The Necessity of Student Exchanges

Experts on panel say attracting foreign students must be a national priority.
November 17, 2005

Controlling borders is important in the post-9/11 world, but if it means keeping foreign students out, then border control, like terrorism, is a threat to national security, according to a panel of experts.

"Absent 9/11, we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” said James Jay Carafano, senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, at the “Dialogue, Not Monologue: International Educational Exchange and Public Diplomacy”  panel Wednesday. “To win a long war we need security,” but, he said, we also need to win “world opinion” and keep pace in a globalizing economy. All of the experts agreed that student exchanges are critical to not only maintaining America’s position as a world leader, but simply to staying afloat amid globalization and a trying time for the U.S. image abroad.

After 9/11, enrollment of foreign students, which had been increasing, did an about-face as visas got hard to come by. The visa process has since improved, and the decline of foreign enrollment slowed down this year, with enrollment of first-time foreign graduate students actually up 1 percent from last year. Panelists were encouraged by the new data, but said much more needs to be done.

Joseph S. Nye Jr., a professor of international relations at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said that parents used to ask him, “How can you give away [enrollment spots] to foreigners” when there are Americans that need them, Nye recalled. “Because it’s one of the best investments we can make,” he said. Nye said having foreigners “learn here, make friends here ... is a tremendous source of attraction” that bolsters America’s “soft power.” The fight against terrorism is “not something we can win without soft power,” Nye said. “In the information age, it’s not just whose army wins, but whose story wins.”

Nye recounted one of the investments the United States made when President Eisenhower allowed 50 Soviet students to come to the U.S. in 1958 -- despite warnings that the Soviets would send spies. In fact, there was some student spying done, but Alexander Yakovlev, who died last month, also came to study, and “began to believe in pluralism,” Nye said. Yakovlev went on to become a champion of perestroika and glasnost, which brought an end to the Soviet Union. Nye called it a “tremendous return on our investment.” He added that student visas are not the preferred method of entry for terrorists.

Cresencio Arcos, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s director of international affairs, noted that still more needs to be done to ease student visa restrictions. He said that, otherwise, we will make the situation that led to 9/11 even worse, by blocking “the very people we are trying to reach out to.” He said that one of the major problems is that the government gives “unfunded mandates,” leaving students in poor countries to face, for example, a $100 fee for a visa. “We need to recapture the spirit of Ellis Island,” Arcos said, recounting a comment by one of his assistants, “and that’s hard,” because the nation must also be vigilant about security.

Understanding, of course, is a two-way street, and, though more American students are going abroad than ever, most still are staying home. Sanford J. Unger, president of Goucher College, said that, starting next fall, all incoming students will get funding and be required to go abroad for at least three weeks, preferably more, in order to graduate. He mentioned news reports that only around two-thirds of members of Congress even have passports, and said going abroad should also be required for lawmakers. “It’s an urgent matter,” he said, “the idea that we have something to learn.” Unger said that fewer than 10 percent of American students study abroad. “The world is not waiting for us to tell them what the American way is.”

Rep. Jim Kolbe, a Republican from Arizona, said that, because English is ubiquitous, “it’s easy to be lazy,” adding that the U.S. is not producing enough foreign language experts for the future. Kolbe noted that a faculty member at the University of Arizona told him conference to be held at Arizona had to be moved to Berlin because of visa obstacles. He pointed out the need for a national strategy on international education that makes clear to Americans why exchanges are important, and advances access for students and scholars. To that end, Kolbe and Rep. James Oberstar, a Democrat from Minnesota, in March introduced a House resolution that pushes for an international education policy that promotes exchange.


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