‘State of the field’

Reflections on a career in international education, and where the field goes from here

March 8th, 2023   |   Careers, SIT Graduate Institute

On Wednesday, March 15, Global Career Compass President Martin Tillman, an alumnus of SIT, and Dr. Sora Friedman, chair of the SIT MA in International Education, will hold an interactive panel discussion called “The State of the Field.” At this virtual event, which is sponsored by GlobalEd, Tillman and Friedman will discuss pathways for entering the field of international education and how to navigate a professional path. We reached out to Tillman to ask about his long and distinguished career, as well as what’s in store for the future of international and global education as these fields rebuild following a global pandemic.

Martin Tillman, right, and fellow SIT alum David Sanford at the SIT reception last year at the NAFSA conference in Denver.

You entered SIT’s International Career Training program, known as ICT, in 1974. Who were you then, and what drew you to this field in general and to SIT in particular?

Immediately after receiving my BA, I entered Colgate University, where I got a master’s in student affairs work. It was the height of unrest on campuses across the nation. The Vietnam war was raging and I was a very young person without any experience. I only stayed in that field for two or three years. I moved up to Boston and while I was there, I met Claude Pepin [now an SIT alumnus and former World Learning staff member]. I had never been around New England. I was born and raised in Brooklyn. So I went up to Brattleboro to see what it was like. I loved the environment and the focus of the International Career Training program—especially that I'd have the opportunity to gain the international experience I lacked.

I had a good income at the time. Back then, the tuition was $5,000, and the program had what was called a shared travel fee. That meant those of us who had not been abroad were urged to go abroad during our six-month internship, and those who had been abroad, including those who had been in Peace Corps, were urged to get jobs in the U.S. Those working domestically agreed to subsidize the airfare of those of us who wanted international experience. So, the $5,000 I paid included my airfare to New Delhi, where I interned with the Gandhi Peace Foundation. My six months at the Foundation was a defining moment for me. I became a part of a political uprising when the prime minister declared a national emergency to remain in power.

I’ve never had a moment in my life that was so transformative as was getting on a plane to India.

The circumstance, that generosity, the financial support of the ICT program, led me to launch my own international career. I’ve never forgotten that. I’ve never had a moment in my life that was so transformative as was getting on a plane to India. And everything that went on up on the hill—everybody was incredibly patient and very helpful for an individual like myself, who was taking stupendous risk. Before this chat with you it gave me pause to think of how I had what in Yiddish would be called the chutzpah to do that.

And how did you?

As an undergrad, I was actively involved in residential life at SUNY Stony Brook. I loved working with students in that capacity. Stony Brook had a good number of Asian graduate students, many of whom were from India. I liked them, and when it came to this choice before me years later to identify my internship for ICT, when basically I could throw a dart at a world map and go, India was a culture where I thought I would feel comfortable with the people, and I was supported in taking this risk by the staff and faculty at SIT.

Looking back over these decades, that first risk-taking international experience was kind of a lift-off point for me because I have taken many risks in my career.

What do you mean when you say that?

My career hasn’t been what I would refer to as a Wizard of Oz story. My yellow brick road wasn’t merely curved to get to the gates of Oz, it was much more broken up in different directions. Although the pattern has always been for me to be engaged with students, with cross-cultural learning, and definitely in the field of international education, which was emerging fully after the 1960s.

Between the founding of NAFSA, the international association of international educators, in 1948, and say the ’70s, the work you could do on a college campus or with an organization was much more narrow, largely focused on international students entering the U.S. to study. There were fewer international experiences for scholars, undergrads or grads, to go abroad.

I’ve worked with many different organizations. I was at a two-year college for several years. I worked and retired from an elite master’s degree program at Johns Hopkins School of International Studies here in Washington, DC. I worked with the YMCA of the United States pioneering an international student service. I spent seven years working with a nonprofit that was founded close to the time The Experiment in International Living was founded. It was called the Lisle Fellowship. The founders of that intercultural program knew [Experiment founder] Donald Watt and his wife in the ’30s. I had a Fulbright in the ’80s to Japan. So, it’s a lot of different concentric circles.

My circle of career and life experiences now is expansive, but if I had to put something in the core of a Venn diagram, I would put SIT right there in the center.

My circle of career and life experiences now is expansive, but if I had to put something in the core of a Ven diagram, I would put SIT right there in the center. All the energy really flowed out of my decision to go into that program.

How would you describe the field of international education today? What does it encompass?

I would say that the field of international education helps undergraduates understand what globalization is about and what internationalization of their campus means for them. That could be having an internship abroad, a study abroad experience, a service experience abroad. It means working with international students who are studying in the U.S. or sending scholars abroad. It means educating faculty on the benefits of leading groups abroad and how to integrate that experience in their curricular  structure, no matter what their discipline is. So, it’s a myriad of opportunities. I’ve been largely focused on developing programs to get U.S. students to leave the country and have substantial, purposeful cross-cultural experiences.

I’ve read that universities are investing less in international education writ large than they have in the past. Is that your impression?

Yes and no. Since March 2020, with the outbreak of the pandemic, that shrinkage has definitely happened, and it’s happened at the most vulnerable higher ed institutions in particular—institutions that maybe have one person leading a study abroad office on their campus, or a couple of faculty that have programs to take students abroad. Those institutions don’t have the fiscal resources to have a very elaborate set of opportunities for their students, as opposed to big state systems and big campuses with a lot of resources that have been more modestly affected by covid. But there’s hardly an institution that didn’t have some critical strategic change occur when covid came on their campus.

In 2021, a group of us within NAFSA were concerned about the shift in employability within the profession itself with all these very sharp and immediate layoffs. We offered support for those who were in career transition at that time, and we monitored all the publicly announced layoffs to try to keep track of where they were.

In the past year, job postings have re-emerged. It’s hard to say how much they’ve increased. There’s no one I know who has accurately been able to track this in terms of understanding true impact, which includes people who decided on their own to leave higher education work, international education or otherwise.

As the field rebuilds is it building in a different way? Trends show the U.S. study abroad market is growing in Europe and in English-speaking countries but not so much in other parts of the world. How do you build back interest in those locations?

I think it will take three to five years for the field to rebound in terms of rejuvenating offices, having the staff to advise students and work with faculty, working with faculty to re-engage with the issue of internationalization on their campus. It’s not going to be an easy road.

... there will be a more diverse pool of young professionals entering this field than we’ve ever seen before.

But one of the positive things that I think is going to happen is that the diversity on campuses that everyone knows has taken place means there will be a more diverse pool of young professionals entering this field than we’ve ever seen before. So, that growing diversity of the professional class of international educators gives me optimism that they will have an impact on attracting a more diverse undergraduate population based on their own life experience. That, I hope, will have a dramatic impact, even if it takes time to emerge.