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It's a global life

London

Shortly after Greg and Jean Farrington were married in 1971, they embarked on their first international adventure--a Harvard Student Agencies trip to London aboard a chartered plane. But somewhere above Halifax, there was a problem with the plane, and it had to turn around and return to Boston.

It was, as Farrington now recalls wryly, "an inauspicious start to a global life."

They finally did make it to Europe on that trip, and enjoyed a whirlwind, two-week tour on the typical student shoestring budget through England, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and France.

"It ignited a fascination with different countries and different peoples in the world that has never flickered out," Farrington says.

In the decades since, Farrington has worn out more passports than he can remember, for business and pleasure. And now, as he prepares to step down after eight years as Lehigh president, how we live in this increasingly global world is very much on his mind. In his new role as Distinguished University Service Professor, one of Farrington's main areas of focus will be the expansion of Lehigh's international presence.

"Some students asked me once, 'What's all this global business about?' Well, the world has become very small since the jet engine and the Internet, which means all of our graduates are going to be living their lives on a world stage," Farrington says. "If they learn nothing else while they're here, I would hope that it would be first of all that when they approach the world, always remember that they have two ears and one mouth for a reason. The ratio matters. Don't lead by saying, 'In America, we do it this way.' Lead by listening.

"And the second thing I wish they would learn is that different is just different. It is not necessarily wrong. And that learning about things that are different can be one of the most interesting personal experiences in your life, especially if you learn through the eyes of other people who have grown up in other societies."

That's precisely the path Farrington took to becoming a global citizen.

Rome

As an electrochemist in the corporate world with General Electric, and then in the academic world at the University of Pennsylvania, international travel was a necessity, not a luxury.

"Science is, by definition, global," he says. "Your collaborators are as likely to be in Rome or Japan or Stockholm as they are in San Francisco. So if you're going to be active as a scientist, it's inescapable that you're active internationally. Virtually all conferences worth attending are international conferences.

"So very quickly, you develop a circle of friends around the world who are genuine friends. Your life entwines with theirs. Your kids and their kids grow up together. And you follow the theater of their lives the way you follow the theater of your friend's life in the next town in the U.S. It's truly a global thing."

While he was at GE, Farrington traveled to Italy and France, among other destinations, and spent a summer attending GE management school in Switzerland in 1978. A year later, he joined the Department of Materials Science and Engineering of the University of Pennsylvania, and immediately set out to ensure that his graduate students had the opportunity to spend time studying abroad as part of their Ph.D. programs.

"Virtually all of my graduate students spent some time working in research collaboration abroad, typically in Europe--Sweden, England, and Italy," Farrington says. "It was a deliberate move to carry out collaborative work around the world by exchanging students."

For his first decade as an international traveler, most of Farrington's overseas experiences were in Europe. But in 1981, he was invited to spend six weeks at a university in Beijing as a lecturer on electrochemistry.

"China had just opened. And that trip was extraordinary," Farrington recalls. "We flew to Beijing from Tokyo. As we descended on our approach to Beijing airport, it was a cloudy day and I couldn't see the land. But we finally broke through the clouds, quite low, and all of a sudden, there was the fabled ChinaÑthe great civilization of China. The mystery of China under Mao, although Mao was dead at that point. The emerging China.

"That began a six-week adventure that ignited a fascination for the Far East and China that burns today, particularly as that civilization has awakened and joined the rest of the world and is now in the process of becoming an economic and political powerhouse."

China

Farrington's fascination with China led him to explore other countries in the Far East, including Thailand, Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Malaysia. It also proved to be a revelation, helping him to understand what it really means to be able to see the world through the eyes of others.

That concept crystallized in his mind while he was walking across Tiananmen Square on that first trip to China in 1981 with the mother of one of his graduate students.

"It was a glorious, sunny fall day, cool and crisp in Beijing," Farrington recalls. "I could see in the distance the Forbidden City and the big picture of Mao. And there were kids flying kites. It's a great place for kite-flying because it's enormous and there's nothing to get your kite caught on.

"And all of a sudden, with a burst of exuberance, I exclaimed: 'My goodness! What an amazing thing! Do you realize how remarkable it is, how strange it seems, to be an American walking across Tiananmen Square?' And she turned to me and said, 'Oh yes. Do you understand how amazing it is to be a Chinese walking with an American across Tiananmen Square?'"

Moscow

Increasingly, Farrington found himself thinking of new ways to train students for the ever-shrinking world they would inherit. In 1993, while visiting a university in Moscow, Farrington used a meeting with the Russian minister of education to pitch a crazy idea: He wanted some time on a Russian satellite to link a group of students at Penn with a group of students from Moscow so they could work collaboratively together on a research project.

"In the process of working on technical issues as a team, they'll get to know each other," Farrington told the Russian minister. "They'll get to know what they like to do. They'll share pizza together, so to speak. They'll talk about all the things that people talk about. So I need a satellite. I can't do it otherwise.

"Well," Farrington recalls, "I never got my satellite. I never really expected to, but I figured nothing ventured ... "

With the Internet, the kind of collaboration Farrington envisioned between students in faraway countries now happens routinely. The questions that now intrigue Farrington are what does it mean for Lehigh to truly be a global university, and how will Lehigh take full advantage of the technological marvels that link people in far-flung countries by laptop and, in the very near future, by iPod?

"In '84, I spent a large part of the fall at the University of Rome," Farrington recalls. "It was the time before the Internet and before cell phones, when telephone communication was really expensive. And I tried to stay in touch with my research group back at Penn. Do you know how hard that was? Oh, my goodness.

"Today, I can sit at that same desk, in that same place in Rome, connect to the Net, and they'll think I'm in Coopersburg, except for the spaghetti stains on my tie. That really shrinks the world. So what are we going to do with that? Well, that's the next challenge. How do we make that a signature of Lehigh and a distinctive strength of this institution? It's going to be fun, I think, to figure that out."

--Jack Croft

Back to Only the best

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Spring 2006

Posted on Monday, July 03, 2006

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