StoryCorps: Steve McLaughlin + Larry Jacobs

In 2007, Steve McLaughlin became Georgia Tech’s first Vice Provost of International Initiatives, traveling to nearly 50 different countries on behalf of the university. He’s now the Chair of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and recently sat down with Larry Jacobs, Associate Dean for Academic to talk about the history of the International Education program and his hopes for its future within Georgia Tech. He begins with a little advice he shares with incoming freshman.

Audio Transcript

McLaughlin: I mean honestly, when I talk to freshmen—we probably say a lot of the same things—take advantage of what’s out here for our students. It’s just absolutely unbelievable. And I go straight to the international experience, There’s just absolutely no experience like it. And I always say, 98 percent of our students say that that experience changed their life. And I think the really magic about what it is we’re doing with study abroad here is that students can really dial in any kind of experience they want. The experiences that they get and the people that they meet, and the mistakes that they make. Um, and all of that stuff is just, it’s so much part of the experience. And it’s—I feel incredibly lucky to be in that place in students’ lives.

Jacobs: Yeah. A particular brag point for me that I use, and I’ll just talk about engineering, because I know you did, in your other job, you did all of Georgia Tech. From an engineering perspective, if you look nationally, about five percent of engineering students have an international experience. Whether that’s an internship or a study abroad or whatever. At Georgia Tech, our engineering graduates—over 50 percent have an international experience. And I look at that as you. Can you talk about what you had to do to go through to get you know, grow from—‘cause we used to be at about five percent, and now we’re 50 percent.

McLaughlin: Yeah, I mean, I think it was an all-hands-on-deck kind of experience, And I think honestly, our approach at the time was just full speed ahead. Connect with as many people, provide as many opportunities, make some mistakes along the way. [laughter] It was as much about capacity and size. We knew we were gonna get to a tipping point meaning we wanted to get to the conversation where it’s not are you gonna study abroad, but where are you gonna study abroad?

Jacobs: Interesting.

McLaughlin: And I think we’re now, we’re finally at the place of, it’s expected. And where are you gonna study abroad? A lot of the things we were doing was kind of international campuses. We were thinking about, should we build a campus in these five or six or eight places—spent a lot of time doing that. Some of which we did, um but we stuck with a few core programs. Georgia Tech is about size, the number of students we’ve got is important. So we have these select programs. Point being, we spent a lot of time thinking about how to make big programs. And so that’s what it’s all about. Just full speed ahead.

Jacobs: So just sort of running the business of international education—I know you have some great experiences, some great stories, and anything that you regret? Is there anything that you said, “Wow, I wish I would’ve, you know, if I would’ve done that.”

McLaughlin: I’d say no regrets, because you learn from everything. I think the thing though I really would like to talk about probably just that the role that we can play, that Georgia Tech can play around the world. The ambassador responsibility that our students have. First and foremost, be people-centered, be people-focused. No matter where you’re going, I think if you do focus on people and making connections and building bridges. Like if you just think about, we graduate thousands of engineers per year, the most of any school in the United States. Think about collectively the impact that 50 percent or more of those students have built bridges, have connected, understand culture, understand how to survive in places, but also to connect with people in different cultures. Think about over time I try always to stay in that mode. This is really about building connections one person at a time. Small bridges one at a time. And then over the course of our lives, over the next 50 years, think—in places like China where we have lots of students, or even the Middle East—think about the bridges that we will have built.

And that’s the gift that we have, of size, is that we can think about ways that are not just miniscule. They’re not just at the nano scale. They’re at the mega scale, and we get to do that. Someday, it’ll be a hundred percent of our students having an international experience, and I think that’s the day when people are gonna say Georgia Tech really, really does change the world. 

Produced by Melissa Terry from interviews recorded by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives.
Special thanks to the interview participants, StoryCorps Atlanta, WREK Atlanta 91.1FM, WABE 90.1FM, and Institute Communications