In his stirring inauguration speech of unity, President Joe Biden reminded those watching at home and abroad that the United States is committed to repairing alliances, engaging with the world and “leading not by example of power, but by power of example.” With those words, we, and undoubtedly much of higher education, envisioned an unprecedented opportunity to restore and repair how international students, families and partners view us. Colleges and universities should be a vital part of that restore-and-repair process, and we can start by doubling down on our commitment to excellence in international education.
The Biden administration has indicated they will reverse many of the troubling Trump policies that have damaged our intellectual capital, diminished our international standing and impacted students who come to the America to study. Biden issued an order preserving DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which allows children of immigrants to remain in the United States and pursue an education. He has also repealed the so-called Muslim travel ban, which has led to substantial delays in visa processing or renewals for many international students. These are critical first steps that signal an end to four years of corrosive policies and provide a beacon of hope for the international students and educators who have been plagued by those policies.
But much more is needed.
The last few years have resulted in a troubling decline in America’s ability to attract international students. Talented and hardworking young people turned off by U.S. policy and hateful rhetoric have been increasingly choosing to go to the U.K., Canada and Australia to study. The 1.1 million international students who have come to study in America have been an integral part of American institutions and to the education of domestic students. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, international students added $44 billion to the U.S. economy in 2019 alone.
Just as important, yet more difficult to measure, international students build cultural bridges with college and university students in the United States who can live and learn with peers from different parts of the world, share diverse life experiences, and confront alternative views to common problems. As incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan has said, we have reached a point where "foreign policy is domestic policy, and domestic policy is foreign policy."
To increase understanding and support of those policies, Americans need more knowledge of both our nation’s and the world’s challenges. International ignorance is a national security threat and must be addressed. One place to begin is to ensure that all college students in the United States, as an integral part of their college educations, spend eight to 12 weeks living in domestic and international communities unlike their own and actively working with local organizations to understand and address a range of challenges: environmental, political, technological, agricultural, economic, educational. In that way, participating students would gain true cultural immersion and have profound experiences that they will bring back to their home campuses -- and upon which they can build their educations, careers and lives as citizens. They could also earn a stiped for their efforts, thus helping offset their student loans.
To help make that happen, we ask the Biden administration to launch the Civic Engagement Corps, a new national service program for young Americans interested in living and working in a community different from their own where they will complete projects with local leaders here in the U.S. and abroad. The aim will be twofold: to allow students to build upon and put to practical use their academic learning in order to work with others on an important public issue, and to develop in them the intercultural and democratic skills necessary for long-term success. Combined with education and training in intercultural competency, focused on problem solving in local communities, it could also go a long way toward patching our civic fabric, helping young Americans to better understand their own country.
We envision the Civic Engagement Corps operating under the Peace Corps, a national treasure with expertise in intercultural and diversity training, as a complement to programs that prepare students for international development fieldwork and potential Peace Corps service.
We welcome and encourage dialogue from colleagues interested in launching this bold endeavor. We also encourage President Biden to convene a summit of college and university presidents -- including those at community colleges -- as well as leaders of major civic organizations such as the Peace Corps, to quickly develop the framework for a summer civic engagement program across the nation. In the future, campuses could expand participation to full academic semesters, just like semester abroad programs, but with community engagement and intercultural, diversity, equity and inclusion training at its core.
Most American colleges and universities already have active civic engagement programs that are integrated in academic offerings. They also have study abroad offices. The Civic Engagement Corps would increase collaboration between those offices and build upon the infrastructure already in place to create a more meaningful wider-world experience.
It is time once more for this country to face up to its truly global responsibilities -- to its leading role in a profoundly interdependent world facing both significant perils and unprecedented opportunities. As international educators, we listened to President Biden’s first public address with great hope and optimism that the United States is ready to take seriously its responsibility to educate global citizens and equip them with the knowledge, understanding and passion to meet the challenges ahead. We’re ready to meet that responsibility. Who stands with us?