In 2018, like in the past 17 years, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education have designated one week in the fall “to celebrate the benefits of international education and exchanges worldwide.” With this year’s International Education Week upon us November 12-18, we must ask which international education benefits we are celebrating. The very policies of this administration negate the value of engagement across cultural difference with an open mind and of wanting to understand other countries and cultures.
Over the summer, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the administration’s travel ban for citizens from several predominantly Muslim countries. At the beginning of October, reputable media outlets reported on discussions in the White House about denying visas to all students from China, a proposal that has—fortunately—not materialized. And throughout this year, we have witnessed escalating rhetoric and action about preventing Central Americans from crossing the border into the U.S.
What does the celebration of international education mean, when minds and borders are closing and international students from select countries are excluded categorically?
Many people who oppose these policies highlight the harm done to the opportunities for international students or the economic costs to this country. What they tend to ignore are the benefits for U.S. students, indeed for all students, of international student diversity on their campus.
As the founding director of a global studies center at a liberal arts college, I have spent the past 14 years working with my colleagues across the college to “internationalize” the education of all our students, through many different initiatives on and off campus. One of them has been to increase the number of international students at the college. Today, nearly 30% of our students come from outside the U.S.
When thinking of international education, most people think of U.S. students studying abroad, where they immerse themselves in a new culture and encounter and reflect upon beliefs and values that are different from their own and wrestle with their assumptions about how the world works. Studying or interning abroad is always mind-broadening and, often, transformative for life. But only around 10% of U.S. undergraduates study abroad; and, of those, over 60% are abroad for eight weeks or less.
So what about the other 90%?
There are many opportunities to learn about other countries and cultures on a U.S. campus, e.g., learning a foreign language or participating in internationally focused classes. A particularly powerful venue for cross-cultural learning is personal engagement with students from other countries.
When students from Miami and Shanghai share a dorm room, they get to know the opinions, traditions and quirks of each other, and they will never think about each other’s country in the same abstract way. When a Muslim student from Cairo partners with a Christian student from Omaha in a class project on family values and religion, their collaboration will likely lead to a profound examination of their understanding of each other’s religion and their own. And the students from Seattle and Mexico City who are on the same rowing team are bound to break down stereotypes, as “the other” becomes real and often a friend.
This fall, 30% of the incoming class at my college live with a student from a country different from their own. When they hear a disparaging statement about the totality of the people from their roommate’s country, they will not fall for it because they come to know their roommate as a fellow human being. And they may well speak up and challenge such statements. And when my upper-level economics seminar looks like a mini-U.N. assembly, students will learn about perspectives on the subject matter they did not know existed.
The next time when students from a particular country are singled out for possible denial of visa entry into the U.S., let us not only argue against such actions on the basis of the economic benefits that international students bring to this country. (To be sure, these are substantial. In 2016-17, international students at U.S. colleges and universities contributed $36.9 billion to the U.S. economy and supported more than 450,000 jobs.) But in the current climate of growing xenophobia, the international education benefits of international student diversity on our campuses is at least as important.
Sustained interaction with students from other countries—in the classroom, in residence halls and community—opens minds, challenges all students to understand and empathize with individuals who are different from them and to learn to communicate across difference. This ability to engage effectively across difference is key for successful careers, citizenship and ultimately world peace. That’s what international education is about.
Eva Paus is the Carol Hoffmann Collins director of the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives and professor of economics at Mount Holyoke College.
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