International educators confront a new political reality

The biggest buzz at last year’s conference of NAFSA: Association of International Educators was about a survey of prospective international students that showed nearly two out of three would reconsider studying in the United States if Donald Trump became president. Conference goers thought the findings scary. They also thought such a thing could never happen.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

Trump, of course, won the election and just days after taking office, issued an executive order barring students and other travellers from a half-dozen predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.

His maiden budget proposal, released on 23 May, would halve funding for State Department exchanges and international education programming and eliminate federal support for foreign-language study altogether.

What was merely academic a year ago is, at this year’s NAFSA meeting – held in Los Angeles from 28 May to 2 June – harsh reality.

"When we wrote the proposal [for the session], we knew this would be a topic of interest," said Lisa Heyn of the Alliance for International Exchange, speaking to a packed house in a panel discussion on policy-making and international education.

"But we never could have imagined this."

To be at the world’s largest international education conference in an era when the word ‘global’ gets used as a pejorative by the president and his backers, is to get a sense of a profession in a time of crisis. 

Educators compare notes about the latest international enrolment yields and swap strategies about how to calm anxious parents in Shanghai and Mumbai who worry about sending their children to what they see as a hostile and unwelcoming America.

One international marketing consultant said he’s never had so many requests to meet; four solid days of colleges seeking his advice about how to repair their image – and that of American higher education – abroad.

Despite some occasional gallows humour, what comes through most among the nearly 10,000 educators gathered here is a sense of solidarity, of resolve, even a rededicated commitment to the field.

"Yes, the political environment is challenging," says Esther D Brimmer, NAFSA’s executive director. "But it’s exciting that we can defend our value."

Brimmer, who joined the organisation at the beginning of the year, talks about her first tumultuous months on the job with a diplomacy honed in her time at the US Department of State, most recently as an assistant secretary under President Barack Obama.

Much of the work in her former position involved putting out fires, responding to one calamity or trying to head off another through mediation and negotiation.

Even though NAFSA’s regulatory and government affairs team has scrambled to keep abreast of the latest Trump administration policies, including the court challenges that have temporarily halted enforcement of the travel ban, Brimmer considers her team’s role to be fundamentally a proactive, positive one: to emphasise the importance of international education.

If much of the election’s most heated rhetoric was about economic opportunity, education, she notes, is America’s seventh largest export and is key to preparing students, both domestic and international, for an increasingly global workplace.

"We are," she says, "part of the solution".

‘The elephant in the room’

Like Brimmer, Jacob Gross is a newcomer to the NAFSA conference. He’s been working for less than a year with International Student Exchange Programs, or ISEP, a non-profit group that helps send Americans abroad and place foreign students for short-term study on American campuses.

It’s been hard to avoid conversations about the antipathy with which international education is viewed in the current political climate.

"I feel it’s the elephant in the room no matter where I go," Gross says, both in sessions with an obvious tie to the news, like a discussion about working with Muslim students, and in those in which the connection is less clear.

But Gross, a former Spanish major who is earning a doctorate in educational leadership in his spare time, says he has not reconsidered his professional path.

At its core, he says, international education is about working with students, ensuring that they have an enriching experience, no matter the current climate. "If anything," he says, "it’s motivating me more to stay and engage."

More than a third of NAFSA attendees each year are, like Gross, first timers. John K Hudzik, by contrast, is a past president of the organisation who currently serves as one of several senior fellows for internationalisation.

His perspective is simple – Don’t panic. International education is not in some kind of existential crisis.

There’s the matter of the populism that fuelled Trump’s rise. It burns out, says Hudzik, who holds degrees in political science and history. "Populism has a short shelf life," he says, especially when "demagogues make promises they can’t keep or the folks who voted for them become disenchanted".

Just as important, Hudzik says, the dynamics that have fuelled the increasing internationalisation of college campuses aren’t going away. "The forces propelling globalisation aren’t going to reverse," he says. "No one in their right mind can ignore globalisation."

Still, Hudzik isn’t about to let educators off the hook. There’s no benefit to bemoaning the political climate or to demonising voters who see globalisation as a threat, he argues.

Supporters of international education need to do a better job of articulating its value, whether explaining the impact of overseas students on the American economy or demonstrating how global learning prepares students for a workplace in which borders matter less and less.

And higher education must do more to ease the economic transition for all workers. "We can’t speak only to the converted," he says.

Speaking to sceptics is what Jessica B Sandberg is trying to do, in this case to the international students and parents who may question whether American colleges, and America itself, is still a hospitable place to study.

Shortly after the election Sandberg, director of international affairs at Temple University in Philadelphia, started a grassroots campaign, #YouAreWelcomeHere, to try to counteract negative messages those overseas may be receiving.

She and her colleagues recorded videos of Temple students, professors and even community members speaking directly to international students, encouraging them to come to the United States, and flooded social media with positive messages.

Some 230 other colleges have since signed onto Temple’s efforts. NAFSA, too, has endorsed the campaign. Even before Sandberg arrived at the conference last Monday her phone was blowing up with emails and text messages from friends sharing shots of #YouAreWelcomeHere banners that are all over the sprawling Los Angeles Convention Center.

The election and the early policy decisions by the Trump administration have strengthened her resolve to be a more forceful advocate for international education, Sandberg says.

"For me personally, it’s been a bittersweet year," she says. "Out of a period of hardship, I’ve seen that something promising can blossom."