took time after the photo to hear from many of the students individually. In her opening remarks, Bokova praised the students in the IEDP program.
Pritha Choudhury, a first year IEDP student at Penn GSE originally from India, is interested in working in South or South East Asia. While she is still figuring out exactly what that means, she thinks she’ll focus on teacher education and curriculum development to increase access and quality of education.
“I had a wonderful time learning about Irina Bokova's journey from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bulgaria to being the first woman Director General of UNESCO,” Choudhury said. “I loved hearing about her perspective on quality of education and what students and young people should do to participate in ensuring quality.”
“We are very proud to co-host this event with the Fels Institute,” said Dan Wagner. “An event like this is really important for Penn GSE, especially with Dean Grossman’s emphasis on global engagement.”
Dean Grossman echoed the sentiment. “Our relationship with UNESCO is deep, not just because of Dan Wagner’s position, but because we are a source for interns for the organization. We’re unlocking opportunities globally, and this helps us expand the School’s global impact.”
Other faculty in attendance praised Wagner’s leadership in UNESCO as well. “Dan Wagner’s influence tremendous for our work at Penn GSE,” said Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher, Associate Director of the IEDP program.
Education, Culture, and Society’s Alex Pozeznick agreed, adding that getting such personal access to a leader like Bokova is an extraordinary experience for Penn GSE students. “We have a very unique relationship with the United Nations as a school of education,” he said.
You can view a video recording of the event here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7XVRo_jG5s