Pathways to the world
Photos by Chris Ginn and courtesy of the U.S. Department of Commerce October 16, 2023
US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Valerie Biden Owens discuss the importance of human connection at UD study abroad centenary event
The University of Delaware community welcomed U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo on Sept. 26 at Trabant University Center for a lively and engaging discussion with UD Biden Institute Chair Valerie Biden Owens. This special event, hosted by the Biden Institute in partnership with UD’s Center for Global Programs and Services (CGPS), proved a full circle moment, taking place nearly an entire century after then-UD President Walter Hullihen and then-U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover held initial meetings for what would become the nation’s first study abroad program in 1923.
Matt Drexler, Director of Study Abroad, CGPS, addressed this unique history during his opening remarks to the UD faculty, staff, students and community members.
“Indeed, through its unique ability to create and increase cross-cultural understanding, form global networks and develop globally competent leaders, international education continues a century-long legacy of forging global connections that support social and economic development in the U.S. and abroad,” he said.
From a facts and figures perspective, international education contributes more than $86 million annually to the local Delaware economy and $33 billion throughout the United States. Those numbers bolster the 100th anniversary of study abroad, which would have likely not come to fruition without the interest and support of the U.S. Commerce Secretary.
“We have the unique opportunity to share our combined history and re-connect with the original sponsor, the U.S. Department of Commerce. This time, however, we’re led by two women with extensive international experience of their own,” Drexler said.
During their discussion, Biden Owens inquired about Raimondo’s time in England on a Rhodes scholarship at the University of Oxford, where she met her husband and credits much of her growth as a young adult.
“For me, it really changed my life,” she said of the “transformative” experience. “I can’t describe it. It changes your whole way of thinking. It teaches you to not be so closed-minded, to appreciate people from different walks of life, from different religions, from different cultures, to see the world.”
“I think the thing we’re lacking the most is the simple word of empathy,” Biden Owens responded.
Biden Owens went on to ask Raimondo to discuss some background on what, exactly, her role entails.
“The better question is what you don’t do,” Raimondo said.
In addition to being at the helm of manufacturing and trade, the commerce secretary also leads the U.S. Patent Office, U.S. Census, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Office of Space Commerce, which NOAA oversees, among others.
The Commerce Department is also the primary funder for the UD-headquartered National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL), a nationwide consortium of more than 200 public, private, nonprofit and academic entities focused on developing more efficient and cost-effective ways of producing biopharmaceuticals. Before her conversation with Biden Owens, Raimondo toured the NIIMBL headquarters and other research facilities at the Ammon Pinizzotto Biopharmaceutical Innovation Center on UD’s Science, Technology and Advanced Research (STAR) Campus with UD President Dennis Assanis, U.S. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware and others. Since NIIMBL was created in 2017, the Commerce Department has invested $240 million in the partnership, which has leveraged an additional $300 million from other sources, for research, innovation and workforce development.
With thousands of employees stationed in embassies around the globe, the Commerce Department provides excellent opportunities for young professionals looking to explore the world, Raimondo told Biden Owens. Though there is more to the role than industrial trade and manufacturing, she notes that no two days are the same, and her job is ultimately about making America more competitive on a global scale.
“My personal story is not that different from yours,” the former governor of Rhode Island said to Biden Owens when reflecting on being asked to take on the job.
Growing up in a middle-class, Italian-American household, Raimondo understood the value and necessity of employment from a young age. When her father lost his factory job to overseas outsourcing, it was only then she realized not everyone worked in manufacturing.
“To me, it felt like there was a place for everybody at the factory,” she said, remembering the daily carpools where her father and other neighbors rode together to work.
The choice, then, was simple when then-President-Elect Biden asked her to be his partner in bringing back American manufacturing, citing her family’s struggle and drive to create more jobs as inspiration. One of her first undertakings was launching the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, passed by Congress to provide $50 billion in funding to the Commerce Department to work with companies to build semiconductor factories across the U.S.
“The U.S. makes zero percent of the most sophisticated chips in America,” she said in reference to the processor chips necessary for the operation of everything from a microphone to a smartphone to artificial intelligence technology, including equipment used in the military and airplanes.
More than 90% of processor chips used globally are made by a company based in Taiwan.
Raimondo is now charged with investing that $50 billion to incentivize tech companies to help build semiconductor factories in the U.S. through subsidiary financial support.
“Everybody in COVID learned the hard way how vulnerable we are if all of their suppliers are in one place,” she said.
While it is 30% more expensive to manufacture these chips domestically, government support is boosting infrastructure and economic growth to ultimately make those initial investments worth the while of such corporations.
Another essential piece for Raimondo is breaking down barriers for working parents, saying she’s encouraging companies to include childcare facilities onsite.
“If they don’t think about providing child care and decent wages, they’re not going to get top-notch employees,” she said. “If you have all people who look the same and think the same, you’re not going to get invention and creativity.”
Raimondo also spoke about her work to provide equal access to home internet. Like processor chips, this was another issue thrown into the spotlight by the COVID-19 pandemic, when lack of Wi-Fi meant the inability to work from home, attend virtual school or necessary medical appointments for many Americans. A significant barrier to those living in rural areas throughout the country is that 30% do not have access to working internet, with an even higher percentage on Tribal Lands.
“How are we going to lead the world in technology, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, if we don’t even ensure everyone has the internet at a price that’s affordable?” she said.
Through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (B.E.A.D.) Program, which supplies over $42 billion in grant funding toward high-speed internet access programs throughout the entire United States, Raimondo is working to ensure that Americans no longer have to see it as a luxury or source of worry.
The interview wrapped up with a handful of student-posed questions, one asking the secretary what the Department of Commerce and other federal agencies' plans are for allocating resources to students looking to enter globally focused careers.
“We are investing a lot of money just in job training to help young people get the skills they need to get jobs of today and tomorrow,” said Raimondo, noting that artificial intelligence and biotechnology are both great fields for working abroad as well as launching young people into the future workforce.
Celebrating 100 years of study abroad
A century ago, the University of Delaware quite literally changed the world. On July 7, 1923, Professor Raymond Kirkbride and his eight students set sail for France, launching the first study abroad program in the United States. That journey created the model for global education that is still used today at thousands of institutions around the world. Students who study abroad — including a third of Blue Hens — are forever changed by their experiences. Follow our journey on social media at #UDAbroad100 or visit www.udel.edu/studyabroad100 to see what it means to be a citizen of the world — the University of Delaware way.
About the UD Biden School
Established in 1961 and named in 2018 for the University of Delaware’s most distinguished alumnus, the 46th President of the United States, the Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration prepares students with the knowledge and skills necessary to engage in research and public service to improve the quality of life in communities around the world. Biden School faculty, staff, students, and alumni create and use interdisciplinary, nonpartisan research and empirically based analysis to inform effective decision-making and policy and to improve leadership and administration. The Biden School partners with organizations from all sectors to discover innovative and equitable solutions to the critical challenges of our time.