Student exchange programs have been around for decades, benefitting young people from the United States and a host of other countries. So why did six U.S. colleges and universities feel it necessary to create a short video, aimed at international students, titled: “You Are Welcome Here”?
“As a student, I studied abroad in Japan, and I understand the feeling of anxiety that traveling to a foreign country might bring,” Jonathan Alger, president of James Madison University (JMU), says on the video. “I want to assure you that JMU is a safe community where we support one another, celebrate our differences, and work to create a welcoming environment for all of our students.”
A Tumultuous Year
Alger’s reference to the safety of JMU—located in the relatively quiet town of Harrisonburg, Virginia—becomes more meaningful when considering the date that the video was released: early November 2016. That was the year that citizens of the United Kingdom voted for Brexit, turning their backs on years of economic cooperation with Europe; when hostility toward North African and Syrian refugees surged in Central Europe; and when Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency by vowing to curb illegal immigration, question international alliances and agreements, and put “America First.”
These developments and the political turmoil since then have contributed to two years of declining first-time enrollment by international students at U.S. institutions, college leaders said. In fact, the flattening of overall international student enrollments began in the 2015–16 academic year, according to the Open Doors Report from the Institute of International Education. In the report, Open Doors states that the number of first-time international student enrollments fell 3.3 percent during the 2016–17 school year and another 6.6 percent in 2017–18.
A Disturbing Trend
The trend involving international students is concerning.
“Today we are seeing turbulent politics, nationalistic rhetoric, and a tightening of borders,” wrote Stephanie Kim, Ph.D., faculty director for the Master’s in Higher Education Administration at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies, which is hosting a panel discussion on the issue of Global Citizenship on February 21. “What actionable items can we share to cultivate not only best practices but also an appreciation for a global citizenry within our own institutions and communities?”
For those who work in international education, and globalists in general, this retrenchment has been difficult to watch. Though they still believe strongly in the power of cultural exchanges to bring people together, improve international relations at the grassroots level, and help foster a broader sense of global awareness and concern, they have had to acknowledge the power of nativist politics that feed on the fear of rapid change and the implied loss of status and identity that comes with it.
“Seeing such a backlash has been a blow and has led some folks to feeling demoralized,” said John Lucas, Ph.D., president and CEO of International Student Exchange Programs (ISEP), a nonprofit organization that helps students overcome financial and academic barriers to studying abroad. “Have we really had the impact we thought we did? I am still hopeful that we have made some improvements. We can see indicators of health and wellbeing rising, poverty declining around the world. But, to be honest, some folks have been left behind in the global order.”
Lucas wants academics to contemplate a “globalization 2.0” that would take what has been most successful in the past few decades and apply it toward broadening the reach of international exchange programs to include more underrepresented students, both in the United States and abroad.
“The relationships developed between students on university campuses is what continues to give me hope,” Lucas said. “Most of our member universities across the U.S. and around the world intentionally create physical and intellectual space for collaboration among their local and international students. As long as we remain focused on the positive outcomes of intracultural relationships, this next generation—the centennials—will leverage their experiences to try and create a more peaceful, just, and inclusive world.”
For U.S. students who cannot go abroad, whether because of financial issues or commitments at home, attracting international students to their colleges is the next best thing, said Alfred Boll, JD, SJD, branch chief of EducationUSA, the U.S. Department of State’s network of more than 425 student advising centers that promotes American colleges and universities to foreign students.
“We encourage study abroad, but many American students won’t have the opportunity,” said Boll, who views his work as a form of public diplomacy. “So this exposure to this part of the world of international education is through international students who study with them at their universities.”
When asked about any backlash against this outward-looking, global perspective, Boll was unfazed:
“For us, this simply means we need to redouble our efforts.”