Reframing International Education

As institutional priorities shift, international offices and their leaders must rethink their value proposition and align with campuswide initiatives.
Photo: Patrick Lienin/photocase.com

When the University of Michigan introduced a campuswide focus on engaged learning as part of preparations for its bicentennial in 2017, intercultural knowledge was one of the five core learning goals promulgated by leaders. Even so, Amy Conger hoped to broaden the view of international programs beyond this particular outcome.

Even with the new emphasis on intercultural knowledge, “the ‘internationalization for the sake of internationalization’ argument has its limitations,” says Conger, the university’s associate vice provost and director of global engagement.

While international education remains vital in a changing world, the reality at most institutions is that it is one of a wide range of priorities. As those priorities shift or are emphasized in new ways as part of evolving initiatives or strategic plans, senior international officers (SIOs) must make sure that their efforts complement the institutional big picture.

“Large public research institutions tend to have multiple priorities, and they’re often competing,” says Gonzalo Bruce, assistant provost for the Center for Global Education at Boise State University. “There are several conversations that SIOs have to manage to keep the conversation going.”

SIOs at all institutions—large, small, public, and private—face the growing need to become more entrepreneurial and focused on internal and external partnerships. They must also rethink how the value proposition of global learning shifts when their institution reframes its mission, which should mean thinking critically about the reasons behind their internationalization activities and goals.

“We’re trying to rethink our narrative around international education and education abroad—why do we engage globally?” Conger says. “Once we were able to start answering [that question] with things the institution cared about, we found we gained more traction. And in our case, it was multiple facets of engaged learning.”

Beyond the Buzzwords

Changing trends in university priorities are hard to miss and, at times, easy to lampoon when themes such as global citizenship, emotional intelligence, diversity and inclusion, and career readiness wind up being translated into rapidly changing, buzzword-friendly marketing plans. The Chronicle of Higher Education famously took 88 college slogans and taglines and fashioned them into a poem, beginning with “Change Your Life. Start Here” and ending with “You’re One of a Kind. So Are We.” 

reframing international education

While debate on this dynamic could fill many pages, the on-the-ground reality is that strategic plans and institutional values matter. They also speak to the existential challenges facing all of higher education. At Michigan, for example, the institutional emphasis on engaged learning represents one way of differentiating the campus experience from online models of learning. Its priorities encompass everything from interactive classroom learning to hands-on research projects and the intangible experiences of residential life.

Other institutions also find themselves reinforcing or reframing long-standing parts of their mission in an attempt to stand out in the market. Faith-based institutions often redouble their emphasis on service-learning, while community colleges increasingly prioritize workforce development and student completion.

In many cases, global learning or some element of recognizing multiple cultures, experiences, and perspectives are an explicit part of institutional priorities. Even so, international officers often must find ways to represent their offices and activities within the broader context of the institution.

Rising to the Challenge

When Howard University unveiled its new strategic plan at the end of the 2019 spring semester, senior leaders “were adamant about making sure that everything we do is tied to that plan,” says Tonija Hope Navas, SIO and director of the Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center.

Howard’s plan includes a call to prepare students to be leaders in both the United States and the global community. Within that context, global education wasn’t “a hard sell,” Navas says. Both the president and provost came to the United States as international students, and the strategic plan emphasizes the importance of multiple perspectives and experiential experiences for students. The challenge, Navas says, is reinforcing its importance in a wide range of activities beyond study abroad programs, as well as “advocating for and facilitating the international mission across the institution.”

Navas keeps a highlighted copy of Howard’s newly created strategic plan on her desk, which she uses to recognize ways to reinforce the importance of global education with her peers. She commonly draws from the community engagement pillar of the plan when planning campus events, such as an annual lecture series that touches on a wide range of crossdisciplinary topics—which is also of interest to the city’s policymakers and international communities.

“When I’m trying to make a case for a larger initiative, I’ll certainly point to that pillar and say we’re trying to bring the community into what we’re doing,” she says.

At Boise State, which consolidated education abroad and other international services into a new Center for Global Education in 2017, leaders were charged with developing “an internationalization plan in a way that fits not only with the institution and the mission of the university, but also the times we’re living in”—including the financial realities brought by declining state funding support, says Bruce.

“It was our task to sort out where the barriers existed and try to eliminate them.” —Woody Pelton

Even institutions with a strong focus on global education have their own challenges. Elon University has emphasized global learning for a half-century, says Woody Pelton, dean of global education and assistant professor. Its website prominently lists global engagement as one of just three priorities, and the institution is a national leader in study abroad programs, with more than 8 in 10 students participating in global study programs. At the same time, the 10-year strategic plan, called the Elon Commitment, calls for 100 percent access to global engagement, which raises a different set of challenges for institutional leaders.

“It was our task to sort out where the barriers existed and try to eliminate them,” Pelton says. To that end, his department collaborates closely with two crossdisciplinary research centers, admissions officers, and other departments “to meet every population where they are.”

Finding the ‘Why’

Overcoming these barriers can start with thinking critically about existing internationalization activities and goals and how they ladder up to an institution’s priorities and plans. Adapting organizational science from beyond the academy may prove helpful in making those connections. A driving factor behind both the emphasis on articulating institutional objectives and finding connections to them can boil down to a single word: why.

“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it,” leadership expert Simon Sinek says. And for some SIOs, that question has also served as a starting point for their own efforts. 

“Adapting some grand plan for internationalization doesn’t make sense unless you connect it to what faculty and students care about,” says Conger.

The “why” may look very different from institution to institution. In the community college sector, for example, the need to prepare students for the workforce is a powerful motivator. Carol Hayes, participation coordinator of the Global Distinction Program at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, points out that international companies have invested more than $14 billion and created more than 50,000 jobs in North Carolina. Yet, she adds, “many of our students have never left Forsyth County. If they’re going to be competitive, they need to have that global component.”

“Adapting some grand plan for internationalization doesn’t make sense unless you connect it to what faculty and students care about.” —Amy Conger

Led by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s World View public service program, the Global Distinction Program provides Forsyth Tech and 16 other community and technical colleges in the state with resources and programming that infuse global learning into a wide range of classes and allow students to graduate with a special globally focused credential.

But making that happen at Forsyth Tech, Hayes says, required changing how internationalization was viewed on campus and tying it to the larger mission. “It can’t just be a few humanities professors who are interested,” she says, but rather campuswide support.

While the focus may differ by institution, the need to embed global learning into the root of the curriculum is the same. As at other large public institutions, research is a priority at Michigan. For Conger, the redoubled emphasis on engagement meant adding a new lens to international research projects involving faculty and staff.

“Our colleagues seek international collaborations that help us do something we can’t do alone,” Conger says. “How do we build partnerships that help us jointly explore problems, gain access to data, or invite new ideas that we simply couldn’t do here?”

looking up between buildings

For example, Michigan’s engineering and urban planning faculty have an ongoing relationship with Ethiopian counterparts centered on analyzing the localized water filtration systems found in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. The international collaboration has the potential to influence the management of the United States’s aging water systems, particularly in nearby Flint, Michigan.

“It’s a wonderful example of tying a local problem with a global one,” Conger says. “It’s only when you consider different ways of looking at the world that you have a chance to discover new angles and solutions.”

The “why” also comes into play in a wide range of ways. Boise State’s Beyond the Major initiative, which helps students map their career path and articulate the value of their academic experience to potential employers, is a perfect fit for international education, says Bruce.

For example, Boise State offers a short-term study abroad program in Taiwan that facilitates language and cultural training and includes a workplace internship. “Any experience that takes you outside of the classroom and builds real-world experience is invaluable,” he says.

At historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) like Howard, international experience is also viewed through an equity lens, given the historically lower rates of study abroad participation among minority students.

“HBCUs have a very important role to play in democratizing this whole field,” Navas says. To that end, the institution has hosted two annual HBCU symposia on study abroad, where participating institutions come away with internationalization strategies for their campuses.

Strategies and Solutions

For SIOs, communication has always been key to reaching internationalization goals. Now, it is increasingly imperative to communicate with context—specifically, context around larger institutional priorities. It can start with getting back to the basics: dig beyond marketing slogans to think deeply about the institution’s core values, Conger advises. For example, Michigan’s historical emphasis on public service helps her office frame conversations around the ways global learning provides perspectives that help students contribute to their own communities once they graduate. 

Among the other strategies suggested by SIOs to connect the work of the international office to campuswide goals and initiatives:

Identify opportunities for collaboration.

It is essential to visualize connections across multiple departments and programs, says Bruce. “Build bridges by analyzing each, and understand where the common goals are,” he says. His office worked with a new dean of engineering to develop partnerships and grants to get more students to study abroad in a major where students are less likely to participate.

SIOs shouldn’t neglect chances to work with nonacademic departments, such as student affairs, to help them meet their own objectives around cultural awareness and diversity. “You can multiply your efforts,” he says.

“You have to be open about the unexpected, but also deliberate about making the conversations happen.” —Gonzalo Bruce

Cross-cutting interdisciplinary efforts also represent potential to engage. Elon has globally focused centers in research and pedagogy to support faculty efforts in both areas. SIOs should also identify opportunities for partnerships beyond the institution, as Boise State did in developing an internship program with an international high-tech company. The collaboration culminated in a larger partnership that brought robotic technology to campus for all students.

“You have to be open about the unexpected, but also deliberate about making the conversations happen,” says Bruce.

Articulate relevant outcomes.

Institutions that explicitly name global learning in their strategic plans will likely include accountability metrics for meeting those objectives. At institutions where global learning isn’t among the key metrics, it’s important to identify outcomes that do matter to senior leaders.

At Forsyth Tech, Hayes tracked retention rates and related metrics to demonstrate that participants in its Global Distinction Program were more involved in academic planning, more likely to meet with their advisers, and more likely to earn a degree or certificate—even if they didn’t complete the program. Out of the 82 students who have participated in the program at Forsyth Tech to date, only two did not graduate, she says.

looking up at trees

Public institutions also can stress the broader impact of internationalization initiatives to the state’s economy, including attracting global businesses or preparing globally competitive students, says Bruce. Boise State’s partnerships with the state’s business development organizations and a local technology hub has kept international students in Idaho instead of pursuing jobs in the Silicon Valley or elsewhere after graduating.

“When you enrich the community and the cultural diversity of your state, companies will appreciate that,” he says. (NAFSA’s Economic Value Tool can be useful in making the case for local economic impact.)

Find ways to participate in strategic planning. 

In many cases, international offices aren’t directly involved in the framing of strategic plans or other high-level institutional rethinks, but SIOs still must play a significant role. As Howard developed its strategic plan, Navas reached out to committee members to ensure that internationalization was included. “I didn’t see the final product until everybody did,” she says. “I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of attention it did receive.”

Educate staff at all levels. 

It is vital for international educators to discuss the multiple dimensions of internationalization with different audiences on campus, says Bruce. On one level, he says, the focus may be “on how students are gaining from this experience.” Another conversation may center on how international programs champion shared institutional values such as self-discovery, interdependence, global education, and awareness of multiple perspectives—“all of what we bring by internationalizing the campus.” SIOs, in particular, must look toward the future, namely, the institution’s long-range goals and priorities. “I talk a lot to my peers about bringing the name of Boise State to the world,” he says.

“The more energy you get, the more faculty start to realize you’re changing the culture.” —Carol Hayes

Every conversation and experience matters, says Forsyth Tech’s Hayes. Professors initially skeptical of study abroad have become staunch supporters, and the institution has added a study away committee comprised of faculty from multiple departments and disciplines. “The more energy you get, the more faculty start to realize you’re changing the culture,” she says. 

SIOs should also remember to involve international office staff in these conversations. “SIOs have to work closely with their own teams and remind them about how these things connect,” Bruce says. “Sometimes it’s easy to see the trees and not the forest.”

Don’t forget the local in global. 

When global values are infused into overall institutional objectives, it is important for SIOs to identify opportunities closer to home as well. For Navas, Howard’s emphasis on practical work experience translates to student internships with internationally focused organizations close to campus in Washington, D.C. And at Elon, global engagement efforts include a small number of domestic study experiences beyond North Carolina. Doing so serves the international students seeking a diversity of experiences within the United States, as well as undocumented domestic students who may not be able to study abroad, Pelton says.

With intentional actions by senior leaders, international education can have a home in wide-ranging institutional objectives. The website devoted to the University of Michigan’s Engaged Michigan initiative, for example, profiled a wide range of students’ summer learning experiences beyond Ann Arbor, including programs in Denmark, Ecuador, and Greenland, as well as in the nearby city of Detroit.

“Besides creating unforgettable memories, students made a difference in the lives of people through service and research,” the website states. “This extra step in their academic journey—impactful and empowering summer projects—will help shape their careers.”  •


New Priorities, New Language

A sampling of the language around global learning from institutional initiatives and strategic plans:

Boise State University

The value of the college degree used to speak for itself. Now students have to speak to, and provide evidence for, the value of their degree in an increasingly competitive job market. ... With increased support in translating their skills for audiences beyond the university, students graduate from Boise State with [a] story to tell. When students go Beyond the Major, they develop a thread that connects their individual experiences into their own unique story—a story that not only aids in their self-identification as an emerging professional, but shows employers the value that their college education brings beyond the list of coursework.

Elon University: The Elon Commitment

Elon strives to prepare students for successful lives in a diverse 21st century world. Today, students’ first employment may very well be outside of the United States, and they certainly will compete for careers on an international basis. This generation of students is encountering differences in identities, cultures, languages and worldviews like no other generation before them and must be prepared to navigate the complexity and nuance of our diverse world.

Forsyth Technical Community College: Global Distinction Program (administered by University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and includes 16 other local participating community and technical colleges)

The Global Scholar of Distinction program is designed to help prepare students for a world where virtually everything—the economy, culture, politics, business—is global in scope. Participation in this program will allow you to engage in discussions and be exposed to experiences to see how you fit in an interconnected world. ... When you leave Forsyth Tech to begin your career or transfer to a four-year school, the designation “Graduated with Global Distinction” on your resume or transcript will be a unique credential that sets you apart. It will show employers and transfer institutions that you have an understanding of global cultural, political, and historical information that is superior and more comprehensive than other students.

Howard University: Howard Forward

We will serve our diverse community with high impact outreach and collaborative partnerships across divisions and beyond campus borders, while cultivating an atmosphere of inclusivity, wellness and civility….[We will] use experiential service-learning opportunities to teach awareness of local and global issues that align with our university’s mission.

University of Michigan: Engaged Michigan

Intercultural engagement: Our learners must understand the role of values and culture in driving decisions, and they must develop flexibility in working with others having different values.

Global and international experiences place students in an unfamiliar environment, outside their comfort zone. These experiences challenge unexamined cultural assumptions, cultivate a new understanding of a participant’s own culture from a different perspective, widen the participant’s world-view to help them see new opportunities for action, and challenge and test their resilience and ability to communicate. These experiences could be for credit or cocurricular, and include summer experiences abroad as well as academic year engagements.


About International Educator

International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

From in-depth features to interviews with thought leaders and columns tailored to NAFSA’s knowledge communities, IE provides must-read context and analysis to those working around the globe to advance international education and exchange.


NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA's 10,000 members are located at more than 3,500 institutions worldwide, in over 150 countries.