I was in South Africa giving a college presentation to young women at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls when I asked if anyone in the audience had questions for me. “Before you came to Africa, Sir, did you believe there were wild animals roaming around in the streets?” asked an eager young woman. As the audience giggled, I laughed and replied, “No I did not, and for my safety, I’m glad to see my beliefs are confirmed.”
She was half-kidding, of course, but her interest in the perception of Africa in other countries was genuine. What followed was a powerful conversation about perception versus truth, and how education transforms how we experience each other’s cultures.
Each year, admission officials from around the world traverse the globe recruiting students for our institutions. We spend countless hours on aeroplanes, clearing customs, writing speeches, presenting data, and counselling families on how to apply to colleges and universities. Institutions of higher education charge us with finding the best and brightest students around the world and ensuring that they meet institutional goals. We look for the best “fit” and hope we find students whose lives we can improve through education.
As the dean of admission at my institution, my role is that of storyteller-in-chief. I am charged with not only recruiting for my college, but also narrating the story of the values, philosophy and uniqueness of American higher education.
When I am abroad, I do more than exhibit pretty campus photos, distribute glossy brochures, or tout numbers and rankings. I explain holistic college admission and help students understand that we care about more than just their academic focus. I illustrate how we educate the whole student, not just the mind. I explain the liberal arts world that I inhabit - we educate for depth and breadth, for a life of engaged citizenship, lifelong learning and constantly shifting careers.
In Beijing, I recently facilitated a workshop on the value of a liberal arts education for Chinese high school counsellors. They were just learning about the different approaches to US higher education and had no exposure to the liberal arts model. I ended my presentation with a quote from the former president of Barnard College, Judith Shapiro, who once advised a group of students to get an education because “you want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life”.
Immediately, a counsellor in the audience responded: “I always assumed that you learn to memorise, do well on exams and ultimately get a good job. I now understand why there is so much innovation in Western society. You teach people how to think and follow their passions. While this may not be the best approach for all my students, I know many that will thrive in this model. I look forward to opening their eyes to a new way of experiencing education.”
The need for higher education diplomacy has never been greater. We have the most students in our history crossing borders in search of higher education. The numbers are only predicted to rise. For many students, an admission official is often the first point of contact with a particular country. As counsellors on the front lines, we are charged with storytelling, but our roles have tremendous implication. We are the bridge that connects students abroad to our nation, but we also transport the cultural competencies we gain during our time abroad. Higher education is our currency. Let’s use it wisely.