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From Oct. 23 to 25, Conference of the Americas on International Education held its sixth conference in Bogota, Colombia. The conference takes place biannually and brings together national, institutional and international education leaders from South America, Central America, the Caribbean and North America. Its founding members are the Inter-American Organization for Higher Education (OUI-IOHE, based in Montreal, Canada, and key organizer of the event), the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE), and the Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration (CONAHEC).The conference has become one of the key global events in international education, comparable to regional events elsewhere such as the annual conference of the Asian Pacific Association for International Education (APAIE) and the conference of the European Association for international Education (EAIE).

The 2019 meeting attracted a record number of almost 1,000 participants from all over Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada, with participation from outside the region including Europe, China and New Zealand. During the event, ministers of education, rectors of public and private institutions of higher education, and international educators discussed the current state of international education in the Americas: political challenges in Brazil, the U.S.A., Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile. Sadly, the political unrest in Chile forced most of the Chilean delegation to cancel their participation. Speakers discussed the implications of the Venezuelan refugee crisis for higher education in their countries, the challenges and opportunities of technical and technological institutions to internationalize, the importance of innovation and research, as well as other relevant topics. The central theme of the conference, Hubs of Knowledge and Innovation: Synergies for Development, was addressed in several sessions along with case studies from Barcelona, Vancouver, Medellin, Bogota and other cities in Latin America. This interesting and high-quality encounter brought together a diversity of stakeholders in higher education in the four major languages of the region, something seldom heard of at other international education conferences.

Where Were the U.S. Participants?

What was striking was the near complete absence of international educators from the U.S.; I was one of only a handful among the more than 900 participants. Canadian participants were present in large numbers, with many of its associations represented, including the Canadian Bureau of International Education, sister organization of NAFSA and AIEA in the U.S. EAIE was represented by its president and included delegations from smaller countries such as Hungary. But the two leading associations of international educators in the U.S., NAFSA and AIEA, were not actively involved, as if the U.S.A. were not part of the Americas! U.S. higher education, as a consequence of the Trump administration’s policies and rhetoric, is struggling to be seen as a welcoming partner, affecting students and academics from Latin America and the Caribbean. NAFSA and AIEA have been advocates for building bridges abroad, so it seemed ironic that the call for ongoing collaboration with the U.S. came from a representative of the U.S. State Department, Anthony Koliha, director of its Office of Global Educational Programs, who -- it must be acknowledged -- did so constructively, a potentially useful lesson to the tweeting president.

I can only guess what the reasons are for the absence of U.S. international educators and their associations. Is it arrogance, assuming their colleagues from the rest of the Americas will come to their conferences so there is no need to visit them? Is it the lack of interest in collaboration with Latin America and the Caribbean as they still focus mainly on Europe and Australia and lately on Asia? This seems a bit weird, as U.S. international educators often express concern over the preference of students for study abroad destinations in Europe and Australia. Should they not explore more potential collaboration with Latin America and the Caribbean by attending conferences such as CAIE, FAUBAI and AMPEI?

The Danger of Isolation

The world is changing, along with patterns for international education with increasing collaboration South-South and the strengthening ties between Latin America with Europe, Canada, China and other countries in Asia Pacific, leaving the U.S. outside. U.S. international education should recognize the potential of a symbolic wall that could develop between the U.S. higher education and southern partners, one that could grow from the very high cost of travel for potential participants to attend conferences in the U.S. and by not making an effort to meet with colleagues elsewhere in the region.

From March 22 to 26, 2020, the APAIE conference will take place in Vancouver, and the Canadians were aggressively promoting the event to partners in the southern region of the Americas. NAFSA and AIEA should worry that the choice of Vancouver as an event host instead of St. Louis or Washington might be more attractive when their absence at events like CAIE is so conspicuous. And these associations should take note that the next CAIE conference will be in 2021 in Santiago de Chile. And perhaps put it on their respective calendars.

Hans de Wit is the director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

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