The following is a lightly edited speech delivered by Fanta Aw as the keynote speaker at the IEASA Conference on August 22, 2023.

Coming out of COVID, as an educator, I would like to share with you  what keeps me up at night—and I would argue must keep us up at night as scholars, educators, practitioners, and supporters who are committed to equitable and quality education. We are charged with the responsibility of educating the next generations and I know we take this social responsibility with the seriousness it so deserves.  

In my role at NAFSA of bringing together institutions, practitioners, researchers, and lecturers from around the globe to interrogate, discuss, co-create, and act on international education, I find myself often in deeper contemplation about life, loss, and gratitude. This has certainly been the case since COVID-19. It may also be because I find at this stage in my life, I have more time behind me than in front of me. This is the circle of life as we know it. 

The pandemic brought the world to its knees and reminded us daily of our interdependence. COVID-19 has been a remarkable teacher, and I hope we have all taken the time to receive its invaluable lessons and, in turn, will put into practice all that we have learned for the betterment of humanity. We must resist the urge of going back to business as usual. The world, our institutions, our field, and each of us have undergone much change over the past three or so years. It is certainly human nature to fight or flee in the face of pain and massive disruptions. We seek comfort in the familiar and wish for certainty at a time where there is none. The only constant we know is change. 

The reality is that the status quo will not save our planet, the status quo will not advance equity, and certainly the status quo will not lead to the transformations we know are so needed. The only beneficiaries of the status quo are the few whose self-interests are being met, leaving the majority of folks yearning for real progress. 

As the world continues to experience seismic shakeups from the threats of global pandemic, climate change, and myriad global challenges, we as international educator leaders must reckon with our raison d’etre, vision, and impact in a brave new world: One where power imbalance is ever present and is shifting, where the nature of work is undergoing major transformation, and where the power of digital forces are manifesting in our daily lives in ways inescapable. 

It is no accident that we are witnessing declining faith in higher education as students, families, and employers question the value of higher education and, by extension, international education. Re-emerging from COVID-19, the decolonization project continues, our institutions face major external pressures pushing for, and, in some cases, demand a different social contract—a social contract premised on reforms and, in many instances, full transformation of the educational ecosystem. 

The pandemic is not the cause, but simply the symptom, of larger forces we have not contended with for so long. 

What keeps me up at night as a sociologist, international educator, and simply a citizen of the world, are four major forces: 

  1. The learning loss for our children and students, and the collective trauma that we have yet to fully admit. We did the best we could with the cards we were dealt under the pandemic. However, if we are to be honest, the move to online learning and lockdowns left so many behind. Students have told us, when we have been willing to listen, that it was not always of high quality. It will take a long time for us to fully appreciate the impact of the learning loss and how to come back from it. However, I do not despair.
  2. Social inequities have been exacerbated and deserve reckoning. Racial, ethnic, religious, and caste disparities in educational access, employment, social mobility, and overall wellbeing cannot be disputed. With all the progress claimed, we have yet to uplift the most vulnerable in our societies and better their quality of life. This is squarely a problem of an “opportunity gap.” This gap includes the digital world. 
  3. Polarization and extremism stoked by political divides are manifested in the rhetoric and actions of “ME first,” “MY people FIRST,” “MY nation FIRST.” “MY way of knowing above all else” comes at a great cost to unity, peace, and social wellbeing. There is a real malaise. The fight is being waged by those with deep pockets and/or those with the tools who wish to roll back any progress made and maintain at all costs the status quo that has benefited them for generations. This ideological war is taking place in our campuses, communities, and nations. In the case of the United States, it is manifested in sweeping state legislation to restrict what is taught, who should have access to higher education, and fundamentally what knowledge must be privileged. 
  4. We know that climate and environmental justice is both local and global.  Climate and environmental justice are inextricably linked to racial, economic and people justice. It is Indigenous communities and primarily women—groups that are socially, politically and economically disadvantaged—who are most impacted by climate crisis and yet have not had a hand in creating the problem. The fact is that the G-20 countries continue to be culprits for over 80 percent of the greenhouse emissions. Some climate activists have argued that we need “climate diplomacy” predicated on the nations responsible for this crisis to pay reparations. Reparations may need to come in forms that are beyond monetary given the state of our planet and the urgency of the crisis. 

Learning loss, an opportunity gap, polarization, and environmental and climate justice have in common systems of practices and policies that are pervasive and intentionally exclusionary. They reflect deep system failures. We as educators must ask ourselves how we are contributing to the problem or the solutions. 

Indulge me as I share some of my approaches for how we might tackle the great challenges of our time:

My late uncle, Jacques Diouf, who was the former Secretary General of the Food and Agriculture Organization, and my father—both agronomists by profession—used to state that “hunger is not an issue of charity, it is an issue of justice.”
I argue that educational access is not an issue of charity, but an issue of justice.   

So, as educators and leaders:

  1. We must move students and community partners from the margins of solution-seeking to the center.  We must involve the whole of society in learning. We need learner-centered, just, and equitable systems willing to question the assumptions we have about how and where learning should take place. 
  2. We must constantly interrogate who is at the table and who is missing—and ask if might there be a need for new tables—for real change to emerge.
  3. We must shift from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset. The ability to cooperate rather than compete fiercely is much needed. This carries significance for how we engage others, experience the world, and show up. 
  4. We must demonstrate empathy, love, and compassion. AI is massively transforming our world, but it cannot do these things.  Computer scientist Kai-Fu Lee argues that AI “is here to liberate us from routine jobs, and it is here to remind us of what it is that makes us human.” We need a playbook for how we can effectively exist with AI. One that will allow us to be “fully” human. 
  5. We are driven by a web of relationships and kinships. To illustrate this point, allow me to share with you a brief story from an unknown author that has stuck with me and inspires me daily.  

Below is the story:  

I had just spent an hour in the bank with my father, as he had to transfer some money. I couldn't resist asking:

"Dad, why don't we activate your internet banking?"

"Why would I do that?" he replied.

"Because then you won’t have to spend an hour here for things like that transfer.

You can even do your shopping online. Everything will be so easy!"

I was so excited about introducing him to the exciting world of online banking.

He thought for a minute, then answered "If I do that, I won’t have to step out of the house?"

"Yes, yes," I said. I told him how even grocery can be delivered to your front door now, and how Amazon delivers everything!

His answer left me speechless.

He replied "Since I entered this bank today, I have met four of my friends. And I have chatted for a while with the staff who know me very well by now.

You know that I am alone. This is the company that I need. I like to get ready and come to the bank. I have more than enough time, it is the physical touch that I crave.

Two years ago I got sick. The shop owner, where I buy my fruit, came to see me and sat by my bedside and cried.

When your mum fell down few days ago during her morning walk, our local grocer saw her and immediately brought his car to rush her home, as he knows where I live.

Would I have that 'human' touch if everything became online?

Why would I want everything delivered to me, forcing me to only interact with my computer?

I like to know the person I'm dealing with and not just the 'seller.' It creates bonds and relationships.

(Original author unknown.)

As international educators, let us never forget that our young people are the future, and they deserve the best and most we can offer. The decisions and choices we make today have implications not only for now but well into the future. Thus, we must live as if the future depends on us. 

History will judge us on our actions and inactions. We will want to ensure that we are on the right side of history.