It’s the week after the world’s largest gathering of international educators in St. Louis, MO. Over 8,500 professionals -representing academic institutions and both for-profit and nonprofit organizations – and supporting businesses from 100 nations spent a week sharing insights, research and creative new program initiatives with one another. If you do not know about NAFSA, go to http://www.nafsa.org; for those readers who are members, no need to read on….I’ve been attending the annual conference of the association since 1977 and it really is amazing to see the growth and diversity of international educators in the network. Stepping back from the preparation for my sessions and apart from the joy of seeing old friends and meeting new colleagues, the meeting is uplifting and energizing.
The event pulls together professionals representing every continent and offers dialogue with educators working on critical issues which impact tens of thousands of students attending colleges and universities. A one-stop global commons. An event which highlights efforts to provide students with opportunities to build intercultural skills, study abroad, serve and volunteer in communities, learn a new language, and travel.
However, despite my optimism about the work we all do, I am very concerned about the inequality of access to international educational opportunity which exists in the U.S. (this may be true in Canada, Australia and Europe but I do not have the data). Here, of approximately 20 million students enrolled in higher ed institutions each year, we only send about 275,000 students to study abroad —this is like the Occupy movement’s focus on the 99% vs. the 1% (close anyway)…As the world’s employers seek more and more talent with international experience and skills gained through such experience, where does this leave those students NOT going abroad? While campuses are making efforts to provide intercultural learning opportunities for students in local communities, there is a growing divide for those who can and those who cannot leave the U.S. to study, work and serve. And let’s not forget about the millions of minority students at our community colleges — students of color are vastly under-represented among those who go abroad.