We are at a watershed moment for international education. The ideals and purposes of crossing national borders for educational advancement are being challenged by a form of nationalism that increasingly is dominating the U.S. and global political landscapes. It is incumbent on and in the shared interest of institutions and communities to speak to the value of international engagement through education.
How should we respond to public calls to embrace a nationalist outlook that has the potential to sow deep divisions among people, stoking fear of anyone who may differ from us? What can we do and say when political leaders and some fellow citizens view the differences among people as threats rather than as assets?
Last year, I was invited to speak about international education at a meeting of local business leaders in the small town in which I live in central Pennsylvania. Although I had given talks to similar groups previously, I was a bit apprehensive this time. I thought that my audience might not be as receptive to what I would say about the purposes and outcomes of international exchange: I was presenting in a rural area where the voting record supported a national agenda of travel bans, a border wall and an “America First” attitude. I was prepared for audience members to react negatively to my theme of how important it is for the United States to welcome students and scholars from other countries and to send American students overseas to learn about other cultures and nations.
At the end of my talk, a man in the first row immediately raised his hand. He stood up and — to my surprise — spoke about how his family has hosted students from abroad for over 20 years and how beneficial it is to learn from people who are different from us. Other people followed, keen to share their own experiences of international education. A woman spoke about her daughter, who had studied abroad in South America and was now working as a Spanish teacher in the local high school. Another woman shared that she participates periodically in her church’s missionary work in Africa. An HVAC contractor travels to Europe regularly for training offered by the company whose products he installs. Each of them touched in some way on the value of encountering and learning from people from other countries and cultures.
From this I learned important lessons about how we advocate for international education. First, of course, is the enduring lesson not to make assumptions about other people, what they have experienced and what they think and value.
Second, even in rural areas of the United States, people have been touched by the benefits of international education, and they express the profound way it impacts them — just like the outcomes that we see on our campuses.
Third, we have advocacy partners at the local level. Anyone who has hosted a foreign exchange student or traveled abroad — or had a child, grandchild, relative or friend who has studied abroad — is a potential partner in our efforts to express the value of international education.
Fourth, engaging with our local communities to promote international education makes a difference. Doing so raises awareness of the benefits of international education among the public. It also values and celebrates the experiences and efforts of our neighbors who engage in international education — and may therefore encourage those who have not yet been involved to participate in international education and support it.
Opportunities to respond to the current political discourse are right at our doorstep — in local clubs and organizations, as well as in our everyday encounters and conversations. In carrying out our internationalization efforts, our focus tends to be on the world beyond our immediate environment. But we should consider how we can bring a global perspective to benefit our own communities.
Further, the current moment demands more than individual action: it also requires a coordinated, united effort. We cannot sit passively while voices spin narratives that run counter to what we know to be true. We are called to find ways to speak and act collectively in order to express in the broadest ways possible the values and benefits of international education.
Responding collectively is not easy. Institutions have distinct missions and goals, and they compete among themselves. Globally, nations and regions of the world are vying to succeed in the international education marketplace in order to reap its educational, cultural and economic benefits.
But in the past two decades, international education has, in fact, become more of a collective enterprise, defining and formalizing its activity into a distinct, recognized field. Its structures and processes are now disseminated into specialized areas with corresponding educational and professional trainings and pathways. As a result, we now see routine and robust institutional sharing of best practices and approaches, institutional cooperation through consortia and exchanges, and dissemination of international education research through a number of professional journals. Such activities lay the groundwork for colleges and universities to mount responses to the current divisive political climate.
What specifically might those responses be? Higher education institutions should:
Educate students as well as those outside the institution in the debates about nationalism and the value of international engagement. Colleges and universities can directly influence the teaching and learning process by including these topics as a formal part of their curriculum and co-curriculum. Faculty and administrators can highlight the most effective events, modules, courses, pedagogies and programs so that other institutions can learn and adapt what works to their own institutional contexts. Institutions can also work together to co-sponsor symposia, workshops and conferences and, in the process, reach out and involve community members in organizing and attending these events.
Sponsoring faculty development opportunities and publishing and disseminating research and writing on the topic are other tools that institutions can employ either on their own or in cooperation with other campuses. The goal is to further the knowledge and understanding of nationalism and its impact on our contemporary world.
Document the outcomes of international education for not only students, faculty members and higher education institutions but also the local community and region. Much can be gained by coordinating efforts to assess the many ways that international education improves lives, institutions and communities. Over the past dozen years, the assessment of international education has become more commonplace and effective, and some of the most meaningful studies have involved multiple institutions partnering together. Now is an opportune time to build upon these efforts to express the broader impacts of international education.
Institutions should work with community partners and local leaders to assess how international education impacts a region’s economy and culture. Local school districts, governments, businesses, organizations and community members are engaged in a wide array of activities that are consistent with the aims of international education. High school exchanges and study abroad programs, sister city relationships and international visitor programs, trade partnerships and international corporate linkages all contribute to the internationalization of our communities. Identifying how our communities are engaged internationally provides opportunities for partnering together in mutually beneficial ways. And, by including such activities in our assessment efforts, we can achieve a fuller picture of how our communities benefit from international education, helping us to understand and appreciate better its value.
Whenever possible, speak and advocate collectively. This means dovetailing efforts to monitor, advocate and lobby for laws, regulations and policies consistent with international education values. It also means highest level of institutional voices should express the value of international education. Along with senior international officers, provosts, presidents, chancellors and trustees can publicly and strongly communicate the benefits of it to their communities. Communicating collaboratively with other local or regional institutions and community leaders, as well, can have an even greater impact. Institutions and their communities have compelling stories to tell. Speaking out with a coordinated voice will generate a wider audience and resonance.
In a political climate that fosters intolerance and division, individuals and institutions both have important roles to play. The daily work of international education supports mutual understanding by facilitating experiences that diverse peoples have with each other and by encouraging the exchange of ideas. Continuing this work is vital, and we can much more, both personally and collectively. We must engage our local communities while at the same time collaborating across institutions. It is in our shared interest to do so, and it is essential to the well-being of our world.
Brian Whalen is a dean’s fellow at Dickinson College, an international education leadership fellow at the University at Albany and the recent president and CEO of the Forum on Education Abroad.