Sharing the Value of Difference

May 09, 2016

By Erika Rohrbach

One of the great privileges of working in international education is getting to interact with people from all over the globe. From my corner in international student and scholar services, this interaction takes place every day in person, which, in today’s ever more technologically driven, SEVIS-centered environment, feels as if it’s becoming more of a luxury than the norm for conducting business. My vantage point both in my day job and from having served on NAFSA’s Membership Committee, where I’ve worked with our member interest groups and focused on diversity-related concerns, has made me acutely aware of the value of having a multiplicity of perspectives represented.

This past December, NAFSA’s Board of Directors reaffirmed the association’s shared belief in the value of difference by broadening its diversity statement to explicitly encompass inclusion—a concept that for many of us may seem a no-brainer and diversity’s twin aim, but considering recent events in North Carolina and the current political dialogue, one realizes there has seldom been a time in recent memory when the need to champion inclusion has been more pressing.

Working in Manhattan, I like to joke that just riding the 7 train yields a significant international experience. But even here, where we enjoy the densest population of international students in the country and almost an embarrassment of riches when it comes to diversity, inclusion is by no means easy to achieve nor always the motivating force behind attaining an equitable, truly multicultural outlook.

Recently, I attended a meeting of the State University of New York’s Council for International Student and Scholar Services. When discussing the importance of off- and on-campus advocacy, a number of colleagues from upstate described the struggles they face when those in their community question why there have to be so many international students on campus. The New York Times also recently reported such xenophobia taking place in Pocatello, Idaho, where a physics lecturer accused his employer of accepting international students who were unprepared, claiming the university viewed them only as “A.T.M. machines.”

Even at my institution, the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), located in the heart of New York’s fashion district, where international students from 73 countries represent more than 12 percent of our full-time enrollment, making international perspectives and understanding fundamental to the student experience has become key to FIT’s current strategic plan because we too have painfully learned that inclusion and integration don’t happen passively by default: just because students of many accents and origins are in the building doesn’t mean they’re eating at the same table.

So as we gear up for this year’s Annual Conference in Denver, I’m delighted to see how diversity and inclusion-related programming has grown, providing a broad range of opportunities for us to contemplate these core values and share best practices in person. In particular, I’d like to invite everyone to the Diversity and Inclusion Luncheon on Wednesday, June 1, from 12:00 to 1:30 p.m., featuring an address by NAFSA President Fanta Aw, followed by the Diversity Forum at 1:45 p.m., an open dialogue where NAFSA’s new Diversity and Inclusion Statement and related initiatives will be discussed.

Elaine Scarry’s exploration of the relation of beauty to justice reminds us that “beauty always takes place in the particular.” It is the power of international education and exchange to cultivate appreciation of and respect for the particular that cannot be underestimated and something we can constantly strive to strengthen together.


Erika Rohrbach directs international student services at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. She is a past chair of NAFSA Region X and has served as diversity adviser on NAFSA’s Membership Committee since 2012.


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