More American students need an ‘empathy-infused’ international education

NAFSA, a United States organisation that advocates for international education, kicked off its annual conference on Tuesday 1 June with a talk by peripatetic journalist Nicholas Kristof, who said humility is one of the most valuable lessons he has learned in his travels around the world.

Humility “breeds a certain amount of empathy”, which “makes it harder to demonise people”, said Kristof, who is known for his coverage of complex issues around global poverty, gender inequality and human rights for the New York Times.

Kristof encouraged his audience to continue to promote international engagement even if their collective resolve has been tested in recent years by a less-than-friendly political climate, not to mention a pandemic. “It seems like anything you do feels like a drop in the bucket,” he said. “But I'm a believer in drops in the bucket.”

The international conference, which typically draws thousands of participants from dozens of countries, runs through to 4 June and is being held virtually. The group cancelled last year's conference because of the pandemic and revamped it to offer five days of virtual programmes. NAFSA plans to convene in Denver in 2022.

Speaking from his home in rural Oregon, Kristof framed his remarks primarily from a US perspective, urging those in his audience to expand opportunities for all students to discover “what America can learn from other countries”.

He also noted that he was not talking about “hanging out on a beach in Australia” or traveling “in herds together in London or Rome”. Rather, he said, an “empathy-infused education... takes people out of their comfort zone”.

Kristof opened his address by describing his first overseas assignment, to Egypt. He had boned up on Arabic on the flight to Cairo, and proudly introduced himself as Nick, an utterance that turned out to be “both rude and condescending” in Arabic, and which produced a look of horror from the recipient.

From that encounter, Kristof said he felt “at sea. It's a feeling that I think is really important for young people to see, a feeling of being overwhelmed.”

Kristof has lived on four continents, reported on six, and travelled to more than 150 countries. He and Sheryl WuDunn, his wife, became the first married couple to receive a Pulitzer Prize in journalism for their coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square democracy movement.

Olympic Gold Medallist Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a philanthropist and advocate for children’s education, is scheduled to speak on Wednesday.

Ongoing challenges

Many of the NAFSA conference sessions this week address the impact of COVID-19, which “has challenged traditional approaches to strategic internationalisation, and international education leaders have pivoted to survive and thrive in these unprecedented times,” NAFSA said in a statement on its website.

Online study abroad and virtual exchange are among topics listed on the schedule, for example. Another panel will examine COVID-19-related stressors on students’ emotional wellness.

While most of the US attention on COVID has focused on the steep drop in international student enrolments in American universities, the pandemic also brought to a halt programmes for US students to study abroad.

On Monday, NAFSA posted a blog detailing a US State Department travel advisory that “dealt a major blow” to international education providers, said Erica Stewart, NAFSA’s director of advocacy and media outreach.

The travel advisory update placed nearly 80% of the globe in a ‘Do Not Travel’ category because of the coronavirus. The advisory was posted on 19 April and as of Tuesday 1 June had remained in place.

“This has the confounding effect of placing countries that are making progress in vaccinating their residents in the same category as failing and war-torn states: North Korea and Denmark are both [in the ‘Do Not Travel’ category], for example.”

Stewart said the update was not based on a new public health concern “but rather a change in the interpretation of how data and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) influence the warnings”.

Stewart added: “Equally frustrating is that these advisory levels do not seem to make any allowance for a country’s vaccination rates or any acknowledgment of the vaccination status of the individual traveller.

“Our current and future workforce, the field of higher education, and the US economy cannot afford another year without US students studying abroad. Depriving them of a global experience would damage the achievement and readiness of college graduates entering the job market in the next few years.”