NAFSA director calls for U.S. to commit to international education

May 22nd, 2023   |   DEIA

From left: Dr. Fanta Aw, executive director and CEO of NAFSA, and Allen Cutler, World Learning board chair

By Abigail Henson

Colleges and universities must do more to advance internationalization and advocate for a national strategy on international education, according to Dr. Fanta Aw, executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

Aw made the call at the May 18 meeting of the World Learning board of trustees, which included World Learning board and global advisory council members and senior leadership from World Learning and School for International Training.

“We need to bring a sense of urgency or we will have a lost generation,” Aw said. “We need to move folks from the margins to the center of this conversation … and think who we are bringing to the table and how are we bringing them to the table.”

We need to bring a sense of urgency or we will have a lost generation.

Dr. Fanta Aw

Stressing the importance of an international experience as part of a world-class education, Aw noted the declining numbers of students studying internationally—a trend that began even before the pandemic.

“I do believe that the pandemic has exacerbated things, but I would say the pandemic accelerated what was already happening. The pandemic is not the explanation for where we are today. It is the culmination of what has been going on,” she said

Aw cited three systemic issues. The first, she said, is the need for educational institutions to make a stronger value proposition for international education. Although a select few “champion it from the sidelines,” international programs are often isolated in certain disciplines and not adequately integrated into whole institutions.

She specifically noted the need to engage leaders in the field of business, science, and other sectors, which she sees as an opportunity rather than a challenge for practitioners in the field.

Second, she said educational institutions do not reflect the faces of the United States today, where a bifurcated system creates an accessibility challenge for many students.

Finally, she cited the challenge of today’s geopolitical climate, in which polarization and rhetoric have amplified an “us versus them” narrative.

Opening the session to discussion, World Learning CEO Carol Jenkins asked, “What more can implementing institutions like World Learning do?”

Aw circled back to the need for educators to make the case for the value of an international education, which she sees as essential. She noted that many other countries have active international education strategies, and she encouraged the group to speak to their congressional leaders as well as administrators at their alma maters, asking, “Where are we at with internationalization, and who are we educating today?”

SIT President Dr. Sophia Howlett asked how to best support young people to become professionals in the field. World Learning Board Member Jenny Backus then asked about the intersection of international education and workforce readiness in STEM fields, noting that Congress and corporations are investing heavily in STEM training.

“This piece around workforce, re-tuning our workforce, is going to continue to be with us,” Aw said. “The question continues to remain how we train.” Aw called for teaching with an interdisciplinary approach—which is at the heart of international education. It is imperative that the field creates a compelling value proposition and advocates for a comprehensive national strategy for international education, she reiterated.

Left to right: World Learning CEO Carol Jenkins, NAFSA Executive Director and CEO Dr. Fanta Aw, and SIT President Dr. Sophia Howlett

NAFSA serves more than 10,000 members and international educators worldwide. It is the largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange.

“NAFSA is an invaluable partner of World Learning and SIT in our common goals to address the challenges of today's world through cross-cultural communication and understanding,” Jenkins said. “Our organizations' connections span many years and encompass countless SIT faculty and alumni, including SIT alumnus Ravi Shankar, who served as president and chair of the NAFSA Board of Directors.”

“I look to World Learning as the gold standard. NAFSA has been the recipient of its brain trust, and we truly value this partnership,” Aw said.

Later this month, two SIT faculty will be honored at NAFSA’s annual conference in Washington, DC. SIT International Education Professor Emerita Linda Drake Gobbo will receive a NAFSA Lifetime Membership for her career-long contributions to the field, and International and Global Education Assistant Professor, Dr. Melissa Whatley, will receive an award for her innovative research spotlighting inclusion in international education.

In addition, Gobbo will be speaking at the conference with SIT Graduate Institute alumnus Joseph Hoff on “Revisioning Internationalization: Weaving Intentionality into the Global Education Ecosystem.”

Learn more about World Learning and SIT-led sessions at NAFSA’s upcoming conference, May 30-June 2 in Washington, DC.