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GA at UN: Making the Commitment to the SDGs: Universities and Beyond

On July 9, 2020, The United Nations Institute for training and research (UNITAR) convened a panel entitled Teaching, Learning, and Integrating the SDGs at Universities and Beyond; using SDG 4 as the springboard for discussion. As a social worker and educator, I was pleased to hear about both the efforts within the academy and the commitment to honoring and including life-long learning (LLL) in the conversation.

Panelists provided a wide-range of ideas, possibilities and opportunities for educators to integrate SDGs in the classroom, research, community outreach, and engagement, as well as in the over-all campus operations. For example, Chadrinka Bahadur (SDG Academy)  asked us to think of: How do we help students to partner the reality of time and energy to delve into a particular subject of their course with the importance of their understanding the full breadth of the SDGs? Bahadur noted that while students are there to ‘master’ a particular topic or discipline, the success of the SDGs do not allow a ‘pick and choose’ approach. While she noted an interdisciplinary approach is critical, it became clear from the panelist comments and participants chat that to truly achieve the SDGs, we as faculty, staff, and students must work to have universities commit to breaking through the silos that exist by the very nature of the structure (and funding sources) typical of higher education.   

Joanna Newman, Secretary-General, Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) provided a clear example of Institutional commitment at the leadership level, by mapping the university efforts (e.g., identifying contributions, cross-disciplinary efforts) with the recognition that universities and colleges are often actual town or cities, and therefore have the civic responsibility to look at their own footprint. She stressed the critical importance of inclusion of the arts and social sciences in this interdisciplinary work, including research. A dynamic conversation was simultaneously happening in the chatroom, where I noted that, “As an educator—approaching SDGs from a human rights lens—we must use the ‘classroom’ (of diverse ages and experiences and cultural context) as a way to bridge the students’ own interests and research areas to the intersectionality of the SDGs—and that students are also stakeholders in the defining community-centered policy AND practice.”

In a brief presentation entitled “Integrating the SDGs at universities and beyond,” Katarina Popovic, Secretary-General, ICAE, noted the current context of a global public health crisis finds systemic failures and challenges being faced by universities; and higher education must be open to explore and be critical of current models. She noted that now is the time to Think about and Rethink the SDGs.

I agree that now is the time for universities—whether as members of a community or large enough to be viewed as a stand-alone community—to commit to assessing and addressing the structural and systemic issues that have long been at the root of every inequity that hinders the achievements of the SDGs. This commitment will require working across disciplines and across continents. One example is the Global Alliance’s Global Mental Health Task Force, comprised of a diverse group of disciplines, committed to building partnerships with practitioners in university settings across the globe, working to support “Making the SDGs a Reality.”

Evelyn P. Tomaszewski, MSW, is a co-chair of the Global Alliance’s Global Mental Health Task Force.

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