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NAFSA director addresses challenges for international education at World Learning trustee meeting
May 22, 2023
Last week, World Learning’s Board of Trustees welcomed Dr. Fanta Aw, executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, to its quarterly meeting where she spoke about the realities of international education and exchange programs in today’s post-Covid climate.
World Learning CEO Carol Jenkins introduced Aw to the group, which included World Learning board and global advisory council members and senior leadership. Aw led the discussion by stressing the importance of an international experience as part of a world-class education, but then noted the declining numbers of students studying internationally—a trend happening even before the pandemic.
“We need to make sure we understand the full nature of the problem,” she said. “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.”
Aw cited three systemic issues she sees at play. The first is of the need for educational institutions to make a stronger value proposition for international education. She believes a select few “champion it from the sidelines,” but international programs are often isolated in certain disciplines and not adequately integrated into whole institutions.
She also believes educational institutions do not reflect the faces of America today, noting the existence of a bifurcated system that creates an accessibility challenge for many students.
Lastly, she cited the challenge of today’s geopolitical climate, in which polarization and rhetoric have amplified an “us versus them.”.
Jenkins opened the session up for discussion, posing the question, “What more can implementing institutions like World Learning do?” One of Aw’s solutions circled back to the need for educators to make the case for the value of an international education, which she sees as essential.
“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.” She specifically noted the need to engage business leaders, scientists, and other sectors and thinks this is an opportunity rather than a challenge for practitioners in the field.
The group discussed further issues that present obstacles, including visa challenges, perceptions of violence in the U.S., lack of career pathways after graduation, balancing studying abroad with gaining job skills, and the high cost of studying in the United States.
Aw said there is a need to help higher education institutions integrate campus internationalization plans and advocate for a federal international education strategy, something many other countries have. 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?”
Dr. Sophia Howlett, president of School for International Training (SIT), raised the topic of 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 believes the solution is teaching with an interdisciplinary approach—which is at the heart of international education. Therefore, she stressed again that it is imperative that the field creates a compelling value proposition and advocates for a comprehensive national strategy for international education.
Aw furthered this point when World Learning Board Member John Wanda asked about bridging the gap between the skills and knowledge taught in some countries where other students still use “pencils and paper.” Wanda and his wife have helped build and run Arlington Junior School and two medical clinics in Uganda.
“It is not in the national interest of the United States to forget Africa because we see already what is happening in Africa,” Aw, originally from Mali, said, noting the continent’s rapid leaps in finance and communications systems. “We are interdependent, and that interdependency is going to be even more accentuated as we move forward.”
NAFSA, which serves more than 10,000 members and international educators worldwide, 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.”
Aw began as executive director and CEO of NAFSA in March. Previously, she was vice present of undergraduate enrollment, campus life, and inclusive excellence at American University in Washington, DC.
Learn more about World Learning and SIT-led sessions at NAFSA’s upcoming conference, May 30-June 2 in Washington, DC.