The world’s most pressing problems—including climate change, pandemics, and cybersecurity—cross borders. And to solve these problems, our students need international experience, believes Fanta Aw, vice president for undergraduate enrollment, campus life, and inclusive excellence at American University and Hurst Senior Professorial Lecturer at SIS. In this episode of Big World, Aw joins us to discuss the importance of international education.
She shares how she became interested in international education (2:16), defines international education and cultural exchange and their differences (3:48), and discusses how international education and cultural exchanges impact our world (5:34). Aw also explains the role that international education plays in fulfilling the mission of American University’s Office of Campus Life: to integrate students into a diverse learning community; promote their intellectual, social, and spiritual development; and prepare them for lifelong learning and global citizenship (7:06).
Why should undergraduate and graduate students consider studying internationally (9:01)? Why do international students want to study at AU (13:21)? What are the opportunities for students to engage in international education and cultural exchange while they're at AU (14:42)? Aw answers these questions and explains why she believes international education is a sufficiently durable concept and practice to bounce back after the COVID-19 pandemic (18:44).
During our “Take Five” segment, Aw shares five ways students can develop a sense of global citizenship (11:01).
0:07 Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. According to NAFSA, the Association of International Educators, the number of US students studying abroad for credit during the 2018-2019 academic year was nearly 350,000. And according to the Migration Policy Institute, about 1.1 million international students were enrolled in US institutions in the 2019-2020 school year, and those numbers were both before the seismic shock of COVID-19 on international travel. But the world, and by extension businesses and jobs, is global and students don't just want international experience, they need it. So today, we're talking about international education.
0:56 KS: I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Dr. Fanta Aw. Fanta is the vice president of campus life at American University, where she provides senior executive leadership for 15 departments in Campus Life and leads on matters related to campus internationalization, issues of inclusion, diversity, and equity, and student engagement. Fanta is also the Hurst Senior Professorial Lecturer here at SIS, where she teaches graduate courses related to immigration, internationalization of higher education, and international higher education policy. She's a past president and chair of the board of directors of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, which is the largest membership association of international educators. And finally, she also is just about the busiest person on campus. So it is a real treat to have her here to talk about international education. Fanta, thank you for joining us on Big World.
1:48 Fanta Aw: I am excited about this opportunity to talk about a subject that is near and dear to my heart. So it's great to be with all of you.
1:56 KS: Fanta, you teach graduate classes related to immigration, internationalization of higher education, and international higher education policy, and your own PhD concentration included international education. So to get us started, please tell me when and why did you become interested in international education?
2:16 FA: So I became interested in international education, oh my goodness, it's been over 40 plus years ago. And I became interested in the topic because of my own lived experience. I often say, "I'm the product of international education," in that at the age of seven, I left my home country of Mali, West Africa, and moved to Liberia and went to French international schools until I graduated from French international schools and then moved to the American educational system when I came to college. So I am the proud product of international education because of the schooling that I went through and the US experience that I gained when I became a college student. So that's one of the reasons I got interested is because I saw the transformative power of international education in my own life. And then I became a professional in the field of international education when I started working in the International Student Scholar Services Office, first as an advisor, and then I moved on to be a manager within the operation.
3:19 FA: And then I was director of the International Student Scholar Services Office for more than a decade, where I was there to make sure that international students and scholars who were coming to American University knew that this would be their home and also that we facilitated international education in the ways that it needed to. And then again, as you said, my PhD concentration is also in international education. So it has been part of my life for a very long time.
3:48 KS: And Fanta, every discipline has its own lexicon, of course. So how do you define international education and cultural exchange and are they different, and what maybe are some well-known examples of both of those?
4:04 FA: It's a great question. And as you said, I think terminology matters and it is evolving. What I would say is that cultural exchange can be a component of international education. They're not one and the same. International education and cultural exchange, what I would say have in common is it's really the exchange of people and ideas. And that's sort of how I think about the broad definition is the exchange of people and ideas across borders. International education, as we've seen over a period of time, you no longer need to leave your home country to benefit from international education.
4:41 FA: You could be a Pakistani student who may be at home, but maybe in an American education system at home, and you are the beneficiary of an international education. Cultural exchange generally tends to be across borders. It is this idea that people from different backgrounds, from different cultural norms, and from different geographies are now having exchange, and those exchange can be through study abroad, it can be through arts, it can be through so many different forms of learning as well. But I think the main topic and the main thing is really to remember that it is the exchange of ideas and exchange of people that is cross-border generally.
5:23 KS: And it may seem like an obvious question, but I'd love to hear you talk about how do international education and cultural exchanges impact our world?
5:34 FA: I think it's all around us, even when we don't see it, it's all around us. Let me give a simple example. Every single one of us on a daily business now in a very hyper tech world are using our iPhones. We're using our computers on a daily basis. And as part of that, international education has had a role to play. Many of these inventions, many of the innovations that we benefit from on a daily basis were innovations and inventions that took place as a result of international education. What do I mean by that? It means that the research that was done, the individuals and groups who came up with the technological innovations, many times were either foreign born and/or were engaged in research across borders with other colleagues. And as a result of that, it led to significant shifts in how we navigate our world on a daily basis, and it has led to significant shifts on how there is more and more exchange and inter exchange among nation states.
6:39 KS: Fanta, the mission of the Office of Campus Life at American University, which you lead, is to integrate students into a diverse learning community, promote their intellectual, social, and spiritual development, and in collaboration with the faculty prepare students for lifelong learning and global citizenship. I have to say that's a lot. So what role does international education play in fulfilling that substantial mission?
7:06 FA: I would say international education is critical to the mission. You cannot in the 21st century world that we're in promote intellectual, social development of this young generation and work with faculty to ensure that students are prepared for lifelong learning and global citizenship without having international education as a central feature of it. Our students are no longer living in silos. Nation states do not operate in silos. For this generation, you can pick any critical issues of our time, whether it's climate change, whether it has to do with issues of sustainability, or we're talking about water security, issues of poverty, global governance, cybersecurity, you name any critical issues of our time that we're grappling with, they're cross border issues.
8:00 FA: No single nation state can solve it alone. And frankly, our students in coming into higher education are coming in to gain the knowledge, the skills, and the wherewithal to know how to solve those critical issues of our time. And in order to do that, they have to engage the world, they have to be part of the world, in order to get to the solutions. So, yes, the intellectual development of our students, the social development of our students, the ability to prepare them for a world that is very different from the world that I grew up in tells me that more than ever international education is even more salient than it was maybe even 20-30 years ago.
8:40 KS: And those are a lot of great reasons that I think go into the answer to this next question, is if you're thinking about talking to individual students or to a group of students, and we know we have a lot of listeners to this podcast. Why would you encourage college students to study internationally, aside from the impact of international education itself? Why should they consider that?
9:01 FA: Well, I would say to be very honest, to not consider that is not to have a complete education. I would argue that a 21st century education requires this of us. It is not a nice to do, it is a must do. Otherwise, it would be incomplete an education. Particularly when you think of the School of International Service, where its mission has been about waging peace for the generations before and for the generations to come. Every single area, domain area of knowledge that our students are craving to learn about and that the faculty are teaching requires an understanding and a sophisticated and a nuanced understanding of the world in which we are. So it is vitally important that a 21st century be one that is internationally based and that involves international education. It's not enough for our students to be in the classroom and to engage with that.
10:01 FA: They have to experience it. They have to understand the nuances of it. And in order to understand the nuances of it, it is both the in class learning, but it is also what happens outside of the class. It is understanding the geopolitics of things and understanding also oneself and understanding one's culture. We often argue that there's not a thing such as an American culture. There is an American culture, there's a dominant American culture, you juxtapose that against other cultures, our students then begin to understand how to navigate a more complex, nuanced world and therefore, can have the kind of impact they wish to have.
10:48 KS: Fanta Aw, it's time to Take Five. You're in the driver's seat, and you can throw the top down and blue sky a world as you'd like it to be. What are five ways our students can develop a sense of global citizenship?
11:01 FA: First of all, take courses you've not thought about taking. There's so much going on whether it's regional courses that are focused on regional issues or other topics. Make sure you stretch yourself and take as many courses with a global relevance as possible. That's number one. Two, on this campus alone, you have over 100 plus countries that are represented with our international students. Engage with an international student or two. And engage with a student where you're curious about a part of the world that you've either heard about or part of the world that you may have some misconceptions about it, and you need to test your own knowledge. So two is, engage with international students on this campus right here.
11:40 FA: Three, take advantage of location, location, location. Washington, DC, is a laboratory for learning. So make sure you explore the diaspora communities that are here, explore the embassies and the events that they're doing. Major international organizations and others that have a plethora of events and programs that are going on, including major think tanks with international focus. That is the third. Four, pick up a language. Language is not only important to be able to communicate, it can teach you a tremendous amount about cultures. Take up a language. And there's so many ways now that you can take up a language, it doesn't have to be just a course.
12:21 FA: There are many new technology and platforms are available. So take up a language is the fourth one. And then fifth one, think about virtual exchanges. This is the new normal, even when you're not able to leave the United States, think about virtual exchanges in addition to study abroad. There are so many modalities. You can have a pen pal that is from Nairobi, Kenya, the same way that you can have a pen pal that is from Mongolia. Technology is now accessible to us. So reach out and expand your global horizons. Those are the five ways that comes to mind for how students can develop a sense of global citizenship.
12:59 KS: Those all sound like fun.
13:01 FA: They are fun. There are a lot of fun.
13:02 KS: Thank you.
13:06 KS: Fanta, thinking about the students who come from other countries to study in the US and specifically about where you and I work, American University in Washington, DC, why do you think international students want to study here?
13:21 FA: I think there are many reasons as one who was once upon a time an international student, there are myriads of reasons. One, the quality of the education. I think many in the world hold to high regard US education, and a big part of it is because it's experiential. It is how you turn knowledge into practice. And this idea of immersive learning is something that is incredibly attractive to folks around the world. The fact that you can do internships while you're here, and the translational work that happens, I think is incredibly fulfilling for when you're an international student.
13:57 FA: And then also, coming to the United States, the United States is a microcosm of the world. So for international students who come to study at American University or elsewhere in the US, not only are you engaging with American students from around the country, you're also engaging with students from around the world. And in that sense, you have the opportunity as a student, let's say you're a student from Turkey, you have the opportunity to engage with someone not only from Turkey here, but someone who could be coming from Kazakhstan, who may be coming from Japan and so forth. The richness of exchange that happens as a result of this multicultural world that we're in and how this university represents that is something that is incredibly important to learning and is incredibly important to understanding our place in the world.
14:42 KS: And I heard you very strongly earlier say that for students to study abroad is not a nice to do, it's a must do. So what are the opportunities for US students to engage in international education and cultural exchange while they're here at AU?
14:58 FA: So I think, two things. I think the university has intentionally made it such that really no students should have an excuse to not be able to do that. And what do I mean by that? We have so many programs offering for study abroad, everything from going to another university where you're studying with students from another university, like you have in SIS with Sciences Po, as an example, to dual degree programs like the Ritsumeikan program, to study abroad that are one semester long wherever in the world. The university has developed its own programs in places like Spain, in places like the UK, et cetera, Kenya, for example. But also, the university has partnered with other institutions to facilitate the opportunities for our students to study abroad. And we have hundreds of sites for students to go to, and we see the results.
15:52 FA: 70 percent of our undergraduate students study abroad for at least a semester. That is something we should take immense pride in. But can we do more? Yes. I challenge every single one of our students, if you have an opportunity, please consider going abroad. And it can happen in multiple ways. You can go for a semester, but also you can go through our alternative break program because you have an interest in social justice issues somewhere in the world.
16:17 FA: There's so many ways for students to be involved with international education, and AU in particular has been very intentional and SIS students understand how critical and integral that is to their education. And then for those who, for reasons that could very well be they're are not able to go abroad, Washington, DC, is a laboratory for learning. Being in the DC metropolitan area we have pockets of communities, whether it's Vietnamese communities, we have Koreatown, we have so many with immigration being a big part of being in the DMV area. Any community you can think of, you will find that here in Washington. So our students have the ability to learn from this city and to engage with communities in this city as well.
17:08 KS: Right. And I think that's important because no matter how much we would like them to, there are always going to be students who aren't able to study abroad, even if they really want to. And as you say, there are a number of diaspora communities in DC that would offer opportunities for students to have that experience in DC, which I think is great.
17:29 FA: Absolutely. And then in addition to the diaspora of communities that we've mentioned, you have all these embassies that are here, and they're constantly hosting educational events. All you need to do is sign up to some of their newsletters and you will be invited to movies, to artwork, to concert, to discussion forums, and the list goes on. And even in SIS, there's not a week that goes by where there's not an event that is bringing an international lens to it. So our students are uniquely placed being both in Washington, DC, being in SIS and at AU to really engage and to have opportunities to learn and to become part of the international landscape that we've talked about.
18:13 KS: Fanta, we know that the COVID pandemic has had a chilling effect on international education, both in terms of US students studying abroad and international students coming to the US, but we also realize and hope that the pandemic won't last forever, even though it sometimes seems like it might. So why do you believe international education is a durable enough concept and practice to bounce back after the worst of the pandemic is passed and people really start to think about what the future looks like?
18:44 FA: And the reason, I'm first of all incredibly hopeful and I know that international education is a durable concept, is because it has passed the test of time. For as far back as we can go historically, we have had people leave their home countries to go and seek opportunities in other lands. Immigration, migration is a part of the human experience. International education is a very big part of that. So from that perspective, the pandemic, yes, has had a chilling effect, but I think the other thing that the pandemic I hope reminds us of is the fact that no nation state can solve these intractable issues on their own. If nothing else, the pandemic has shown us that this is a global issue, and global issues require global solutions. Global solutions require having an understanding of the world, being curious about how to solve those issues cross-culturally, and engaging with them in ways that are interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary.
19:54 FA: So I am arguing that because we're having issues like climate change, because we're having issues like cybersecurity, because we're having issues of looking at sustainability, and the list goes on, international education is here to stay. Now it may take new and different forms, because we've seen international education evolve. When it first started, the concept of international education was, "I'm leaving my home country to go and study in another home country." Well, now with the technology, we may not need to leave our home country for an entire four years or three years. We may have the hybrid modality that is afforded us, where we can be at home for a period of time and then in another country to study for another period of time. We have new modalities that will come up in international education. And like all fields, it's a field that is evolving, and it must adapt to the changing times that we're in.
20:47 KS: Fanta Aw, thank you for joining Big World to discuss international education. As always, it's been a delight to get to spend time with you and speak with you.
20:55 FA: Thank you. Thank you for being here.
20:57 KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or review, it will be like free extra leg room and an empty middle seat next to you on a transatlantic flight. Our theme music is "It Was Just Cold" by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.