What Kind of America Do We Want to Be?

November 24, 2015

By Jill Welch

While campuses were celebrating the best of what international education has to offer during International Education Week, troubling events (and many troubling responses to those events) were dominating the media. Just over a week ago, we witnessed horrific attacks in Paris and Beirut, and last Friday, more tragic deadly attacks took place at a hotel in Mali. Every day, there seems to be breaking news of violence somewhere. As the co-chairs of the 9/11 commission, Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean, wrote in a joint op-ed last week: “Absolute condemnation is the only possible reaction to these abominable attacks by those who embrace the universal values of life and liberty. But faced once again with innocent lives taken by a murderous, radical foe, we must re-examine and re-energize our response.”

Policymakers should heed Hamilton’s and Kean’s advice to focus on the importance of using all of the elements of U.S. power- not just militaristic, but even more importantly, political, diplomatic, economic and informational – in a sustained strategy to target the ideological foundations of terrorism. Unfortunately, the tragedies have been compounded instead by reactionary responses from ill-informed politicians who pretend that solutions can be found in shutting down borders and slamming the doors shut in the face of the world’s most vulnerable people seeking refuge from that same violence. In a panic, some have announced that they will refuse to welcome Syrian refugees, failing to recognize that these very refugees are desperately fleeing violence themselves.

We ignore at our own peril history’s lessons about the consequences of discriminating against entire nationalities of people. Hamilton and Kean wrote: “Calls to close our borders to refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict is but the latest manifestation of the impulse to see the openness of our societies as a vulnerability. Sowing such widespread fear is our enemy’s objective…. Welcoming — after thorough screening — those seeking safety from the devastation caused by our enemies is the surest way to demonstrate the superiority of our beliefs and prevent a new generation from being infected by the nihilistic creeds that fester amid desperation and misery. That will demonstrate our support for the vast majority of Muslims, after all they too have suffered at the hands of the same terrorists.”

Below the Headlines Given the barrage of daily news, it’s almost become difficult to keep track all of the violent incidents and short-sighted responses, both at home and abroad, and we can easily start to feel discouraged about our goals of achieving a more peaceful, secure world.

But there’s another, much more encouraging story happening below the headlines. While some perpetrators of violence continue to seek to wreak havoc and incite fear, another fight – this time for truth, understanding and peaceful security – is also taking place. International educators across the world continue their critical work in building mutual understanding and trust through international educational exchange. And advocates like NAFSA continue to help shape the debate and remind policymakers that our better angels have always served us best in times of fear.

NAFSA made sure our calls for a more welcoming America were heard:

  • NAFSA submitted testimony to Senate and House congressional committees to urge support for welcoming Syrian refugees and to urge action on helping Syrian students whose higher education pursuits have been interrupted due to the conflict. Together with our coalition partners, we will continue to look for ways to provide support and assistance to refugees in the region, given the long timelines for the visa and refugee adjustment processes.
  • NAFSA joined with more than 75 other organizations who see the United States as part of a global community to express support for the U.S. refugee resettlement program.
  • NAFSA continues to correct the record whenever the media or policymakers wrongly try to link foreign students and terrorism. We actively work to contact reporters, policymakers and editors whenever they get the facts wrong, in order to remind them that generations of policy leaders have always seen students as assets, not threats, to our security. NAFSA Executive Director and CEO Marlene Johnson submitted a letter to the editor of the New York Times in response to a mischaracterization of foreign students in an article by Nick Kristoff.
  • NAFSA continues to share the value of international students with policymakers, thought leaders, and the media. During International Education Week, NAFSA released our latest economic value analysis (www.nafsa.org/econvalue), showing that international students bring $30.5 billion and support over 373,000 jobs to our economy while bringing intellectual and cultural diversity to our campuses. International students are one of the biggest win-wins for American colleges and our communities, and that’s a story that needs to be told.
  • NAFSA’s public policy staff and advocates regularly reach out to thank policymakers, thought leaders and the media who get the facts right and who lead us toward real security.
There’s still more to do to create a more welcoming and globally engaged United States. More than 15 years after the Clinton Administration and the U.S. Senate called for a coordinated international education policy (out of which International Education Week was born in order to create a more informed public conversation on the value of international education), we still don’t have a proactive international student recruitment strategy that leverages the valuable asset that these students are for our nation, nor do we yet have a major federal program to grow and diversify global learning. During International Education Week, NAFSA reissued our policy recommendations to address both these needs: a proactive policy to welcome international students and a strategy to ensure globally prepared graduates.

What can you do to help advance a more positive view of America as part of a global community?

We must speak truth about fear and isolationism, and actively fight back against xenophobia.

  • Follow us on twitter (@ConnectOurWorld) and retweet- help educate policymakers and thought leaders.
  • Stay connected through www.connectingourworld.org for action alerts, tips and talking points, and other useful information for driving a more informed public conversation about the value of international education and global learning.
It’s important that we know we are not alone and recognize our common humanity with our friends and allies in France, but also in Mali, and Beirut, and Syria, and China, and everywhere. “Oui, nous sommes Paris, mais nous sommes aussi le monde.” We are one with all humankind seeking a better, safer future.


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