International higher education

We should stop calling students from outside the U.S. 'international' (essay)

International Education Week, which begins today, aims to “prepare Americans for a global environment.” As part of this preparation, perhaps we should rethink the use of the word “international” as an adjective describing people.

Students and faculty members who came to American universities from abroad used to be called “foreign.” Today they’re called “international.” The shift was well-meaning. “Foreign” is “other.” Foreign quickly becomes foreigner. When I see foreigner on the page I hear: “Either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” International sounds nicer, more democratic.

But as a binational student and now faculty member, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the term. I’m not international – I grew up in two countries, not on a cloud between them. My Egyptian, Polish, and Japanese students and colleagues are not international either; they are foreign nationals living in the United States. There are people who identify as citizens of the world, but many newcomers and visitors to this country do not. (We make a similar mistake when we refer to people who enhance diversity as themselves being “diverse.”)

Why does it matter? Because language matters. Because there is a difference between “non-American” and “international,” and blurring the distinction whitewashes something important.

What, after all, is the mission of international education? Recently, I’ve been involved in a series of inspiring conversations about the future of international education at my school -- a place that is deeply committed to fostering a global perspective. These conversations have led me to fresh understandings about the transformative potential of cultural exchange and of my role (and perhaps responsibility) as a binational academic.

During my undergraduate, graduate, and early teaching years, I devoted much of my energy to figuring out how to be a polite guest. Because I didn’t have a foreign accent I could “pass” as purely American, which relieved me of having to share my entire life story with every curious stranger. When my background did come up, I tried to answer questions honestly, but I was uneasy with the attention. I didn’t want to be the exotic outsider; I wanted to blend in.

Recently, I’ve begun to realize that in trying to assimilate I squandered an opportunity. I now believe that at its best, international education is part of a broader mission: a mission that at its heart is about honoring difference. Opening our doors to students, staff, and faculty from different cultural, racial, religious, economic, and national backgrounds, people of different sexual orientations and physical abilities, can transform all members of the community.

We begin to understand that our way is just one of many possible ways -- to structure a sentence, to deliver bad news, to tell a joke. We encounter attitudes about money, family and desire that complicate our own. We taste strange foods, get curious about customs that initially strike us as bizarre.

But this is just the first step. The deeper, more radical transformation that international education can spark goes beyond folkloric exchange. It happens when we step outside of our culturally determined default modes and connect from a deeper, more universal place.

Who would we be if we were born in a different time and place -- to a different family, a different race, a different nationality? When we bracket the aspects of our identity that have been chosen for us, who do we see? Tapping into this alternative version of ourselves can lead to a fundamental shift in perspective. If you have experienced this before, you know what I mean. It’s almost a physical sensation, a kind of quickening, a waking up to a quality of aliveness -- in myself, in the other person, in what Martin Buber called the I-Thou.

But this can only happen if we all cut loose from our anchors, if we’re all prepared to swim in the open sea.

When a Chilean student and an American student encounter each other on an American campus in this way, they are engaging in something that truly can be said to be international. But the Chilean herself is no more international than the American. She is a person who comes from a different place -- which can be difficult or exhilarating; sometimes it is both.

Referring to her as “an international” papers over the reality. It implies that she has shifted from being a person who comes from a place to being a person who inhabits the in-between, but that the American need not. The pearl of international education hides in corners of the university where Americans make the shift, too.

So what’s the answer? Should we go back to calling people from other places foreigners? Cosmopolitans? Non-American? Do we need a new word? Or is “international” too deeply entrenched to go away?

Language matters, but its meaning evolves; sometimes using a word imprecisely is the most effective way to convey meaning. Perhaps if we repurpose “international” to apply to all community members we can still salvage the intention behind the move away from “foreigner.”

JFK said “Ich bin ein Berliner.” If I say: “I am an international,” will you?

Shari Motro is a professor of law at the University of Richmond.

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Essay on international education initiatives and what they are missing

U.S. colleges and universities face choppy waters ahead. Navigating institutional direction these days requires not only a clear grasp of what the domestic challenges are but also demands a good global positioning system. 

Domestic challenges and global positioning intersect at the need for a steady revenue stream of fee-paying students. The past five years have seen an exponential growth in the business of recruiting international students, especially undergraduates, to U.S. campuses. The search for tuition revenue from abroad has happily converged with a rising middle class around the world that is attracted to U.S. higher education. This intersection has its risks and calls for careful steering.

Colleges and universities that view these students as principally a revenue fix and confuse their mere presence on campus with internationalization are ultimately headed for stormier seas. It’s time to check the GPS.

We’ve already heard that some campuses are experiencing problems retaining international undergraduates. This can begin with recruitment and whether exaggerated promises have been made. Setting the right direction here requires knowing what your recruiters are doing and the standards they employ.

Successful retention can be further compromised by the way international students are integrated — or not — on campus. Housing them in an international dorm completely disconnected from the center of campus life is just the wrong thing if you want happy graduates and a loyal alumni network around the world.

And, too often we hear presidents say, “We’re international, we have international students!” Really? How do those students contribute to the internationalization of your institution? If your answer is: “We have an international week every year filled with food and folk dances,” you are in big trouble. When presidents can more carefully address the question, we have moved past simple revenue production to an understanding that students from abroad are an important aspect of internationalizing a college or university. However, their presence, even a well-integrated one, is not enough.

In the U.S., we have a significant import-export gap, and it starts at the institutional level. If 20 percent of your students are international, do you send a similar percentage of your homegrown students to study abroad? If not, you should actively recalculate that quotient. Exacerbating this gap, U.S. students generally are on shorter term study abroad programs, while their international counterparts are mostly enrolled for degrees .

But study abroad alone will not be enough to declare a victory for internationalization. Why? Because while student mobility should be encouraged, it will not work for everyone. Consider that most college students no longer fit the profile of an 18- to 22-year-old residential student. A single mother attending part-time classes at a community college while holding down a 40-hour-a-week job is not going to do a semester in Bahrain. 

Colleges and universities are going to have to spend more time and energy on curriculum design to reach large numbers of such students. It really matters to ask how your students, no matter their origin, will come away with a broader and deeper sense of the world in which they will pursue their personal and professional lives. Ultimately, you have to focus on the curriculum and the faculty who are its stewards. This is the center of the map when it comes to internationalization. 

A well-tuned GPS will be all about creating an institutional learning environment that is consciously cross-national and cross-cultural. We have a term for this at the American Council on Education: comprehensive internationalization. Here is what it includes:

  • You have articulated institutional buy-in: Your mission statement and strategic plan show a commitment to global education, and there’s a road map for how you’re going to get there.
  • Senior leadership is on board with a holistic vision of connecting what may be separate international activities and, importantly, someone is assigned to wake up every morning thinking about ways to connect the dots as a core element of institutional direction.
  • Your curriculum, across disciplines and schools, reflects that you want your students to develop global competencies, whether they are majoring in East Asian studies, engineering or art.
  • Faculty members play a critical role in this work — so they are recruited and rewarded in part on their international engagement. In this domain, you may need to invest further in their global experience and development.
  • U.S.-based students are encouraged to go abroad, but also supported appropriately — whether financially or in cultural orientation. And international students, as noted above, are supported by systems too.
  • Global partnerships, an important part of the internationalization picture, are pursued thoughtfully, maintained with integrity and mutuality, tracked and evaluated on a regular basis.

Through the work that we do with many different types of colleges and universities, we have found these elements to be a winning combination. They set the GPS coordinates for deeply embedded internationalization, as opposed to one-off initiatives, and serve a wide array of institutional best interests, most importantly better outcomes for all students.
 

Patti McGill Peterson is presidential adviser for global initiatives at the American Council on Education.

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San Francisco State University

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