WASHINGTON – A theme at this year’s Association of International Education Administrators conference was the need to do a better job of integrating international students on American campuses in order to maximize the potential for global learning. The overarching message: student mobility alone won't cut it.
"It’s not enough to just say, ‘Look, we have X number of international students on campus,’” said Darla K. Deardorff, executive director of the AIEA and an expert on intercultural competence. “So what? What’s the impact? What difference does it make? How can we better utilize those resources, as well as our international faculty and scholars, and thinking broadly, the international backgrounds of staff on our campuses? I think we’re falling far short.”
Deardorff spoke Wednesday during a panel on the non-financial benefits international students bring to U.S. campuses (the financial benefits at this point are of course well-documented). Her fellow panelist, Krista Jenkins, an associate professor of political science and the director of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s survey unit, PublicMind, presented on research on how the mere presence of international students affects domestic student attitudes.
The private English language provider, ELS, commissioned the study, which queried incoming freshmen at Fairleigh Dickinson’s two New Jersey campuses on four attitudinal dimensions: openness toward travel to another country, xenophobia, globalization anxiety (the degree of anxiety about economic growth in China and India and global competiveness), and academic anxiety more generally. These students, 452 of whom were surveyed in their freshman year and again in their sophomore year, were split between the more cosmopolitan, heavily commuter campus outside New York City, where foreign-born students (including foreign-born Americans) make up 21 percent of the population, and a less urban, more residential campus in Madison, which is 14 percent foreign-born.
Perhaps most strikingly, researchers discovered that students who entered college with high levels of xenophobia became much less xenophobic if they had social contact with foreign-born students: there was a similar, though less marked salutary effect for students who entered with lower levels of xenophobia to begin with. Students on the campus with a higher density of international students -- the campus just outside New York City -- were also more likely to experience a decrease in globalization anxiety from freshman to sophomore year than were students on the Madison campus. Researchers found no effect in regards to the openness and academic anxiety dimensions.
"At the basic level, what this seems to be suggesting is being in an environment where you have international students nearby does tend to have an effect on these two things," those being xenophobia and globalization anxiety, Jenkins said.
However, there is a strong sense in the international education field that whatever interactions may be occurring naturally are not enough, and that universities need to do a much better job of bringing domestic and international students together in an intentional way. The issue has taken on increasing salience  as campuses have seen huge influxes of international undergraduate students from two main countries, China and Saudi Arabia , in recent years. A study published  in the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication in 2012 found that nearly 40 percent of international students in the U.S. report having no close American friends.
"The question of integrating international students and domestic students is an ongoing question that’s been with us for many years and unfortunately I haven’t found any institution yet that has found the answer,” Deardorff said. She noted that many colleges use conventional approaches to pair international and domestic students, such as conversation partner and buddy programs, but as a caution of sorts hearkened to Gordon W. Allport’s “contact hypothesis,” which finds that personal contact between groups can reduce prejudice, but only when certain conditions are met, including the existence of a common goal.
“What we’re seeing in terms of success are those programs that have an actual common goal beyond the interaction in and of itself, that they’re interacting for some greater purpose,” Deardorff said. She noted service learning as one example, and research and sports teams as two others, and emphasized, perhaps above all, the key role that faculty play in integration issues and the need to build up their intercultural competence. She emphasized that one-off “faculty trainings” on intercultural competence aren’t the way to go (“I have had faculty say, ‘I’m not an animal that needs to be trained’ ”) but instead suggested approaches like symposiums with invited outside speakers and working groups.
“It’s not sufficient to simply bring people together, even in the same classroom, [to say], ‘Oh we have a very intercultural classroom, they’re all there, so magic will happen,’” Deardorff said. "Same with sending people abroad and magic will happen. Things don’t just happen, unfortunately. We have to be very, very intentional. There have been studies coming out of Harvard [from Robert D. Putnam ] that show that simply being in the vicinity of those who are different can lead to greater distrust and more suspicion, so we need to be very intentional about how we create that environment for integration."
As part of his keynote speech on Wednesday, Philip G. Altbach likewise emphasized that student mobility in itself is not sufficient in realizing the broad goal of “universalizing global learning” that was the theme of this year’s AIEA conference.
“Does international student mobility contribute to global learning? Not necessarily,” said Altbach, a research professor and director of Boston College's Center for International Higher Education (and a blogger for Inside Higher Ed).
Noting that most globally mobile students study overseas because of a desire to improve their prospects in the labor market, or because of a lack of educational opportunity at the quality or level at which they wish to study in their home country, or for immigration purposes, Altbach asked: “How can we leverage the students who are on our campuses, most of whom are paying for themselves, as we all know, and give them a good experience and make sure that they are giving a global perspective to our own local students? Because most American students, most students from any country, are not going to be traveling overseas. It's never gonna happen."