Six pillars for rebuilding international higher education

The COVID-19 pandemic, protests in support of racial justice and debates about immigration and migration have brought education abroad to a critical juncture in its purposes and paradigms. Travel restrictions have halted traditional education abroad programming.

Considerations of racial justice have prompted deep reflections on diversity, equity and access in education abroad. The current state of immigration and migration raises questions about admitting even temporary visitors to resource-stressed nations.

These challenges create an opportunity for new thinking, a moment to move education abroad forward as a field and potentially to transform it.

With most colleges and universities having international education as part of their mission and strategic plans, education abroad has become an integral part of meeting institutional goals.

Campus and international education leaders need to seize this watershed moment to re-invent and re-assert education abroad as a high-impact educational practice that is more globally relevant, valuable and indeed essential than ever before.

How, exactly, is this to be done? We propose the following six pillars to rebuild education abroad for a new era.

1. Redefine education abroad

Here vs There. No longer should education abroad be defined as geographic displacement and a literal crossing of national borders. Instead we should embrace and explore the many ways that difference – of culture, language, race, religion and identity – is manifested globally, regionally and locally.

Institutions have the pedagogical tools to frame and facilitate students’ encounters with difference, whether in the remotest corner of the other side of the world or in the campus corner store. These tools can teach students how to navigate cultural, linguistic, racial, religious and ethnic divides, to identify the patterns that make up human topography, to appreciate the contexts and histories that make each unique person and to find ways to weave those elements into complex human ecosystems that are the more sustainable because of their diversity.

Us vs Them. The ‘American student’ encountering the ‘host culture’ is already a tired and outdated trope. Students are not monolithic, nor are the people they encounter during education abroad. Each is a rich constellation of co-existing identities – markers of class, education, race, political history, geographical affinities, subgroups, private feelings and personal trajectories.

Immersion in a foreign country, learning a new language or engaging with different communities within a 10-mile radius of one’s home are all vehicles for encountering and engaging with difference and entering into complex worlds that are not one’s own.

Education abroad needs to treat the ‘us’ of the student or student group and the ‘them’ of the host or target population as a useful but fictional heuristic.

Now vs Later. Education abroad needs to move beyond its focus on the specific demographic of the four-year undergraduate student and instead develop ways to serve a much broader spectrum of lifelong learners.

This involves making education abroad programmes valuable for and relevant to young professionals, established professionals, families, K-12 students, ‘rewirees’ and retirees.

Institutions need to serve our societies at large, our communities, individuals across the life spectrum and across the socio-political spectrum. Education abroad cannot be focused on one year in a life; it needs to expand to serve learners though a variety of touchpoints throughout their lives.

2. Foster a sense of the ‘Global We’

The monumental problems we are called urgently to address – the pandemic, racial injustice and climate change, among others – can only be solved through collective global cooperation. Education abroad can contribute to this by developing in students a profound, lasting sense of being part of the ‘Global We’.

Although education abroad outcomes are remarkably, richly varied – promoting intercultural competence, language acquisition, professional skills and academic disciplinary content – institutions need to lean into a shared investment in training the next generation of leaders and citizens and an enlightened, well-rounded electorate that is equipped to safeguard democracy, human rights and our environment.

The critical global challenges facing our age require that we work together, committing on a fundamental level to our shared fate as a species and the well-being of our planet.

Much of the learning and skill sets required to address the problems of the next half-century will be anchored in a blend of interdisciplinary academic work complemented by direct and deep engagements with the Global We, wherever we happen to live.

In this sense, education abroad around the globe should become education about and for the globe to benefit the greater global good.

3. A cross-disciplinary, experiential curriculum

As suggested above, the work of education abroad is (and should be), regardless of the primary focus of any given programme or curriculum, interdisciplinary. Critical global challenges do not fall neatly into disciplinary categories, nor do they fall into existential categories. Breaking down the dichotomies noted above necessarily involves an experiential dimension – or rather, multiple experiential dimensions.

Global education means developing a sense of the Global We, destabilising dichotomies of place, time and identity and developing the whole student in ways that go beyond disembodied intellectual exercises.

Traditionally, this is the value of ‘being there’ – the tastes, sounds, smells and different bodily ways of being abroad. Going forward, institutions need to embrace creative and dynamic approaches to engaging students experientially – not only in situ, but through whatever pedagogies education abroad programmes employ.

Critical literacies can inform and develop both intellectual and experiential dimensions of global learning to develop the whole student. Institutions should re-commit first to the foundational principles – a ‘meta-curriculum,’ if you will – that both undergird and transcend the academic curriculum: ideals of truth, honesty, humility and courage, for example, that contribute to our students’ formation as adults and citizens.

This ‘meta-curriculum’ confers key critical literacies: using context to help define and enhance the content of what students are learning; learning to translate third person disembodied knowledge to first person experiential knowledge, with skill, nuance and rigour; and engaging the politics and polemics of representation with the combined skills of content, context and translation to generate new knowledge, meaningful, positive action and respectful, civil, evidence-based discourse.

Though these concepts and ideals may sound abstract as written, those of us who have heard students return from abroad impassioned and educated on a topic with which they engaged while abroad, simultaneously humbled and inspired by their experience and with a newfound respect for an ability to discourse across difference, understand how education abroad can develop key critical literacies and a broad meta-curriculum of skills and virtues.

4. Prepare students for professions, careers and jobs

More attention needs to be focused on the practical ways in which education abroad enhances career pathways and how it can serve as a compass point for career goals. Workers increasingly need specific competencies that contribute to their own and the global economy, skills that can be developed effectively through education abroad.

Foreign languages are an immediate example, but, beyond that, institutions can focus on developing education abroad coursework and co-curricular components that offer students hands-on, practical exposure to (and, where possible, training in) public health practices, market research, early childhood education for refugees and migrants or managing a global workforce, for example.

The ‘soft skills’ that students learn through education abroad are desirable and effective in today’s workplace: how to interact skilfully and respectfully, for example, to navigate difference, cultivate resilience and resolve conflict.

Higher education or education abroad should not shift to a focus solely on professional preparation. Academic learning is an intrinsic value and we believe that the liberal arts are foundational to cultivating students as future leaders, policy-makers and thoughtful, well-informed citizens.

However, to remain relevant, education abroad must enhance and expand its more traditional liberal arts and social sciences curricula by building in specific skills and outcomes that students can translate directly into professional and career goals.

Indeed, well beyond ‘remaining relevant’, the ability to effectively combine these inputs and outcomes is a true value proposition and one that institutions are well-equipped to deliver brilliantly.

5. Increase inclusiveness and practise equitable education

Reimagining education abroad should involve a commitment to making it a more accessible and equitable enterprise, impacting the lives of many more students and greatly enhancing their learning outcomes.

For example, the increase of online learning has the potential to expand access to global education by making courses and programmes accessible to a greater number of students, especially those who are currently under-represented.

In seeking to increase access, however, pedagogical approaches and course designs need to be assessed carefully to ensure that their quality is not compromised by greater quantity.

In addition to online options, diversity may be further strengthened through hybrid courses that begin at the home university and continue for short-term sojourns abroad, thereby becoming more affordable for the student.

Enrolling a greater diversity of students will change what and how students learn during their education abroad experiences.

In a more inclusive education abroad learning environment, with programmes intentionally seeking ways to link the diverse backgrounds of their students with the differences they are encountering in their host context, students learn more about themselves as they learn about diverse others.

Truly supporting the success of students or colleagues of colour means also identifying and addressing how systemic racism impacts the education abroad field. Systemic racism is not limited to the United States. It is a reality that influences how countries as a whole – and the communities and individuals of colour within them – are viewed and treated. It affects how students, staff and faculty of colour are perceived and treated in different parts of the world as they engage in education abroad.

Education abroad should be approached through an equitable lens to root out the systems and structures that would otherwise prevent students and educators of colour from fully engaging and benefiting from the opportunities offered through education abroad.

Intentional and ongoing assessments of and improvements to advising, curricular and co-curricular programming, staff development and workplace climate will be critical to building institutional cultures of belonging.

Taking an operational approach to addressing systemic racism fosters accountability and positions us to build practices and policies within institutions and organisations that promote equitable access for students of colour to the benefits of education abroad. It also helps to ensure that the education abroad field is one where colleagues of colour can thrive in their careers.

6. Rebalance the risk/reward equation

The pandemic has raised, once again, the question of risk in our lives – now extending from ‘over there’ to ‘right here’.

Institutions are having to repurpose decades of health, safety and risk management expertise for a new breed of challenge that involves re-thinking, re-balancing and re-articulating the risk/reward equation in education abroad.

We need nuanced, carefully crafted policies that balance the risks of going abroad with the benefits, that balance courage with prudence and individual sensibilities with the common good.

The recent pivot to online learning has been nothing short of extraordinary, especially for a sector of higher education that has long been, by definition, embedded, embodied and experiential.

Institutions have created new approaches to global learning by bringing localised, first-person elements to the virtual space that previously would not have been removed from their local embeddedness. Institutions should continue to develop these elements to increase access to global learning, ensure fail-safes for the next global crisis and enhance existing curricula.

But we must, eventually, step forward once again into our role of offering students a series of controlled risks in leaving their comfort zone on the way to the reward of becoming more capable of handling the unexpected or the unknown.

We must continue to articulate the value of discomfort and not retreat into fictionalised, sterilised experiences that shelter students from any kind of risk by digitising them away online.

We need to continue to train our future leaders and citizens with thoughtful, sophisticated risk analyses, well-designed programme elements and the courage to step forth into the world once more.

Towards a new era of global engagement

Many of the points above interweave with one another, sometimes pulling threads in similar directions, sometimes proposing different, even seemingly opposing, but ultimately mutually reinforcing directions. We must break down the ‘here’ and ‘there’ but still go there. We must continue to develop virtual, online offerings, but also lean into the embodied and experiential.

We stand by the value of the liberal arts, but we need to better develop offerings and outcomes that help students get jobs. The way forward is nothing if not nuanced and complex, but we hope that the above six pillars nonetheless coalesce into a set of guiding points that can help education abroad move forward – and in turn help higher education as a whole move – into a new era of global engagement.

Andrea Custodi is senior director of academic affairs and strategic initiatives, CET Academic Programs. Chris Deegan is former executive director of Study Abroad, University of Illinois at Chicago. Carol Fimmen is director, International Student Center, College of Southern Nevada. Andrew Gordon is CEO and founder, Diversity Abroad. Kelly McLaughlin is director, Study Abroad, deputy director of the Center for International and Professional Experience and assistant dean for assessment, Yale University. Alexis Phylactopoulos is president, CYA. Brian Whalen is executive director designate, American International Recruitment Council. Margaret Wiedenhoeft is executive director, Center for International Programs, Kalamazoo College, United States.