The Builder

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Professor Divya McMillin doesn't wield a hammer but her ideas have helped shaped UW Tacoma's mission.

A typical construction site is a melody of pounding hammers, torquing drills and humming industrial machinery. Progress — a new wall or additional floor — is relatively easy to measure. In some ways UW Tacoma is a construction site, albeit a much different one.

Here, students undertake a process of building knowledge. Growth isn’t as easy to gauge. Tests, projects and papers are one measurement but they don’t begin to quantify the inner development that comes from being exposed to new ideas or different understandings of the world.

McMillin carries multiple titles including: Professor, Executive Director of Global Honors and Executive Director of the Institute for Global Engagement.When one views UW Tacoma this way it’s easy to see Professor Divya McMillin as a forewoman. Since arriving on campus in 1998, McMillin has spearheaded a number of initiatives that have come to shape the university and its approach to higher education. “I was recruited here from Indiana University,” said McMillin. “Interdisciplinarity was a high value and an organizing principle internally — wildly exciting to me. How we built on that to serve the community was yet to be defined.”

Almost immediately, McMillin was tasked with creating a communications major on campus. Such an effort requires extensive research into different models and how they’ve been implemented at specific institutions. “From day one, the approach was to have a deeply integrated curriculum, with academic and experiential learning,” said McMillin. “We needed a program that would provide students with the skills they needed as they moved into a competitive and interconnected world.”

The major launched in 2000. A few years later in 2004, the campus started an undergraduate honors program with a grant from the UW Fund for Innovation and Redesign, to nurture a “culture of possibilities,” in the words of then-acting UW Provost David Thorud. McMillin holds a Ph.D. in International Communication and Cultural Studies. “Here I am creating a communications major and I’m thinking ‘darn, that’s what I really want to be doing,’” she said. At the time, the program, called Global Honors, consisted of three core classes and only a couple dozen students. Within its first three years, the program was almost out of money. Just as the 2008 financial collapse led institutions, including UW Tacoma, to make cuts. “Global Honors was on the chopping block but students petitioned to save it,” said McMillin.

Global Honors at a Glance

Getting into the Global Honors program at UW Tacoma is a holistic process. “We routinely receive rosters of students with a 3.3 and higher grade point average,” said Divya McMillin, Executive Director of the Global Honors Program.” These students receive an invitation to learn more by attending an open house.

An interested student then fills out an online application with a letter of intent. “We ask applicants to share their experience and understanding of collaboration and how they see themselves contributing to the Global Honors community, among other things,” said McMillin. “A desire to collaborate and contribute is key.”

Next is an in-person interview. Once admitted, a student takes one of two gateway courses orienting them to the expectations of the program and a grounded understanding of key concepts of globalization. From there it’s the 301, 302, 303, sequence of classes. “When they reach their final two quarters they take the capstone courses where they work on their theses or reflection papers,” said McMillin. “One of the capstone seminars keeps them accountable and on track while the other connects them to a dedicated faculty adviser who helps bring the project to completion.” Students then present their work at the annual spring quarter Global Engagement Conference. An important note here is that the program also hosts a Minor in Global Engagement, open to all UW Tacoma students.

The Global Honors program, originally designed for juniors and seniors, now includes a sophomore-level class, “Global City as Text,” a cornerstone of honors curricula across the country. “This fall we introduced a class for first-year students interested in Global Honors. This is an exciting and low-barrier way to connect freshmen to the benefits of the program and guide them in the application process,” said McMillin.

McMillin served on the Global Honors advisory board.  Her success with creating a communications degree combined with her international experience proved essential. Then-Vice Chancellor Beth Rushing reached out to McMilliln.  “She asked if I would run the program,” said McMillin.  “I asked if she needed a CV and she said ‘nope, you’ve got the credentials, please just do it.’”

Here again we see McMillin as a builder but this project was different. Instead of designing from scratch, McMillin assumed the role of renovator.  “We had a good concept, good bones,” she said. “The issue I saw was in the approach. We were very heavy on theory and I wanted to blast open these doors, get students out into the world and get professionals into the classroom.”

“We weren't utilizing this beautiful port city of Tacoma. This is our text, right here outside our windows."
— UW Tacoma Professor Divya McMillin

McMillin reorganized the program around three principles. The first involved using a global framework for the curriculum. The idea was to move beyond a limited Eurocentric view of the world to include different perspectives. “We’re talking about a way to weave in experiences from around the world into our own, to build empathy and understanding. Students who might be wrestling with something — say, the morning commute or struggling with child care — may have their eyes opened to see how it’s done in other countries,” said McMillin.

The second principle — community engagement — has become one of UW Tacoma’s defining attributes. McMillin’s approach involved getting students off campus to places like the Port of Tacoma, but it also meant getting area leaders on campus. “Industry folks have a lot of global experience so, I thought, let’s get them here to help co-teach,” she said.

McMillin believes the third principle is the most important. “I want students to see themselves as agents of change rather than another describer of the problem,” she said. This solutions-based model flips the power dynamic. Students move from research to executable ideas and, in some cases, are actually recruited by local businesses and organizations to come up with proposals. “This is all part of shifting to a realm of possibilities and away from a realm of need,” said McMillin. “Our students are being snatched up by top notch graduate programs and area organizations who need such problem solvers.”

The success of the Global Honors Program provided McMillin with enough momentum to create the Institute for Global Engagement in 2014. “The institute serves as a hub for collaborative projects,” she said. “It extends to all students on our campus, not just those in Global Honors. It’s a home for curriculum, community partnerships, and student experiential learning.”

McMillin’s ability to design and implement a vision is at least partially due to her ability to build and maintain relationships. Getting buy-in from a diffuse group of stakeholders requires an ability to both lead and listen. “We’re very fortunate to have organizations like the Bamford Foundation and visionaries like Bill Philip, who are funding our students in their global research right here in Tacoma and overseas. Students return from rich experiences across the world, with hope and humility for their work in the community. Globally connected local organizations help students connect theory and case studies on trade, global health, and labor — for example — to actual lived experiences.” These connections have allowed Global Honors to expand and offer support to students both in and out of the program.

A generous gift from the Bamford family allowed McMillin to expand on her globally focused, solutions-based methodology. The Global Innovation and Design Lab launched in January of 2019. “We needed a framework to problem-solve with empathy and to front-end the solution,” she said. “The lab uses the design thinking process which begins with empathy, and brings forward solutions through an iterative cycle of ideation, prototyping and testing. The GID Lab is already delivering community workshops and creating a curriculum in innovation and design from its location in the Tacoma Paper and Stationary building. “We’re excited about scaling up interdisciplinary innovations from its new home in the proposed Academic Innovation Building,” said McMillin.

UW Tacoma was less than 10 years old when McMillin arrived. Back then there was no steel “W,” no William W. Philip Hall and no Hendrix the Husky. The university wouldn’t become a full four-year institution until 2006. Twenty years ago this campus had a foundation but it needed more builders. It found one in Professor Divya McMillin.

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / October 31, 2019
Photos by: 
Ryan Moriarty
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or