In the third installment of this week’s series featuring real-life stories about the positive impact of foreign students on state economies and communities around the country (see our posts on the Midwest and the Northeast), we turn to the South. Foreign students spent $5.2 billion during the 2010-2011 academic year across the southern states, according to NAFSA’s Economic Impact Statements released Monday. Overall, foreign students and their dependents contributed $20.2 billion to the U.S. economy in the same time period.

See how each southern state benefited in this chart and keep reading for a first-hand account of how NAFSA member and associate director of international student services at Clayton State University, Brett Reichert, welcomes international students to Morrow, Georgia, and advocates for all students to get the education they need to be prepared for a career in our globalized economy. Learn more about how you can be an advocate during International Education Week at Connecting Our World.

When Globalization Travels Through Your Backyard

By Brett Reichert

Clayton State University in Morrow, Georgia, is located in Atlanta’s “Southern Crescent,” which alludes to the agrarian, “main street” towns of yesteryear. They were connected more with the State Farmers Market nearby than with the world outside. In 1968, Clayton Junior College, as it was called then, opened to serve the needs of this area.

Today, Clayton County touches one of the largest industrial distribution networks in America, and “mall sprawl” is the landscape beyond our serene, piney woods campus. Clayton State is now a comprehensive university of 7,000 students with a graduate school, residence and campus life divisions, nationally ranked athletics programs, and degree programs ranging from nursing and teacher education to MBA’s, supply chain management and archival studies. Jumbo jets, sometimes 4 or 5 in number, are visible floating overhead near the world’s busiest airport just 10 miles away.

Given this picture of then and now, where does international education fit in?  Though our current international student population is relatively small, our campus has a large and diverse population of students from multi-cultural and multi-ethnic backgrounds. Global awareness is more critical than ever here in “rural SE Atlanta.” Our students still come primarily from nearby, but with challenging, uncertain questions: How is my education relevant? Will I be equipped to compete and succeed? Simply put, I see skyscrapers and jumbo jets in the distance, so how can I access the job market they represent?

I strive to help our international students feel welcome and secure while fostering global awareness across campus too. Our students may still find “hometown jobs” after graduation, but their customers, managers, colleagues, and vendors could be a world away. Just recently, I visited a nearby elementary school for its teacher development workday; their principal had asked me to talk about globalization, which literally takes off and lands in their “backyard.” I gave the example of a factory in Americus, Georgia, which now exports chopsticks made in the USA to China! Do our own students get it? Are we giving them the tools to compete in this paradigm? I ask the same questions of elected officials.

Here at Clayton State, I walked into a brand new position a little over a year ago with a computer, a notepad, and the job of building a well-connected ISSO (International Student Services Office). I started out with a holistic approach: compliance, programming, and advocacy. That last piece has found voice at local, state, and national levels. Last year, I was fortunate to participate in NAFSA’s superb Advocacy Day program, with assistance from a NAFSA Region VII travel grant. I continue to use those advocacy skills whenever I can. On a state level, I advocate regularly to fix a bureaucratic flaw in Georgia’s driver license renewal process for international students here on F-1  visas, which has literally stranded some students waiting to be approved for OPT (optional practical training, a temporary non-immigrant employment status) and prevented them from staying in the United States. Though simple to understand, issues like this are not easy to fix; they require awareness and advocacy. The training I got from NAFSA prepared me for that task as a citizen - who happens to be an international educator for work.

I also coordinate with our study abroad programs to streamline the gospel of international education on campus. We are thrilled to be rolling out an excellent program for International Education Week (IEW; November 14-18) this year:  an international feast, a Brazilian speaker, and a global citizens project combining money, advocacy, and soap! Students will chip in spare change for Turkish earthquake victims, and chip in soap for Africa. Several campus units are collaborating with the Global Soap Project, including University Health Services! The week will wrap up with a cultural trip to Atlanta on Friday.

Every day, I am energized by my work, my students, and the mission of international education and exchange. It’s much more than a catchy college trend; it’s reality whether you have a passport or not.

Brett Reichert is a NAFSA member and associate director of international student services at Clayton State University. He has been involved in international education since 1998.