From Open Doors to offering radical hospitality in HE

New enrolments of international students in the United States decreased in 2018-19. International students already in American colleges and universities often struggle to become full members of their host community. Conversations about these trends often take place around valuable data and statistics but leave out the concepts of empathy and hospitality.

As scholars and practitioners of international higher education we can fret about worrisome trends, or we can open our doors – with actions – to create welcoming spaces for international students and scholars.

New internationalisation data

The 2019 Open Doors data released in November by the Institute of International Education was a mixed bag. While the total number of international students showed a modest increase, reaching an historical high point, new enrolments of international students fell for a third consecutive year.

Another report titled Are US HEIs Meeting the Needs of International Students? by World Education Services indicates that over half of international students do not take part in programmes or events at their university and nearly a third lack a social support system on campus. Combined, these reports present a sobering picture of US internationalisation at home.

While trustworthy data are necessary for making informed decisions and guide campus-level strategies to reverse the negative trends reported above, datafication of internationalisation can be disempowering for students, academics and practitioners. Focusing on statistics alone may blur the fact that each data point constitutes an individual with a history.

While fretting over these trends may constitute a legitimate exercise in empathy, a conversation about hospitality as a core value of educational practice is timely and likely more effective than a concerned, but distant, observation of national-level internationalisation data.

The case for radical hospitality

In 2016, when the first signs of a chilling effect on internationalisation were evident in the United States, Study Group and Temple University released separate videos with the hashtag #YouAreWelcomeHere. These viral videos have inspired other universities to release their own campaigns welcoming international students.

These campaigns have become a social media movement, now coordinated by NAFSA – the largest international education organisation in the US. While they are often heart-warming, it is important to recognise that these are marketing campaigns and, while they promote important values, they are largely tokenistic.

Practitioners and scholars of international education can take these expressions of support and openness several steps further in what I call radical hospitality. While radicalisation often takes on negative associations, radicality merely refers to the root – something deep rather than superficial. Radical hospitality begins with exercising empathy.

In developing these ideas, I have borrowed from the philosopher, transnational academic and prisoner of war Emmanuel Levinas. At a much more personal level, being on the receiving end of radical hospitality as an international student in Maine and as a guest in Bangladesh, China and Ethiopia – to name a few instances – has taught me how to practise hospitality and why it is so necessary in US higher education today.

When open doors are not enough

Radical empathy is necessary because keeping the door open does not constitute an invitation. It is necessary because once someone is in our home we need to make them feel they are a guest, rather than expecting them to integrate into our routine, as we do with international students.

A conversation about radical empathy is needed because we recognise that the other’s presence is indeed a disruption to our everyday life, but not nearly as significant as the disruption to theirs.

The practice of radical hospitality requires us to take a long and hard look at the most vulnerable aspects of the experience of international students and to turn that gaze toward the most vulnerable groups in higher education mobility, which, despite their vast numbers, are often invisible.

There are thousands of displaced, imprisoned and exiled academics, and there are millions of school- and university-aged refugees in the world. It is crucial that, as a higher education system, we move the conversation beyond the stereotypical full-tuition-paying international student and embrace the complexity of academic and student mobility.

Letting our actions speak

Conversations about the decline of new international student enrolments often make reference to the current US federal administration and its turn toward isolationism. As is the case with large datasets, the focus on big scale policies can also be disempowering.

While we must remain informed and engaged citizens, we cannot simply wait for the next election. We can immediately start finding students to mentor or scholars to connect with. I have found my work as a mentor in the Scholar Rescue Fund Partnerships for Scholar Advancement truly transformational. After exchanging a few emails, I was paired with two outstanding scholars – one from Turkey and one from Yemen.

I have reconstituted one of my courses next semester as a Scholars at Risk student advocacy seminar. Students at my university will research the case of an imprisoned scholar and develop an advocacy campaign. I hope this will facilitate learning about the practice of empathy.

At a time when the big trends and national policies seem to be against international mobility, it may be appropriate to focus on small actions and on the practice of radical hospitality.

Gerardo L Blanco is associate professor of higher education at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education in the United States, and the faculty director of Global House, a learning community that brings together US and international students. E-mail: As of July 2020, he will be associate professor and associate academic director at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, United States.

Hans de Wit issued a call to readers and contributors to
University World News in 2019 to send him their essays of between 800 and 1,200 words on what went well and what went wrong in internationalisation of higher education over the past 25 years. This is one of the essays he has received. He will bring all these essays together in a book.