Thousands of international students annually come to the United States to study, but few American students participate in international study programs. Recently the Institute of International Education (IIE) announced a program to dramatically increase that number. The New York–based institute, which provides a variety of services to promote international education, has committed some $2 million toward achieving that goal.

The IIE recognizes that educational programs should prepare students for an engaged life in an increasingly globalized world, and sees the incorporation of significant international experience in programs of study as a key factor in the United States becoming more globally competitive. It is encouraging colleges and universities to look for ways to help students pay for international study. The institute’s latest report decried the fact that students who now have any international educational experience – fewer than 10 per cent of all U.S. students – largely come from private colleges and universities; these opportunities are rarely available to low-income students.

At first thought, it would seem that institutions located near the Canada-U.S. border would enjoy certain advantages in this respect, since for them the “international” is at least locally accessible. In this favoured environment, cross-border programs are affordable and relatively easily planned. Logically, these universities should find it relatively easy to develop and implement international experiences for their students.

Yet in practice, those determined to build official programs straddling the two countries face formidable obstacles as the institutions deal with an international border and the different jurisdictions that delineate it. These range from the problems of developing a joint curriculum to navigating the different requirements imposed by university educational boards to assuring that students have the correct visa to allow them to cross the border easily.

An international joint MA degree in Canadian-American Studies was launched in the fall of 2013. It is delivered in equal proportions in Canada by Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, and in the United States by the University at Buffalo (UB), part of the 65-campus State University of New York system. As one of the founders of this initiative, I experienced the challenges and the rewards of developing such a program. This was indeed was a pioneering experiment in program design, as it is the first Canada-U.S. international joint degree that has been offered by any SUNY campus or by Brock.

The background

3_7492139806_53d7db445b_o_emily Bell flickr adjThe Brock and Buffalo campuses are separated by about 45 kilometres, with the Niagara River that marks the international boundary being almost equidistant from the two campuses. Canadians and Americans share many similar values and cultures, and are extraordinarily interdependent economically. Canada is the U.S.’s largest trading partner, its largest foreign supplier of energy products and its largest customer, purchasing $233 billion worth of goods in 2012. In turn, the United States receives 70 per cent of all of Canada’s exports. The traffic on the six bridges (four automotive and two rail) that span the Niagara make this stretch of border the second most important gateway for the roughly $1.5 billion in trade that moves daily between the two countries. These bridges are among the busiest border crossings in terms of movement of people and goods.

As close as Canada and the United States may be in a wide variety of dimensions (our borders have been peaceful since the War of 1812), there are important differences that occasionally generate friction in the relationship, as well as a lack of understanding on both sides of the border. This points to the need for partnerships such as the Buffalo-Brock Program to help both Canadians and Americans gain a deeper understanding of our similarities and our differences.

Numbering only a tenth the population of the United States, and living in great majority within about an hour’s drive of the U.S. border, Canadians are very conscious of the U.S. presence. They follow events in the United States quite closely, and are major consumers of U.S. cultural products. Canadians often develop pronounced opinions about American politicians, and disliked President George W. Bush as strongly as they like President Barack Obama.

However, Canadians are accustomed to strong prime ministerial control in the political realm and often unrealistically expect to see the same from American presidents. Canadians may fail to appreciate how the checks and balances of the U.S. presidential system give Congress an important role in foreign affairs, and an especially significant impact on the kinds of “intermestic” issues (simultaneously “international” because they involve the two countries and “domestic” since the issues are of local importance and are often of concern to subnational jurisdictions) that dominate the Canada-U.S. relationship. Not appreciating these constraints, many Canadians have been disappointed with President Obama’s record in the area of improving the bilateral relationship.

For their part, Americans tend not to notice Canada much and, when they do, they often mistakenly and benevolently regard Canadians as “just like us.” In that light, they may be taken aback when Canadians do something unexpected. This was readily apparent when the Canadian government refused to join the “coalition of the willing” to fight with the United States in Iraq in 2003, as the then–U.S. ambassador Paul Cellucci’s memoirs make clear.1

Occasionally, even American politicians who might be expected to know better display a shocking ignorance of Canada and behave in ways that are offensive to their northern neighbours. This was vividly displayed in 2012–13 when the Peace Bridge (named to celebrate a century of peace between Canada and the United States) that joins Buffalo and Fort Erie became the site of an angry dispute between Canadian and New York state representatives. Hostilities erupted when New York state officials complained that the binational authority responsible for the bridge (comprising equal numbers of American and Canadian members) had favoured projects that developed facilities in Canada, to the neglect of the U.S. side. Two ambitious Buffalo-area politicians sponsored bills to disband the authority and replace it with two governing bodies, one for Canada and one for the United States. Neither apparently understood that the bridge authority was constituted by federal legislation on both sides of the border, and their bid to have New York unilaterally disband the authority ended when Canadian federal officials made this clear.2

Clearly, educational initiatives that can help Canadians and Americans better understand each other are needed. The bilateral relationship is simply too broad, too deep and too important to assume that things will always go well. Border institutions such as Brock and the University at Buffalo have an opportunity, and perhaps even a responsibility, to take up this challenge.

With this in mind, in 2007 UB launched a Canadian Studies Academic Program at the graduate level, offering students an opportunity to earn a 15-credit “Advanced (Graduate) Certificate in Canadian Studies.” From the beginning, we focused on Canada-U.S. comparisons and on the bilateral relationship. While UB has a significant number of faculty with Canada-related expertise, our partnership with Brock University was central from the outset to UB’s ability to offer and wide and comprehensive program. A broad collaborative agreement was signed in 2007 and renewed in 2013.

Initial collaborations under this agreement were largely informal. Since September 2008, as part of the University at Buffalo’s graduate certificate program, UB students enrolled in the seminar on Canadian Studies have met with students enrolled in a senior seminar in Canadian Studies at Brock. These meetings, and the cross-border discussions and relationships that they fostered, were extremely successful. As a result, in 2010 Professor Jane Koustas of Brock (who was then director of Canadian Studies and had been responsible for the combined UB-Brock seminar) and I decided, with the enthusiastic support of our respective administrations, to take the next step and develop a joint international master’s degree that would centre on comparisons of Canada and the United States and on the nature of the bilateral relationship.

Laying the groundwork

Developing and implementing the joint MA degree meant reaching agreement on what should be included in the curriculum, which surprisingly proved to be easily accomplished. Despite our different disciplinary backgrounds (Dr. Koustas is a professor of French and I am a political scientist), our years of working together on various cross-border initiatives and our joint seminars had created mutual trust and respect. As a result, we devised a program with three specific seminar requirements – an overview course on Canada taught by Brock faculty on that campus; an overview of the United States taught by UB faculty in Buffalo; and a jointly taught interdisciplinary methods course that meets alternately on both campuses.

A common curricular plan had then to be submitted to and approved by the Ontario Council on Graduate Studies (OCGS) and the central administration of the State University of New York system and the New York State Education Department (NYSED) in Albany. In this proposal, responsibility for coursework and research, beyond these three seminars, would be split equally between the two universities, and a student’s final project or thesis would be jointly supervised by faculty members on both campuses. Negotiations with administrators on both campuses led to an agreement that students would register and pay tuition and fees on one campus only, and their course registrations and grades would be tracked on the other campus without further charges being levied. This would ensure that students in the program appear to both Canadian and American authorities to be pursuing full-time studies. Administrators and officials on both campuses were supportive and genuinely enthusiastic about the project at every stage, a factor critical to the program’s successful launch.

Procedurally, the required “letter of intent” proposing the idea of a joint degree was sent to the officials at the State University of New York in February 2010 and UB was given the green light to proceed with the full proposal several months later, after other SUNY campuses were given an opportunity to examine the proposal. To our surprise and relief, things moved relatively quickly from this point. After receiving the necessary campus approvals, separate degree proposals were finalized according to Ontario and New York state templates. An external assessment team – Dr. Donley Studlar of West Virginia University and Dr. Patrick James of the University of Southern California – visited both campuses and prepared an evaluation that SUNY requires to accompany the official proposal submission. Brock submitted these materials, together with our joint response to the external assessment report, to the OCGS in February 2011, and received OCGS approval for the joint degree in late June. UB submitted its proposal to SUNY’s central administrators in July. SUNY’s review was completed in the early fall and the proposal was forwarded to the New York State Education Department, which issued its approval of the program in December 2011.

There were several problematic areas inherent in creating a program that crosses two distinct educational settings in two distinct countries. Most obvious was that Brock University operates on a 12-week semester while SUNY operates on a 15-week semester. Fortunately, neither SUNY nor NYSED made this an issue. More potentially troublesome was the need for the course and requirements to be consistent between the two institutions. This became a real concern for us when a revision was made to Brock’s program, which occurred after Professor Koustas stepped down as Brock’s Director of Canadian Studies. This caused problems because it meant that Brock’s program, which had been approved by the OCGS, did not mirror that described in the original UB proposal and hence did not align with the program that had already been approved by SUNY and NYSED.

Effectively, the number of courses necessary to earn the degree by students registered at Brock (but not by those registering at UB) had been reduced. Although Brock shared its OCGS submission with us at UB, we did not notice these discrepancies until after SUNY and NYSED had issued their approvals. Again, because of a willingness to work together, an emergency meeting of Brock and UB officials in the fall of 2012 was able to develop a solution so that the Brock program was in compliance with the one that had been approved by SUNY/NYSED. But this difficulty did highlight the problems of cross-border projects where two distinct sanctioning bodies (SUNY/NYSED for UB and OCGS for Brock) can have different requirements, and such problems may not in all cases be as agreeably resolved as this one was.

Getting started

Recruitment for the new degree started in the winter and spring of 2013, and in the end we were successful in attracting five students for the inaugural class. Three of these were recruited from Brock, including an international student and one who was a participant in the 2011 Brock Canadian Studies course featuring meetings with UB students that was a precursor to the joint degree. Two American students, both from western New York state, were recruited on the UB side. In terms of undergraduate training, two of the Canadian students were Canadian Studies majors (one with a double major in history), while the other had a background in tourism management. Both American students were political science majors. All five students became teaching assistants in Brock’s undergraduate program in Canadian Studies. Classes started at UB in August 2013 and at Brock two weeks later.

We are nearing the end of our first year of operation. All three required courses were offered in the fall semester and, at the time of writing, all students are completing their remaining elective courses. One student is interning with a binational group in the Niagara region.

All students obtained the necessary immigration status to enable them to study as full-time students in both countries. This meant that the Canadian studies were issued I-20 visa approvals by UB, enabling them to obtain their student visas at the border. Similarly, American students obtained a “study certificate” at the border entitling them to study as border commuters at Brock. With the increased border security following the terrorist attacks of September 2001, we were fearful that our students would encounter difficulties as a result of their frequent crossing of the Canada-U.S. border. Accordingly, a letter composed and signed by both program directors was given to each student to present to border officials if necessary. Fortunately, our concerns in this regard were not grounded and our students have been able to move back and forth between Buffalo and St. Catharines without undue delays.

Certainly there were bumps along the road in the first semester, most of which probably could have been avoided by clearer communication between the Brock and UB directors. However, we’ve learned some important lessons and things seem to be operating more smoothly this semester. Students were made aware early on that they were the first guinea pigs for an innovative program and that therefore they could expect some glitches. Most of these were minor, and could be resolved by small administrative adjustments.

Students seem to be enjoying their studies. A good indication of the group’s morale was their decision to split the expenses and travel by van to the biennial conference of the Association of Canadian Studies in the United States that was held in November in Tampa, Florida. While the initial class completes its coursework, we are actively recruiting our second class of students. We hope to be able to grow our profile to the point where each school attracts five or six students to the program each year. The model whereby students pay fees at one institution only requires that there be a rough parity in the size of classes recruited on each side of the border. Should this not materialize over time, the funding model that underpins the joint program will be jeopardized.

While I am tempted to see our experience as a model for others to emulate, it must be acknowledged that our geographic proximity, our shared language, culture and educational norms, and the general familiarity of Anglo-Canadians and Americans with each other all make our case an unusually – perhaps uniquely – favourable one for the delivery of a fully integrated binational degree program. Other institutions contemplating delivering such a program over a longer distance might need to think about having students take up residence in each community for a whole semester.3 But the rewards of delivering a degree program that is fully integrated – such that students earn one degree from two universities located in two different countries – are so compelling that I would urge others to undertake the admittedly daunting task of planning, registering and implementing such programs.


1   Paul Celucci, Unquiet Diplomacy (Toronto: Key Porter, 2005).

2 Among the many embarrassing misjudgements made during this affair by U.S. officials was a letter of complaint from a senior adviser to the Governor of New York to the Minister of Transport in Ottawa which was copied to the Governor General of Canada. Apparently the adviser thought that the representative of the Queen in Canada, the country’s symbolic head of state, would be able to exert some influence over government officials in this bridge dispute!

3 As it happens, both American students decided to take advantage of the “urban pioneer” program in Niagara Falls, New York, which provides college graduates who are civically engaged with subsidized housing in the city. This meant that they actually lived closer to the Brock campus than to UB.