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Thousands More Iraqi Students Abroad?

June 2, 2008

Only 262 Iraqis studied in the United States in 2006-7, according to Institute of International Education data.

If Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki can muster the support he's seeking, that number could skyrocket in the U.S., as well as other English-speaking countries. Earlier this month, the prime minister asked the Parliament for $1 billion: initial funding to, on the one hand, improve the educational system domestically and, on the other, launch a government program to fully fund 10,000 Iraqi students, per year for five years, who complete higher education degrees abroad, from the associate level to the Ph.D.

Iraq’s national security adviser announced the proposed “Iraqi Education Initiative” Friday during the final day of the NAFSA: Association of International Educators Conference in Washington, D.C. Also on the final day of the jam-packed conference, presenters discussed a number of hot international education issues ranging from international student and scholar perceptions of U.S. visa policies, increasing the number of students studying abroad from so-called "nontraditional" fields and majors, and internationalizing U.S. campuses back on the home front.

The Iraqi Education Initiative

“Any organization in the world will rise or fall based on the quality of people that are working there,” Zuhair A.G. Humadi, senior adviser for Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul Mahdi, said in describing the reason for the initiative’s two-pronged (domestic and international) approach, of paying for training abroad and investing in infrastructure at home. “The quality of Iraqi universities at this time is not that good.”

Humadi described a broad proposal of increasing budgets for Iraqi universities, building thousands of elementary and secondary schools, in addition to investing in increased educational exchange, mostly with the English-speaking world and with the United States being the primary destination country for those 10,000 students.

In explaining the proposal, Humadi said he envisioned that students studying abroad (in fields of their own choice) would be required, as a condition of the scholarship, to either return to the country after completing a degree or repay the government. Asked whether students would wish to return, given safety concerns, Humadi said, “We are assuming that the security situation will improve and it is improving. Things are much better now than they were three years ago.”

Students, male and female alike, would be selected based on grades and evaluations and such, he said, and scholarships would be distributed geographically based on the population of each of the 18 provinces. The proposal is still pending in Iraq's Parliament awaiting approval – and initial funding.

Student Visas

On the subject of international students in the U.S., Iraqi and otherwise, a session at the NAFSA conference Friday focused on research from the University of California at Los Angeles about international student and scholar perceptions of the visa process.

Shideh Hanassab studied variations in, among other things, experience at the U.S. consulates in students' home countries and at the port of entry to the U.S. by nationality. Among her findings: Individuals from Africa, followed by scholars and students from the Middle East and Asia, had to alter their travel plans more frequently than those from other regions due to immigration regulations. Middle Eastern and African students and scholars also experienced more delays at ports of entry.

Additionally 54 percent of students and scholars said they did not feel safer due to stricter immigration regulations.

Hanassab, who did a similar study in 2005, did say that the situation has since improved. “But there is still so much frustration going on.”

Study Abroad and the Major

Aside from concerns about U.S. immigration regulations, diversifying U.S. study abroad was another major topic at the NAFSA conference. Earlier in the week, panelists discussed increasing the representation of racial minority students in education abroad. On Friday, a separate panel discussed diversifying study abroad in terms of students' area of study (stretching beyond the "traditional humanities major studying in Paris" archetype).

Norah Shultz, associate vice president for undergraduate education at Arcadia University, described, for instance, creating Pathways to Study Abroad for every major. The detailed documents provide guidance as to what courses an education major, for instance, would need to take each semester in order to study abroad spring semester of sophomore year – or even complete half one’s student teaching in England.

“Every one of our students has it all laid out. There are no concerns, no questions,” Shultz said.

Arcadia also offers a Majors Abroad Program, in which students interested in certain fields -- sports psychology or global media, for instance -- complete their major requirements during a full year abroad. In addition to getting students overseas, the program allows Arcadia to offer majors it otherwise couldn't, Shultz said.

Overall, Shultz said, due in part to these initiatives to clearly integrate study abroad into all majors, the university has increased the proportion of its students who earned credit abroad from less than 1 percent in 1993 -- a particularly dismal figure given that the university is widely known for the many study abroad programs provided through the Arcadia University Center for Education Abroad -- to about 50 percent today.

Internationalizing the Campus

Lastly, for the benefit too of the vast majority of American students who don’t go abroad, another session on Friday spotlighted a few past recipients of the Institute of International Education’s Andrew Heiskell Awards for Innovation in Higher Education. Panelists discussed efforts to internationalize their campuses and curriculums, in part by integrating and providing support to activities happening largely in isolation.

“The challenge would be to create something coherent out of scattered initiatives,” explained Edward Bonahue, chair of humanities and foreign language at Santa Fe Community College, in Florida. Up until a few years ago, Santa Fe had no comprehensive internationalization strategy, although a few faculty here and there were involved in international initiatives (there was potential but not coherence, Bonahue said).

Leveraging support from a new president inaugurated in 2002 and, quite importantly, federal grants, Santa Fe has since created nine new courses in arts and sciences, revised 18 courses, funded faculty travel abroad, and increased the number of faculty-led study abroad trips, among other activities, Bonahue said.

In a very different example of “going beyond study abroad,” Howard A. Rollins Jr., of Georgia Institute of Technology, described developing an International Plan option -- an add-on to the major -- designed to teach students “specifically about how their discipline worked in different parts of the world.” The plan requires that students take a required set of globally-themed courses, demonstrate second language proficiency, and spend two terms abroad, either through study abroad or international research or internships.

Since starting the program in 2005, Rollins said 409 Georgia Tech students have entered or completed the International Plan program – including 167 engineers, who are underrepresented in study abroad nationally. Those who are successful earn an "International Plan" designation on their diploma.

Meanwhile, in another session focused on international education at historically black colleges and universities, LaNitra Berger, senior manager of research and policy at the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, presented research from a forthcoming report on foreign language, international studies and study abroad opportunities at HBCUs. Berger reported that 53 of 120 NAFEO institutions responded to the survey. They association found that 23 percent, for instance, have a foreign language requirement for admission, and 79 percent have such a requirement for graduation.

Another 62 percent of HBCUs said their mission statement included a commitment to internationalization, and 43 percent said they employed a full-time international studies or global education coordinator (55 percent did not, and 2 percent did not respond). In many cases, Berger said in an interview, a foreign language professor coordinates study abroad.

"All institutions in the United States have quite a ways to go when it comes to internationalization," she said. "In general, a lot of what we found and what we discovered [at HBCUs] was that a lot of statistics were not too far off the national average."

The NAFSA conference concluded Friday, attracting more than 9,000 individuals in total. As part of the association’s lobbying campaign, NAFSA reported that 2,598 attendees wrote letters to Congress in support of the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act, which, after passing the House of Representatives last year is pending in the Senate. If passed, it would provide $80 million in federal funding for education abroad.

 

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