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What's the importance of international education?

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SIS Professor and Vice President of Campus Life Fanta Aw

We spoke with SIS Hurst Senior Professorial Lecturer and AU VP of Campus Life Fanta Aw about the importance of international education.

What is international education?

International education is about the mobility of students and scholars who go to another part of the world to study, research, or teach. It's not only about the mobility of students, both in and out of the US, but it's also about research scholars who come to the US to do research, faculty who go to other destinations to teach, and those who do community-based service learning. The primary goals of international education are furthering knowledge and cultural capital, learning about places and cultures, and gaining intercultural skills in the process.

International education has existed throughout time and, throughout time, people have sought education elsewhere in order to better their lives, in order to contribute to their societies and communities, and in order to better equip themselves as citizens of their respective countries. It's not just the US that's been engaged in this activity; many nation states have participated in this kind of work.

What is the importance of international education, and who benefits from it?

You can think about the benefits of international education on several levels. One is international education and the benefit to the individual in pursuit of education, research, or teaching. Another way to think about it is through the nation states engaged in international education: how and why might a government decide to provide scholarships or other mechanisms encouraging citizens to acquire an education overseas? It may be trying to equip citizens with a level of education and knowledge so they can return and contribute to the economy or to in-demand fields in their country. International education may be a form of cultural diplomacy. Employers also have a stake in international education. Some employers incentivize their employees to go and acquire credentials elsewhere because, in this global economy, companies need a workforce with the capacity, skills, and talents to compete globally.

Why would you encourage SIS students to study internationally?

I think international education, particularly in a global economy, is a very important part of a 21st century education. In the world that we live in, no one is an island to themselves, so we need to expose students to the world out there. There are opportunities to learn from all different parts of the world. And now more than ever, isolationists are not who we want to be.

For any student of international relations to have a nuanced understanding of the field, there is value studying abroad. One, studying abroad provides you with varying perspectives on a subject matter. And two, studying abroad contextualizes international relations so that you understand the global dimensions of your work. If you are studying international relations, you need to understand the frame of reference for that work. If you are a student of international development, how do you best study the different aspects and complexity of issues in international development? If you are a student of peace and conflict resolution, how do you study that topic both from a theoretical perspective and from lived experiences of folks in conflict zones and in conflict situations around the world? As you think about all the different fields of study at the School of International Service (SIS), it is important to have a clear understanding of real, lived experiences and of the human condition. Through international education, students are exposed to different perspectives and important nuances.

It's important, particularly for US students, to study abroad. European students understand the value of studying abroad because there is a lot more mobility in the European Union. African students are the most mobile of any group of students in the world. Students in Asia and other places all understand the value of studying outside of their home countries. But how you immerse yourself in the social, cultural, and all the different aspects of a new place is also important. And sometimes what we see is that students move around and study abroad, but they live in bubbles where they try to replicate what they have experienced here in the United States. That's not the real value of an international education. International education requires immersive learning.

I think that we are quite fortunate that, at SIS, most students understand the value of international engagements. They understand that it is not enough to study a country or topic in a classroom setting-you need to go and experience what you study.

Do you have suggestions for how SIS students studying abroad can immerse themselves in new places and cultures?

First, find yourself in situations where you are uncomfortable, where you struggle because you need to communicate with people who speak a different language. There is growth and learning in that. And there is value in learning another language. Being either bilingual or multilingual is a real asset; you can navigate the world in different ways and also gain insight and perspective. Language is a powerful tool for understanding culture.

Second, it's important to not be in a bubble. Part of not being in a bubble is venturing out and discovering the world. And in that process of learning about the world, you will actually learn a lot about yourself. As you go and discover the world abroad, find intentional ways to engage. Engage with the people that you encounter. Engage in subject matters in different ways and with a different lens. Challenge yourself. In that process, you will grow intellectually, personally, and socially.

The third thing I would say to students is that it is all about perspective. Part of learning and understanding the complex, challenging issues of our time requires that you be exposed to multiple perspectives on issues. You can learn that in a classroom or from a theory, but there is nothing that can substitute the human relations part of perspective. When you are overseas, you see the issues on the ground from a different perspective, and that can only enhance and enrich your learning.

Lastly, take advantage of the fact that you have international students on your campus. International students are important cultural translators and cultural ambassadors. The fact that we have international students from all parts of the world means that your learning can begin on this campus. If you read about a specific issue or a specific part of the world, talk to someone who may be from there. Their perspective may not fully represent all people from that part of the world, but it can certainly provide you with another insight. Let's increase engagement between our domestic and international students. It will serve all of us well because our international students have a lot to offer.