As Nafsa members celebrate our 70th anniversary at the Nafsa Annual Conference & Expo in Philadelphia from 27 May to 1 June, we boldly reaffirm our dedication to greater equality and understanding. International educators know that the best way to make societies prosper and thrive is to foster interconnectivity and diversity within education. International educators see first-hand that academic and cultural exchanges build the sinews that bind countries together, and the world must hold fast to this knowledge as we face our own set of challenges today.
Our conference theme, “diverse voices, shared commitment”, showcases the wide spectrum of people within Nafsa and our common interest in advancing international education. Much has happened in the past year that has required an increased resilience and determination to ensure that international education flourishes. Despite the strength of the field, international education is affected by larger global trends. In the US, we’ve seen multiple threats to global engagement and inclusivity, from dangerous anti-scientific and anti-immigrant policy proposals from this present administration to the devastating inaction of US government leaders to find a permanent legislative solution for undocumented youth. In many countries, we see a dangerous rise in protectionism and nationalistic rhetoric. Waves of populism are allowing opportunistic individuals to deceive too many. They play on nativist and xenophobic fears, trying to convince voters that their problems will be solved if we just keep out the “other” and close our borders – or worse, close our minds.
We have seen this before and know that there are consequences. At a time when the forces of division have been gaining momentum, and the faces of hatred want to spew chaos, it is vital that we maintain our international ties through collaborations between academic institutions. We recognise that we are part of a globally interconnected community and an integrated economy, and that in the face of these challenges, our work has a renewed importance.
International educators know that the relationship between international education and global workforce readiness is critical. The challenges and opportunities our students face are increasingly global in nature. From transnational terrorism and epidemics to emerging markets and scientific discoveries, our graduates need to be able to work with citizens and to understand cultures from around the world. If we are to guarantee the success of the next generation of leaders, we must promote greater participation and diversity in education abroad to acquire these skills – including but not limited to foreign-language fluency, strong problem-solving and analytical capability, a tolerance for ambiguity and cross-cultural competence.
That is why Nafsa, along with more than a dozen organisations, is advocating for the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act – bicameral, bipartisan legislation that would ensure greater participation in and diversity of participation in study abroad. Still, while we are striving to bring greater access to education abroad to all our students, the reality is that most never have the opportunity. We can work to expand opportunity, but we also need to provide our students who remain at home with the same global skills that they will need to take on the mantle of becoming future leaders.
If our students cannot gain that international experience abroad, we must prioritise bringing international perspectives to our campuses and making our local communities more internationally and culturally aware. One very important way to achieve that goal is to proactively welcome and seek out international students from all walks of life to join our classrooms and our communities.
International students and scholars have always brought countless cultural, academic and economic benefits to our campuses and communities. Students are students, no matter from which country they come. They are spending valuable resources and time at our institutions, so they can learn and grow into thriving professionals. From their shared experiences as students can naturally spring a solid mutual understanding and appreciation of cultural differences, which is one of the most important goals for us as educators and advisers of future global leaders. By fostering those diverse connections and utilising them to develop and expand invaluable learning opportunities, by internationalising our local communities, we are helping our students to gain a more global perspective even if they cannot leave their home campuses.
Unfortunately, not all policy leaders see this incomparable value in welcoming international students to our nations. Particularly in the US, we’ve spent this past year combating anti-immigrant rhetoric and deeply damaging misinformation spread by those who want to close our borders. But the passionate response from the higher education community, and many leaders in the US Congress, has been encouraging.
In response to every new executive order, regulation or policy proposal that could cause even more damage to our international education system, international educators have passionately and relentlessly advocated on behalf of international students and scholars and America’s values as a welcoming nation. We continue boldly to support equality and understanding in every aspect of our work, and we will never stop.
Esther D. Brimmer is executive director and CEO of Nafsa: Association of International Educators.