In a year when uncertainty and fear are everywhere, self-reflection can feel like a burden and a blessing at the same time. We have all experienced so many changes to our “normal,” that it can be hard to put into words without sounding cliché. But I don’t think I am alone in sensing an undercurrent of hope amidst all of this—a quiet reminder for us to shift our priorities and rethink our reality. At times, the fear drowns out everything else. But I’ve been privileged (buoyed by my family, my health, a stable job, support systems such as the NAFSA Academy, and racial and economic privilege) to be able to tap into that hopeful undercurrent every now and then. I have been fortunate to find meaning and motivation in this moment of crisis, and self-reflection helps shed light on the work that lies ahead.
One of the many books that has helped me get through this year is called Hope in the Dark, by Rebecca Solnit. It’s about a different moment of crisis, September 11, 2001. It was an unimaginable, terrible event, of course. But about the aftermath, Solnit writes, “there was a moment when something beautiful might have come of it . . . of course there were belligerent and racist and jingoistic reactions, but there was a long moment when almost everyone seemed to pause, an opening when the nation might have taken another path. And some took that path anyway. In the hours and days that followed everyone agreed that the world was changed, though no one knew exactly how. It was not just the possibility of a war but the sense of the relation between self and world that changed, at least for Americans.”
It seems to me that we are in another one of these moments—a pause. Another fork in the path. We don’t know what our world will look like once this crisis has passed. And though I can’t speak for anyone else, I can say for certain that the relationship between myself and the world has changed, for better or for worse.
Facing Two Crises with Fear, Outrage, and Hope
I once heard someone compare international student advising to working in a dentist’s office; students only come in when they have a problem and need us to fix it. At the start of the last calendar year, I was feeling a bit burned out, probably due in part to this dentist’s office feeling. My sense of purpose in the job was faltering because I wasn’t connecting with my students much. I like to feel needed—as many of us do—and sometimes the transactional nature of this job at a big university can make it hard to support students holistically, or to even know what they really need.
Last March, our world turned upside down; a crisis emerged, and international students needed immediate support. This sense of urgency continued in various shapes and forms throughout the rest of the year. From closing residence halls to global travel restrictions, from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) guidance to election results, international students’ needs came under the national spotlight. Being an international student adviser felt exponentially more stressful and more rewarding, all at once.
A few months into this global crisis, another pandemic, namely the disease of systemic racism that has infected our country since its beginnings, reared its ugly head. The police killed George Floyd in my hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Outrage and protests erupted across the country. It was the perfect storm of despair—we were all cooped up at home, we were fed up with our president’s terrible leadership and hateful rhetoric, we were worried about our health and scared for the lives of our neighbors who are Black, Indigenous, and/or people of color (BIPOC).
But it wasn’t just anger and fear that occupied the national conscience last summer. Hope emerged too. Many White people I know who had never really reflected on or conversed about systemic racism felt they no longer had a choice but to talk about it. Friends’ employers finally felt enough pressure to put some action and funding behind their diversity statements. My boss conducted a Zoom meeting allowing each person in the office a few moments to share how they were feeling during this difficult time, prompting open conversations at a personal level that weren’t all that common for our team. As Solnit wrote, the world was changed, and though it was unclear exactly how, I felt I needed to do something about it.
Antiracism and International Education
International education and social justice are neighboring fields that do not formally overlap as much as they should. As international educators, we are often engaged in diversity and inclusion work, but we are also complicit in systems of oppression. Most of us work in predominantly White offices at predominantly White institutions. Our higher education system commodifies international students but doesn’t invest much in their support or success, as both Social Justice and International Education and a recent article in the Journal Committed to Social Change on Race and Ethnicity cover. The industry of international higher education reinforces socioeconomic divides around the world, prioritizing the elite, contributing to brain drain in other countries, and preserving U.S. global dominance.
The energy from the Black Lives Matter movement this summer pushed me to re-examine my role in social justice work. What did I still need to work on in terms of my own privilege and ignorance? How could I advance the values of equity and justice in the international education space? What would these conversations look like for those with international backgrounds? What could I learn about systemic racism globally that could make these conversations more meaningful for my students? What support did international students need throughout this period of unrest? What questions did they have?
The NAFSA Academy gave me an outlet to explore these questions. I adjusted my learning plan to fit with these ideas; my previously disconnected goals began to coalesce into one streamlined theme: antiracism in international education. I read up on the work already being done in this realm, the calls for action that various organizations and individuals were posting post-George Floyd, including several articles online. I joined a diversity committee. I organized and facilitated a speaker series around this theme for my state-wide professional organization and contributed to a new diversity resource list on the organization’s website. I designed a survey to go out to all international students at my university to assess their background knowledge on race and identity in the United States, the results of which we will use to inform future programming out of our office. I delved into existing research on the intersection of critical race theory and international education in Social Justice and International Education and set up meetings with a few scholars and practitioners engaged in this work to pick their brains.
A Compass for the Path Forward
This isn’t to boast about the few projects I’ve managed to pull off this year. The point is all the work that remains to be done—how to sustain these conversations and turn them into change, to keep up the momentum once “normal” has returned. In the conversations I have had, it seems that international educators have a hunger to implement change, but we don’t quite know where or how to start.
A lot more research and action are needed to address the systemic inequalities and injustices that the field of international education perpetuates. It has to be more than well-intended diversity statements and exercises reflecting on our own identities. We must move beyond that and engage in tough conversations with our colleagues and our students. We must address the prejudices that our students face and the ones that they carry with them too.
These are big goals, which I intend to use as a compass in my professional path forward. I will continue to ask questions about power and oppression in international education. I will work to deepen my understanding of systemic racism’s roots in colonization, to shift my knowledge away from the Eurocentric. I will focus on how my actions, big and small, may contribute to decolonizing the field and will encourage others to do the same.
It would be nice to be able to tie up this NAFSA Academy program with a bow and say that I’ve got all the answers to my questions now. Of course, that’s not the case—my questions have multiplied. That said, I feel lucky that I have had the time and space to even begin contemplating these topics in such a chaotic year. As many activists have reminded me, hope is a privilege and a constant practice. Accessing this undercurrent of hope has helped me stay above water on the most stressful days. It has allowed me to find a new sense of purpose, making me a better adviser for my students and a more engaged international educator. It motivates me to continue working to be a better global citizen. As the challenges of this unprecedented period persist, I will keep trying to take the “other path” that Solnit described, to make sure something beautiful comes out of this.