SEATTLE – Educators gathered here for this week's meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges are encouraging more two-year institutions to internationalize their curriculums and expand their reach around the world, arguing that there is no better time to make such changes than during a global economic downturn.
Natalie J. Harder, vice president for institutional advancement at Patrick Henry Community College, in Virginia, argued in a paper she released Sunday  that American community colleges are shortchanging their students by not adequately preparing them for the global marketplace.
“The employability impact of what can happen to you if you don't have international experience is real,” said Harder, adding that students who do not have global exposure are considerably less valuable to an employer than students with such experience. “Community colleges cannot afford for their students not to compete in a global labor market.”
A 2006 American Council on Education survey on internationalization in higher education – examining whether institutions offered programs like study abroad or courses with a global focus and other variables – gave community colleges a low score of 0.68 on a 4.0 scale. Harder discovered that when the individual institutions are broken out, rural community colleges fare considerably worse than suburban and urban community colleges. She also found that institutional support from the administration, in terms of both dollars and decision making, was the largest predictor of internationalization of the curriculum.
Harder has been slow to win support for her ideas on her own campus. She explained that faculty and some administrators cannot always see the benefit of making such changes.
“They feel like this is just another project they're supposed to take on,” Harder said. “It's not necessarily related to the goals of our current strategic plan, they're probably unclear as to what the benefits are here. ... Also, studies show that American faculty are less interested in providing international experiences to their students than many other countries around the world.”
Still, Harder has ambitions of bringing some changes to Patrick Henry. For example, she said she would like to see internationalization spelled out explicitly in her college's mission statement and long-term strategic plan. This, she noted, could potentially pave the way for more globally conscious courses, a study abroad program and – perhaps most controversially, she acknowledged – a foreign language graduation requirement.
Students as Cash Cows
Some community colleges are already reaping the benefits of internationalization.
Mick Starcevich, president of Kirkwood Community College, in Iowa, noted that his institution has about 600 international students from 97 countries on a campus of nearly 20,000 students. He added that South Korea has recently become the main supplier. These international students, he said, flock to rural Iowa not only for some of its specific career and technical programs but also for the chance to successfully transfer to a four-year American institution. As these students pay twice the in-state tuition and receive no financial aid, he said, the college has been able to generate a significant stream of money that is then funneled back into the college's budget to support programs for local residents.
Still, the exchange is not one-dimensional. Starcevich noted that the college sent 132 students abroad last year. Culinary students traveled to Japan and France, environmental science and Spanish students traveled to Costa Rica, and dental technician students traveled to Guatemala to help to provide care to indigent locals.
Faculty are encouraged to travel abroad with competitive grants provided by the institution, Starcevich said, adding that every time a professor travels he or she is required to integrate some of his or her “new knowledge” into the curriculum. The lessons learned from faculty and student exchange and travel, he argued, are “life changing.”
"From a philosophical standpoint, I think maybe we wouldn't be in Iraq and all these other places if we understood each other a bit better,” Starcevich told a group of colleagues interested in Kirkwood's internationalization efforts.
Kirkwood receives help from Community Colleges for International Development, a nonprofit that encourages American institutions to collaborate with institutions abroad . John Halder, president of the organization, gathered a group of two-year college officials here Sunday to stress the importance of internationalization, which, he acknowledged, is not always an easy sell.
“When we see budgets being cut, it can be challenging sometimes to justify why we're engaged in global education,” Halder said. “But global education is even more vital in this day and age when we're in a recession and college campuses are hurting and our budgets are being cut. Why? This current recession has affected every single community in this country. I challenge you to name one community that has not been impacted. These are the students we're training at our institutions. They're going out into these communities and workplaces. It behooves us as colleges to share with them knowledge and information about the wider world so they can be better employees and citizens.”
Holder encourages attendees to win over skeptical presidents and boards to the benefits of internationalization by touting the revenue that could be generated by foreign students. He also suggested that attendees get local businesses with connections abroad to tell local college officials what type of global proficiency they expect from their employees. As another way of building support for internationalization, Holder noted that colleges should make use of their well-traveled faculty and staff, whether they are former Peace Corps workers or servicemen and -women, and get them to help advocate for curricular changes.
“There's an uptick,” Holder said of internationalization in the community college sector. “The global recession has made everyone look beyond their own border.”
Internationalization efforts, however, are not always limited to the classroom. Some resemble business deals.
For example, officials from Hennepin Technical College, in Minnesota, presented to meeting attendees on a new relationship their institution has struck with businesses in South Africa . The college helped establish a pre-apprenticeship program in the country to help address a massive skills shortage in its “tool, die and mouldmaking” sector. In February, this program debuted at three “further education and training” institutions, which are the South African equivalent of community colleges.
Richard P. Kelly, director of international training at Hennepin, noted that the college has earned more than $600,000 in contracts so far for its advisory role in this South African project. This money, he noted, is used to fund local-level student initiatives at the college which have not received sufficient funding due to budget constraints. He added that this has helped to fill the gap created by a lack of corporate contracts coming from local businesses who have cut back on training their employees at the college due to financial difficulties.
The South African initiative is also another way for Hennepin to support locally-based businesses who have factories or other outposts in the country that do not have sufficiently-trained employees, Kelly said, noting that local giant 3M has a huge facility in South Africa. While this is currently the extent of the local impact of this project, Kelly hopes to see a greater working relationship between Hennepin and the South African institutions it is helping.
“We'd love to get some extra benefit, aside from the dollars,” Kelly said. “We certainly have hopes of doing a teacher exchange between our tool, die and mouldmaking programs in the future.”