A culture of internationalisation

As the world becomes more interconnected and as each person’s life and career are increasingly affected by global trends, internationalisation has become a movement in much of higher education. Institutions are working to increase their international student populations, numbers of students studying abroad and international relationships.

Students are seeking more sophisticated international services and greater international opportunities. Faculty are pursuing more international educational and research collaborations.

Case Western Reserve University, or CWRU, like many other institutions, has placed internationalisation at the forefront of its strategic initiatives, recognising that international endeavours are essential in forming students who are global citizens and in advancing impactful research.

In its 2008 strategic plan, the university focused on internationalisation. The framers of the 2008 plan recognised that internationalisation must be more than a set of statistics; it must become part of the DNA of the institution.

To this end, CWRU adopted its first international strategic plan in 2012. The Plan for Internationalisation (the Plan) recognised that CWRU, like all first-tier research institutions, already operated on a global stage. In order to strengthen CWRU as a global leader in research and higher education, the university needed to become, using the term of art, “comprehensively internationalised”.

Successful comprehensive internationalisation required that the university act in a coordinated, strategic manner and that all members of the university community pull in the same direction.

It was the Plan, and its resulting successful implementation, that allowed CWRU to receive the 2016 Institute of International Education’s Andrew Heiskell Award for Internationalising the Campus.

Building a university-wide structure

Prior to the development of the Plan, internationalisation efforts were fragmented and specific to each school, department or faculty member. There were no university-wide initiatives to integrate international students onto campus. There was no structured support to help faculty to develop internationalised courses or research. There was no office to analyse and develop study abroad experiences for students.

The challenges in creating the Plan were to unify the disparate international initiatives, while garnering support from the CWRU community.

The leadership who conceived the Plan recognised the importance of process. All major stakeholders needed to have a voice in order to create the 'buy-in' necessary for success at a campus that operates in significant silos.

Formal planning to internationalise CWRU began in January 2010. Over the next two years, over 100 academics, staff and students directly participated in the process – on committees, working groups and teams.

The efforts were led by a respected group of academics from each of the schools, as well as by senior university administrators and student government representatives. Alumni and friends from the community contributed additional perspectives.

The process led to an institution-wide understanding of the importance of internationalisation and a commitment to furthering the university’s global reach.

Centre for International Affairs

When the Plan was finished, the Centre for International Affairs was established as the first full international ‘home’ at CWRU. The Centre houses the Offices of Global Strategy, International Student Services, and Education Abroad; it serves as the international hub on campus.

By providing consistent messaging and streamlining access to international opportunities at CWRU, the Centre has helped to create a campus-wide focus on internationalisation.

While there is always more work to be done, internationalisation has increasingly become embedded in the university’s culture and curriculum. Since the Plan for Internationalisation was adopted, the campus community is actively encouraged and supported as it engages globally.

Although the Centre for International Affairs has helped facilitate internationalisation, the change of culture has been organic, largely driven by academics, staff and students in each of the schools.

The culture change can be seen in the metrics that are used in assessing comprehensive internationalisation. Since 2010, when formal planning for internationalisation of CWRU began:
  • • The number of international students enrolling for the first time at CWRU has increased from 459 to 819.
  • • The percentage of entering-undergraduate international students into the university has increased from 2.8% to 15%.
  • • The percentage of the total student body that is international has increased from 13.7% to 18%.
  • • The percentage of undergraduate students with academic experiences abroad has increased from 19.4% to 44.8%.
  • • 25 faculty seed grants for internationalisation totalling US$160,000 have been funded and awarded.
  • • Significant partnerships with institutions and government agencies – in Brazil, Taiwan, Japan, Uganda, Egypt and other countries – have been developed in all eight CWRU schools.
  • • New programmes, workshops and training sessions have been created to celebrate diversity and teach cultural competency to all members of the CWRU community, including a Global Talk Series for faculty and staff and an International Student Success Series to support the engagement of international students.
As the university continues to internationalise, Phase II of the Plan was developed in 2015. The original plan concentrated on undergraduate students; Phase II focuses on graduate or professional students and research.

Rigorous new goals have been set to emphasise growth and achievement in the areas of curriculum/co-curriculum, initiatives abroad, and on-campus/community impact. Once again, the entire CWRU community was involved in the process.


Perhaps the most important lesson learned from CWRU’s effort to comprehensively internationalise is that changing and unifying a university culture does not happen without the involvement and commitment of the entire community.

By involving each constituency – academics, staff, students, administrators, alumni and broader community members – the university has been able to create an institution-wide initiative that permeates all aspects of the campus.

As a result of this support and buy-in from around campus, international initiatives and culture, driven by the Plan for Internationalisation and facilitated by the Centre for International Affairs, have become part of CWRU’s identity.

David Fleshler is vice-provost for international affairs and Molly J Watkins is executive director for international affairs, both at Case Western Reserve University, USA.