Robert M. GatesEducating foreign students is critical if the United States is to build allies in the world, and study abroad is not an “unaffordable luxury” but rather an important way to help develop future leaders with global experience and language skills, former U.S. secretary of defense Robert M. Gates told international educators during a keynote speech at NAFSA’s 2012 Annual Conference & Expo last week in Houston, Texas.

Gates, a former defense secretary for both Presidents Obama and Bush (2006-2011), served as the president of Texas A&M University from 2002-2006, where he pushed for international diversity on campus and was recognized as a proponent of international student-friendly visa policies. Gates told the audience that while he was at Texas A&M, he counted himself an international educator and advocated for greater global engagement, helping establish a branch campus of Texas A&M at Education City in Doha, Qatar.

International education, he explained, is an essential part of the United States’ global engagement strategy. International experiences are important to the development of individuals as well as to the security and economic future of the country.

Unfortunately, one aspect of the international experience that is in decline, Gates noted, is the study of foreign languages. Students need to be pushed to learn difficult foreign languages, including studying the culture and history of those who speak the language. And we need to find innovative ways to incentivize foreign language study in our colleges and universities.

As an example, Gates mentioned a U.S. Department of Defense pilot program he started three years ago that’s designed to encourage Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) officers to learn one of several challenging foreign languages. Participants in the program who take foreign language or culture classes can earn a “skill proficiency bonus” of up to $3,000 per year, depending on the classes they take, according to the Defense Department. The highest stipends are for advanced-level classes in strategic languages such as Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Swahili, Uzbek, Dari and Pashto.

Gates is currently chancellor of the College of William & Mary, his alma mater. In June 2011, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor.

Were you able to attend the plenary? What did you take away from Dr. Gates’s speech?