How International Education Can Help Advance Social Justice

An excerpt from the recently released Social Justice and International Education connects the goals of international education with the pursuit of social justice.
International education’s goals of promoting cultural exchange, mutual understanding, and peace are directly connected to the social justice aims of addressing systemic oppression and inequality.Illustration: Shutterstock

The recently released Social Justice and International Education: Research, Practice, and Perspectives brings together scholars, practitioners, and community activists and educators to discuss the ways in which the field of international education can use social justice theories, questions, and strategies to confront and address the structural barriers, institutional biases, and power imbalances inherent in international exchange and higher education.

The book comes out at an important moment for the field. As we face two crises—the COVID-19 pandemic and systemic racism—as well as an economic recession that has severely limited student mobility, international educators have had their own reckoning with the ways in which the field needs to examine its own systems and practices as we work toward creating more just and equitable approaches to internationalization.

The chapter excerpted below, by David Wick, EdD, and Tasha Willis, EdD, is titled “International Education’s Potential for Advancing Social Justice” and appears in the “Research” section of Social Justice and International Education. Wick and Willis argue that international education’s goals of promoting cultural exchange, mutual understanding, and peace are directly connected to the social justice aims of addressing systemic oppression and inequality.

Wick and Willis provide a historical and theoretical framework for thinking about the relationship between social justice and international education, in addition to using specific examples of what this framework has looked like in their own work. Drawing from their own experience designing and leading education abroad programs, Wick and Willis analyze issues such as addressing neocolonialism in program administration and ways of guiding program participants to be self-critical of their own biases and assumptions while abroad.

This chapter is an excellent introduction to the vital and urgent themes addressed in the book. In this period of reckoning, the book is both a call for introspection and a call to action, and I believe it provides important recommendations for how to use social justice concepts to transform our work and our field. —LaNitra M. Berger, PhD, editor, Social Justice and International Education: Research, Practice, and Perspectives



International Education’s Potential for Advancing Social Justice

By David Wick, EdD, and Tasha Willis, EdD


International education exchange is the most significant current project designed to continue the process of humanizing mankind to the point, we would hope, that nations can learn to live in peace. —J. William Fulbright (Fulbright N.D.)

Authentic liberation—the process of humanization—is not another deposit to be made in men. Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it. —Paulo Freire (2009, 79)

There are several profound connections between J. William Fulbright’s commitment to international education and Paulo Freire’s perspective on liberation. In these quotes and their other work, both Fulbright and Freire identify humanization as one of education’s key ideals and propose models for achieving these goals. Yet, few international educators—coming from a field that, in the United States, aligns strongly with Fulbright’s ideas— consider the connection between international education’s promotion of peace and understanding and Freire’s goals of reducing oppression and inequity. Social justice educators aligned with Freire, on the other hand, can appear rooted in local communities. Clearly, there is room for international and social justice educators to learn from and with one another to imagine educational activities that address global systems and structures that reproduce inequity.

Giroux’s (2010) statements about Freire connect these two ways of thinking about education and humanization. Giroux (2010, 719) writes, “Although Freire was a theoretician of radical contextualism, he also acknowledged the importance of understanding the particular and the local in relation to larger, global and cross-national forces. For Freire, literacy as a way of reading and changing the world had to be reconceived within a broader understanding of citizenship, democracy and justice that was global and transnational.” This chapter explores these connections that make the examination of social justice and international education activities essential for all international educators.

Connections Between International Education and Social Justice

We, as international educators, believe that our field has the potential for advancing social justice. At the same time, we challenge the notion that international education activities, including but not limited to global student mobility, automatically or inherently lead to critical self-reflection, intercultural competence, critical empathy, and the betterment of humanity—all of which we see as components of socially just international education. The fundamental change that we propose is to make social justice the purpose and goal of international education activities, instead of framing it as an ancillary benefit. In this chapter, we approach our examination of international education’s potential for advancing social justice with a critical lens, a lens that is informed by our review of the literature, professional experiences, and emerging research.

From our perspectives, in education and social work, we define “social justice in international education” as a redistribution of resources that is designed to foster critical consciousness, develop critical interculturality, and work toward equitable impacts on individuals and their communities. Our review of the literature suggests that a critical examination of the rhetoric and practices related to the internationalization of higher education and of international education activities can help us to recognize the impacts of structural inequity on our work and thus develop transformative practices. Through our own professional experience, we have noted some promising practices that can lead to socially just outcomes for all involved in the experiences. We have also become more aware of many of the challenges and difficulties through our own missteps.

From all these sources, we believe that international education activities are potentially powerful opportunities for socially just transformations at the individual, institutional, community, and maybe even global levels. In order to achieve these aims, we propose a critical pedagogy for international education—one that can apply to education abroad activities, work with international students and scholars, and internationalization at home. This critical pedagogy offers all of us in the field a way to critically reimagine international education activities and thus make them more likely to consistently promote social justice at home and abroad.

Education’s Role in Fostering Critical Consciousness

Numerous scholars have argued that education should be a dominant force for social change, using language such as democratization (Dewey 1916), humanization and liberation (Freire 2009), and social justice (Ladson-Billings 1998; Ladson-Billings and Tate 1995). Freire’s (2009) concept of critical consciousness is an objective that many critical educators strive to develop among students as a pathway toward social justice education. “Critical consciousness” can be defined as the achievement of the awareness of the social and political structures that oppress certain groups and the agency to resist these forces through action (Freire 2009). A more recent derivative of the concept of critical consciousness includes the construct of “transformative potential” (Jemal 2017), which both encompasses and moves beyond critical consciousness to include “transformative action” as an implicit and urgent purpose of education.

Critical thought can inform the work of international educators and stimulate critical consciousness and transformative potential. We look to multiple critical theoretical frameworks for ways of thinking about how systemic inequity functions and how scholars and educators can disrupt these systems. Frameworks we have used include Critical Race Theory (Ladson-Billings and Tate 1995), Black Feminist Thought (Collins 2015), Intersectionality (Crenshaw 1989), and Chicana Feminist Epistemology (Bernal 1998), though many other critical theories exist, such as Latina/o Critical Theory (Kiehne 2016) and Critical Disability Studies (Meekosha, Shuttleworth, and Soldatic 2013), among others. Taken together, these frameworks provide multiple analytic lenses through which we can critically examine the ways that systems of privilege and power serve to perpetuate marginalization and oppression.

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As it has developed, Critical Race Theory has come to refer to five central tenets: (1) centrality of race; (2) challenge to dominant ideology; (3) commitment to social justice; (4) centrality of experiential knowledge; and (5) an interdisciplinary perspective (Ladson-Billings and Tate 1995). The primary argument is that race and racism are central to understanding the systems and structures that oppress people of color and maintain hegemony (Ladson- Billings and Tate 1995). The intersections between race and other aspects of identity such as socioeconomic status, age, gender, and sexuality are also included in this critical perspective.

Critical theories generally took root in U.S. contexts and have primarily been applied in domestic educational spaces. However, we believe that critical theories must also be used to interrogate and critique the profession of international education and the process of internationalization (Knight 2004). As critical international educators committed to equity, inclusion, diversity, and justice in the field, we must call for approaches that are informed by critical thought and designed to advance social justice in content, form, and outcomes. We encourage international educators to learn from critical theories, especially those related to their identities and those of their students, coworkers, and surrounding communities. Each of these theories can challenge our inherent biases and help us to critically reflect on ourselves and others as we develop empathy for the rich and complex perspectives and life experiences of those around us.

Critical Approaches to Internationalization

We recognize that internationalization and international education are complex and distinct terms. For the purposes of this chapter, we differentiate between the two. We have adopted Knight’s (2004, 11) definition of “internationalization” as “the process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions or delivery of post-secondary education.” And we use the term “international education” to reference the work that international educators do to design, manage, facilitate, and assess programs and activities. Thus, international education activities are programs designed to result in student growth and development related to international, intercultural, and, we propose, social justice objectives. 

Multiple scholars have sought to explain the rationales for international education programming and internationalization of higher education institutions. These rationales often suggest that integrating global, international, and intercultural dimensions into higher education is equally beneficial to all involved. The arguments for internationalization from governments, corporations, and educational institutions also emphasize the importance of international education exchange for employability.

However, critical analysis of the underlying rhetoric for the internationalization of higher education reflects neoliberal agendas that are inherently colonial and contrary to the espoused values. For example, critical scholars have analyzed internationalization rhetoric and have noted an avoidance of ethical and political dimensions, especially in relationship to unequal privilege and power dynamics (Buckner and Stein 2019). Others have highlighted the ways that a policy brief issued by 32 international education organizations communicates a commodification of international students and scholars (Yao and Viggiano 2019). Moreover, Yao and Viggiano (2019) note that the brief focuses almost exclusively on the benefits that international students and scholars bring to U.S. soft power, knowledge production, and economy, with almost no mention of the benefits to the students and scholars or their home communities.

Critical analysis of the governmental, corporate, and educational arguments for internationalization suggests that the purpose and goals of international education activities actually reproduce structural inequities. Most governments, corporations, and institutions promote vastly different opportunities to students coming from the global north than they do for students coming from the global south. As Vavrus and Pekol (2015, 8) state, “In contrast to much of the theory that has informed the field of international education in general, and the design of study abroad programs in particular, critical social theory insists on attention to relations of power that shape the encounter between the self and the cultural Other, and between institutions with different degrees of prestige and financial resources.”

A Critical Analysis

The following analysis of the theories that drive internationalization serves to challenge their failure to recognize and critique systems of injustice. By failing to critically examine systemic inequity, current international education activities are likely to be reproducing inequity. Other scholars have expressed a similar critique of the stated goals for global student mobility: “[T]hough presented with an appealing veneer of multicultural understanding and progressive global responsibility, the current discourse of study abroad is nationalistic, imperialist, and political in nature” (Zemach-Bersin 2007, 17).

An analysis of the global flows of students also reflects divergent beliefs about the purpose and value of global student mobility to participants and home countries. The flows of students to and from the United States (Institute of International Education Center for Academic Mobility Research and Impact 2018; Institute of International Education 2018) illustrate the inequitable distribution of educational opportunity. In reviewing these flows, we notice that the number of international students coming to the United States has always been many times higher than the number of U.S. students studying abroad. Furthermore, the activities that students are undertaking are dramatically different.

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The U.S. study abroad data from 2016–17 presented by the Institute of International Education (IIE) reflect students who participate in short-term study abroad programs (up to 1 year, with 65 percent participating for 8 weeks or less and 2.3 percent participating for an academic or calendar year) (IIE 2018) as part of their studies at U.S. institutions. On the other hand, most of the international students (75.4 percent in 2017–18) in the United States are pursuing full degrees (IIE 2018). This distinction reflects what some people see as the minimal value that the United States places on international education experiences, which are only beneficial if they are part of the process of earning a degree in the United States. This is in stark contrast to the perceived value of a degree in the United States that compels international students to leave their home countries and regions to pursue full degrees in the United States. This is one of the ways that the international education activities involving global student mobility reinforce current power systems and support the status quo (Buckner and Stein 2019; Yao and Viggiano 2019).

Taken together, these critiques of internationalization suggest a need for reimagining this process in order to align more fully with the espoused values. In addition to rethinking the process of internationalization, we recommend examining international education activities.

Critical International Education Activities

As with the process of internationalization, international education activities, such as education abroad, have often been critiqued for ignoring the larger, unjust contexts in which they operate and thus failing to promote social justice. For example, Zemach-Bersin (2007, 17) states:

Proponents of international education identify study abroad as a remedy for widespread cross-cultural misunderstanding, prejudice, global ignorance, and failed international policy. Such enthusiasm, however, overlooks the many ways in which the discourse of study abroad surreptitiously reproduces the logic of colonialism, legitimizes American imperialist desires, and allows for the interests of U.S. foreign policy to be articulated through the specious rhetoric of global universality.

This critique suggests that international educators need to explicitly teach students to recognize and critique systems of inequity. Some scholars have proposed ways to reimagine international education activities that can create socially just learning spaces. Fiedler (2007, 51–52) states:

Approaches like development education (DE) and intercultural education (ICE) have already paved the way for the opening up of sites of enquiry where assumptions and perceptions can be challenged and critiqued from a global and social justice perspective. In general, both concepts can be seen as educational responses to the need to empower young people to think critically, independently and systemically about the (often unequal) state of our world and the society we live in. Both concepts are, therefore, intrinsically linked to historical processes like imperialism and colonialism that have shaped the world we live in today. With their strong emphasis upon values and perceptions DE and ICE also prepare learners to participate effectively in society, both locally and globally, so as to bring about positive change for a more just and equal world.

Many of the concepts embedded in the educational approaches cited by Fiedler lead to specific critiques of some underlying assumptions about international education. For example, Fiedler (2007, 55) challenges the adjective “intercultural”:

the adjective “intercultural” carries the danger of reintroducing essentialist concepts that conceive cultures as fixed or sphere-like entities. In other words, considering the concept of intercultural space as a place that provides an encounter between two distinct cultures would obscure the fundamentals of postcolonial theory and its critical assessment of traditional European concepts of culture.

Fiedler’s final understanding of intercultural spaces echoes some of what Wick (2011) found in his research, namely that international education exchange can become a uniquely powerful context for critical self-reflection. Fiedler (2007, 55) writes, “[S]imilar to what Homi Bhabha has called the ‘Third Space’ (Bhabha, 1988: 208) [intercultural spaces] should not be primarily perceived as a place of encounter but of negotiation and discussion.” The elements of critical pedagogy, combined with these ways of thinking about international education, can lead us to some essential elements for socially just international education. We propose a critical pedagogy for international education that can help to better create and sustain learning spaces that function in these ways.

Critical Pedagogy for International Education

We see the integration of critical pedagogy into all international education activities as an essential way to reimagine the work of international educators in order to consistently advance social justice. Critical pedagogy allows us to re-envision international education activities ranging from international student and scholar support to education abroad and internationalization at home as opportunities to advance social justice.

The concept of critical pedagogy emerged from Freire’s (2009) work and has led to many recommendations related to the content and form of social justice education. At its core, critical pedagogy is about practicing social justice in educational settings, which involves collaborating with students and communities to transform the systems that perpetuate injustice.

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We have found many rich and useful models for social justice education in the literature on critical pedagogy (Ladson-Billings and Tate 1995; Tatum 1992). These sources are generally more developed than those we find in the literature on international education, so we have drawn out key critical pedagogy concepts that inform our work to provide models for others who seek to advance social justice through international education activities. Three key concepts we note include (a) recognizing and rewarding students’ strengths; (b) teaching critical self-reflection and identity negotiation; and (c) naming and confronting systems of oppression.

Recognizing and Rewarding Students’ Strengths

Critical pedagogies include a few key elements that we see as essential to the development of socially just internationalization and international education activities. A critical pedagogy for international education must begin by recognizing the strengths of student backgrounds. Throughout the process, critical international education activities must name privilege and power and must question the forces that reproduce inequity at home and abroad by leveraging students’ voices and stories. A critical approach to international education means supporting the negotiation of identity. Together, these first elements of critical pedagogy provide support for the ultimate goal of developing agency for social justice action at home and abroad for U.S. and international students.

Critical pedagogy recognizes and rewards the knowledge and experience that all students bring to their educational endeavors. Instead of viewing students as empty vessels who need to be taught, or as people with limitations, critical pedagogies acknowledge that students bring rich life experiences and perspectives. Thus, instead of attributing the academic challenges of international students or students of color as a logical outcome of cultural deficiencies, critical pedagogies focus on what students bring to their educational experiences and for ways that teachers can amplify those students’ assets throughout the curriculum and pedagogy.

The concepts of funds of knowledge and community cultural wealth are two ways that educators can shift to assets-based thinking about students. Moll et al. (1992) suggest that all students enter education with social, linguistic, and cultural resources that can help them succeed in the school environment. Yosso (2005) proposes that communities of color possess six types of community cultural wealth: (a) aspirational; (b) familial; (c) social; (d) linguistic; (e) resistant; and (f) navigational.

Rather than seeing issues with families that do not recognize the importance of international education, Yosso would recognize the support structures and connections that families can have in communities of color and how those provide a foundation from which students can thrive. Under her concept of aspirational capital, instead of suggesting that families of students of color need to be convinced of the value of education or international education, Yosso (2005) explains that families of color are often very positively disposed toward education. We have seen aspirational capital among international students and scholars, especially those from the developing world or from marginalized communities in their home countries.

Similarly, rather than seeing language as a limitation, Yosso (2005) proposes that students of color (and we would add international students) are often practiced at navigating multiple languages and discourses. Examining each of the types of community cultural wealth that Yosso (2005) describes has led to many promising approaches to designing international education activities for and with historically underrepresented U.S. students and international students and their families in ways that allow them to leverage and reinforce their many strengths.

Teaching Critical Self-Reflection and Identity Negotiation

For many students, international experiences present powerful opportunities to critically reflect on their privilege in ways that are difficult to see in the home context (Wick 2011). Thus, international exchange provides a powerful context for identity negotiation, an essential element of this critical pedagogy for international education. We see identity development as the foundation that will sustain students in their work to challenge the inequitable structures that they have named as they develop, or further develop, their critical consciousness.

The social construct of identity is central to understanding how people make sense of who they are in relation to ethnicity, race, sexuality, gender, religion, ability, and other social locations. Developmental frameworks for identity, such as the Reconceptualized Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity (Abes, Jones, and McEwan 2007), which we will discuss later, offer insights into the lived experiences of students. Many developmental theories, such as those explored by Helms (1993), present stages of identity development. These theories also examine how structural inequity and systems of oppression impact each individual’s capacity to develop a positive and productive relationship with each aspect of his or her identity.

Tatum (1992) and Helms (1993) both argue that identity development can lead to empowerment. The internalization-commitment stage in Cross’s (as cited in Helms 1993) model of Black Racial Identity Development and the autonomy phase in Helms’s White Racial Identity model both include a comfort with self and a commitment to confront race-based injustice. These two identity stages bear a strong resemblance to transformational resistance, which includes a “critique of oppression and a desire for social justice” (Solorzano and Bernal 2001, 329). Connecting these two ideas suggests that facilitating identity negotiation and development in relationship with students’ assets can create the foundation that students need to work toward social justice.

Naming and Confronting Systems of Oppression

Critical international education activities must also include an examination of how social, political, and cultural structures serve to reinforce inequity in the United States and abroad. Naming oppression and oppressive structures is a central aspect of Freire’s (2009) work and has informed many approaches to critical pedagogy. It builds on the previous concepts about students’ strengths and the importance of teaching critical self-reflection by suggesting that it is not enough to simply celebrate the knowledge and experiences in communities of color and international students, or to guide them to examine their social locations. As Donaldo Macedo (2009, 17) writes in his introduction to Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, identity and experience must be connected to the “problematics of power, agency, and history.”

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Naming the structures of power, privilege, and authority has been linked to the importance of counter-narratives and voice in critical pedagogy. Ladson- Billings and Tate (1995) discuss the importance of voice and naming one’s own reality as central to Critical Race Theory and critical pedagogy. They describe three key benefits to naming one’s own reality: (a) this approach acknowledges that reality is socially constructed; (b) these stories can provide a vehicle for psychic self-preservation; and (c) stories challenge preconceptions and stereotypes for both the teller and the receiver (Ladson-Billings and Tate 1995). 

Building on these ideas, critical international education can only have an emancipatory function if race, racism, power, authority, privilege, and hegemony are named, discussed, and confronted throughout the process. Discussions must also include examinations of intersections between race, class, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, ability, and other subjectivities at home and abroad for U.S. and international students. Integrating students’ voices throughout all international education activities and facilitating discussions around the problematics that Macedo (2009) describes empower students to confront systems in ways that are, ideally, personally, academically, and professionally potent.

Designed with social justice at the fore, international education activities can provide a foundation for critical praxis by helping students develop their identities, learn to critique and confront structural inequities, and discover ways to leverage the strengths they possess to challenge injustice and change the status quo at home and abroad.

Supporting Intersecting Identities

As noted earlier in our discussion on critical pedagogy, social justice educators recognize the importance of social identities in students’ experiences as learners conceptualizing not only individual identities, but the ways that identities interact with each other and within social and societal structures. This is essential in considering how to create learning environments that are productive for all students and will allow everyone to build awareness toward actions related to social justice and transformation.

Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) first articulated the concept of intersectional identities in her legal practice, where she noted that multiple social identities, such as gender and race, had salience and relevance simultaneously in people’s lived experiences and in their treatment by the legal system. Intersectionality is also relevant in educational settings (Bhopal and Preston 2012) and can help us to better recognize the many external forces that influence learning spaces and how students come to those spaces. Moreover, scholars have noted the importance of recognizing the differing impacts of aspects of identity as they relate to structural inequity (Murphy-Erby et al. 2009).

Making sense of intersecting identities in educational settings presents certain challenges. Through their research, Jones and McEwan (2000) developed the Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity, which makes it possible to see how each person’s sense of self is created by the interplay between core aspects of self (e.g., race, gender, and sexuality) and contextual factors (e.g., peers, family, cultural norms, stereotypes, sociopolitical conditions, and physical location). As underscored by Crenshaw’s (1989) work on intersectionality, the salience and interplay of these elements must be examined in relationship to historical and contemporary systems of oppression and injustice. To build international education activities that promote social justice, we must recognize not only how systemic inequity functions in the home context but also how it functions in the host context for U.S. and international students. Furthermore, we must guide all students to examine and critique these systems and take action for social justice.

In further research, Abes, Jones, and McEwan (2007) integrated external factors into their model and developed their Reconceptualized Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity. This model places the contextual forces outside of the individual and can serve as an effective metaphor for what happens when students are learning in a new context (Abes, Jones, and McEwan 2007). In effect, all of a person’s contextual influences change when they shift to a new learning environment, as is the case when students participate in study abroad.

The mediating factor in their model is the “meaning-making filter,” which is the student’s capacity to respond to the contextual factors (Abes, Jones, and McEwan 2007). When preparing students for international experiences, international educators often focus on issues of health and safety and emphasize cross-cultural differences. Abes, Jones, and McEwan’s (2007) model, however, stresses preparing students for the many ways in which they will experience all aspects of their identity differently in the international context. To move toward social justice, educators must recognize and describe how systems of privilege and power function and influence students’ negotiation of intersecting identities in the home and host cultures (Fiedler 2007; Vavrus and Pekol 2015).

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As noted by Fiedler (2007), intercultural constructs have often been presented as an essentialization of the “other” as fixed and separate, rather than as entities that have been and are impacted by inequitable systems and structures. Fielder (2007, 54) suggests that “based on the postcolonial notion of writing back, education should dare to create such sites of enquiry and design them as postcolonial learning spaces where identities and difference are constantly negotiated and re-written.” By actively teaching critical self-reflection as part of international education activities, we prepare all students to contribute to social justice.

Capacity for Engagement with Difference

In order to shift the focus of international education activities to social justice, we believe that it is essential to teach students to value others, which can apply to people in any cultural context. Many international educators have focused on developing students’ intercultural competency (Deardorff 2009) or intercultural sensitivity (Bennett 2013) as essential learning outcomes for international experiences. However, coupling this focus on intercultural growth with critical consciousness (Freire 2009) of inequities of social structures is crucial to the formula if social justice is to be an outcome of international education activities at home and abroad for U.S. and international students. 

Chavez, Guido-DiBrito, and Mallory (2003) propose a framework of individual diversity development that illustrates how each of us must go through a developmental process in relationship to each aspect of human difference. They visualize this as wedges in a circle, with Unawareness/Lack of Exposure in the middle and Integration/Validation on the outside (Chavez, Guido- DiBrito, and Mallory 2003). Each wedge represents an aspect of identity such as race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, or nationality. The intermediary stages of Dualistic Awareness, Questioning/Self Exploration, and Risk Taking/ Exploration of Otherness all require exposure to people holding those identities, for each aspect of human difference (Chavez, Guido-DiBrito, and Mallory 2003). Many people will move back and forth in these stages as they learn about different human realities and experiences. For each stage, Chavez, Guido-DiBrito, and Mallory (2003) describe cognitive, affective, and behavioral skills in relation to other people. The authors also stress that movement toward Integration/Validation does not happen automatically and is not unidirectional (Chavez, Guido-DiBrito, and Mallory 2003). This model provides us as international educators with a more nuanced way to look at human differences and to consider how we can help U.S. and international students develop their capacity for building new connections and navigating new environments.

In the context of international education activities, students enter into unfamiliar situations in which they may be confronted with new ways of being themselves and different ways of performing many aspects of identity and intersecting identities. Chavez, Guido DiBrito, and Mallory’s (2003) model of individual diversity development suggests that educators seeking to promote students’ critical self-reflection must guide students to (a) gain awareness of others; (b) challenge their perceptions of other people; and (c) learn to make complex choices about validating others. Along with the intrapersonal awareness that comes from examinations of intersectional identities and salience at home and abroad, this work on interpersonal differences can serve as the building blocks for a critical approach to intercultural competency, which can contribute to social justice orientations. As educators, we can support this process by establishing identity exploration as an explicit student learning outcome to be valued and pursued in addition to the disciplinary academic student learning outcomes for U.S. and international students.

Intergroup Dynamics for Community Growth

Many researchers suggest that intergroup contact itself does not lead to intergroup harmony or friendships, intercultural gains, or the dismantling of structural inequities. Bowman and Park’s (2014) large-scale study identifies the need for intentional institutional programming to facilitate interracial friendships, which do not automatically emerge from cross-racial interaction. Haslerig et al. (2013) argue that without intentional facilitation by faculty, the benefits of diverse classrooms will not be gained. They call for faculty training and propose that “activating” diversity is not an innate skill (Haslerig et al. 2013).

Moreover, Hikido and Murray (2016) suggest that without institutional intervention—even at multiracial campuses with “positive” racial climates where diversity and inclusion are promoted and celebrated—White supremacy will be maintained. This need for everyone in a learning environment to develop knowledge and skills related to human difference is underscored by Chavez, Guido-DiBrito, and Mallory’s (2003) work related to individual diversity development, as discussed earlier. 

It stands to reason that if the campus climate and students’ experiences with it are influenced by dynamics related to their social identities and institutional intervention, or lack thereof, these dynamics may be replicated or even exacerbated abroad, albeit in new cultural contexts. As such, research has begun to reveal examples of intergroup dynamic challenges for students studying abroad as well. For example, Chang (2017) highlights the frustration that many U.S. Latina students experienced in Guatemala in response to some of their White peers’ cultural insensitivity and lack of awareness of privilege. In another study, Willis (2015) notes that Black women studying abroad experienced microaggressions from their U.S. peers and host country nationals alike, while Sweeney (2014) documents a range of alienating experiences among both male and female African American students abroad.

Host Community Impact

The goal of enhancing students’ global perspectives and other dimensions of development can lead us to overlook or underexamine the impact of student mobility on host communities. This is highly problematic if we are committed to socially just exchanges of experience, knowledge, and skills between students and faculty from partner institutions. Research has also suggested that it is possible to reify stereotypes, misconceptions, and power imbalances through intercultural exchanges. For example, Landau and Moore’s (2001) article sheds light on complex dynamics at play on a Ghanaian campus, from the perspective of Ghanaian students, faculty, and staff, as well as Black and White U.S. students. Among many other nuances, the study reveals privileged treatment of U.S. students, tension from economic disparities between U.S. and Ghanaian students, and unchallenged stereotypes that stymied the building of intercultural friendships (Landau and Moore 2001).

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Multiple authors call for reverse mission approaches to international experiential education (Abram and Cruce 2007; Abram, Shufeldt, and Rose 2004; Abram, Slosar, and Walls 2005), partially in an attempt to intentionally counter “benevolent imperialism” (Razack 2002). In their article in Social Work Education, Abram and Cruce (2007, 163) define a “reverse mission approach” as one that draws “upon ecumenical efforts of global mission education” and emphasizes “learning, consciousness-raising, and advocating for changes in one’s home country that can impact poverty and injustice in the world” rather than “teaching, preaching, and trying to convert others.”

Beyond the concept of reverse mission, Appadurai (1999, 10–11) argues that although greater reciprocity of student mobility between countries of the global south and north would “not level the global international education playing field, [it] would be a significant step toward the development of experiences that represent the U.S. and help to repair relations of disjuncture.” For example, rather than stopping at U.S. students studying genocide in Rwanda with Rwandan students, it would be appropriate and reparative to, in turn, have Rwandan students study the history of genocide and contemporary issues faced by Native Americans in the United States with U.S. students.

In short, to engage in socially just international education activities, we must consider and assess the impacts on host communities at least as much as we assess impacts on individual students. We cannot focus solely on the question, “Did the student learn?”—lest we risk an extractive relationship with our host partner communities or the home communities of international students (Yao and Viggiano 2019; Zemach-Bersin 2007).

Challenges, Opportunities, and Recommendations

In striving to develop international education activities that center on social justice, critical consciousness, and global stewardship for all participants involved, we recognize that there are myriad considerations to keep in mind. These include both pitfalls and opportunities, many of which we as authors have learned during and after the process. As scholar-practitioners, we continuously seek to critically reflect on and evaluate our practices to improve upon them. It is with these considerations that we share several candid examples of lessons learned that we hope will assist readers in their process of developing or refining their international education activities.

Navigating the Imbalance of Gains

As we noted in the work we shared from Zemach-Bersin (2007) and Yao and Viggiano (2019), international educators often consider the impacts of education abroad on U.S. students and the benefits for U.S. institutions from international students and scholars. This overlooks the impact and experiences of our partners—be they the host communities receiving U.S. students or the international students living in the United States.

Imbalance of Gains

Having a mutually beneficial, continuing, six-week summer internship program for eight Spanish/English bilingual, master’s-level social work (MSW) students in Costa Rica under our belts, I (Tasha) was eager to build upon our institutional relationships to develop a two-week service-learning course for 17 undergraduates the following summer. Both sides of the partnership had expressed deep satisfaction with the gains experienced from the program, which had been designed with reciprocity in mind. Our MSW students had benefited greatly from the experiential learning, and the host project staff were pleased as our students brought linguistic and social work practice skills to the communities they served. Our host partner university seemed up for this new opportunity, so we developed a new undergraduate service-learning course.

The 17 undergraduate students had positive experiences overall and expressed excitement over their learning. However, we discovered in our postprogram debrief with the host country staff that developing meaningful learning opportunities that also benefited our local partners’ projects was challenging as their staff struggled to find useful assignments for such short-term involvement and for such a large group. Further, several local staff felt taxed by the additional responsibility of supervising our students on top of their already full plates—though my coleader and I provided what support we could. It turned out that the added responsibility had been foisted upon staff by their administrators, who were trying to fulfill our request to accommodate such a large group. These issues led us to reconsider the sustainability of the undergraduate course, given our intention to create programs that were as beneficial to the host community as they were to students.

Lesson Learned

In hindsight, I believe that part of the problem of the undergraduate program actually may have resulted from the positive relationship that had emerged from the MSW program. On our end, several challenges were at play. In my attempt to increase access through the undergraduate program, I focused on a short duration based on a common campus narrative that many students on our campus faced time and financial constraints. However, if I had polled the students before finalizing the dates, I might have learned that they could have stayed longer than 2 weeks. I also felt pressure to recruit a large group of students to defray salary costs, as this was a for-credit experience involving two faculty members. I should have considered other options for program leadership rather than increase the number of students to 17. For example, a graduate student traveled with us to conduct her thesis on the program outcomes. With a smaller group, I think the two of us, along with one of our hosts, could have been a strong enough team to support students in their placements. On our partner’s side, perhaps the desire to accommodate our initial request and to protect the mutually beneficial MSW program—and considering the underlying power imbalance inherent in south-north relationships—may have led them to overextend themselves and not share their concerns in advance of our arrival.

Developing Mutually Beneficial Partnerships

Collaborations for Mutual Benefits

At our large, urban, public, and largely commuter campus, international students have not been thoroughly integrated into the fabric of our institution and curricular integration is uneven across disciplines. In speaking with my international student services colleagues, I (Tasha) learned that many international students might appreciate the opportunity to get to know domestic students outside of their classes but that this generally does not happen easily. Many opportunities exist, such as through linking them to our cross-cultural centers, other student organizations, or at the academic department level. However, in our school of social work, we do not host many international students. In my cross-cultural social work practice class, students are expected to complete an ethnographic interview with someone who is culturally different from them in three major ways. So, I worked with the international student and scholar office to seek volunteers from their rosters who would be interested in the opportunity to be interviewed by my students. Students from both groups expressed some initial nervousness but also great interest and excitement about participating. Many social work students realized that their interviewee might want to ask them questions as well “to be fair,” and I have heard from several after the fact that they formed new friendships with each other.

Lessons Learned

Partnerships, whether with different institutions or different offices within the same campus, can facilitate enhanced gains for all involved. Working across campus and international boundaries to think of ways to benefit both international and domestic students may take extra effort but can also yield rich rewards. By ensuring we keep everyone’s needs in mind, rather than focusing solely on the students immediately in front of us, we can find a path toward reciprocal gains.

With every partnership, I (David) strive to find ways to work toward mutual benefit. This means that I ask each partner about their current efforts and challenges. I then collaborate with the partners to design student projects in which students work with partners abroad before and during the program to prepare possible solutions to their current challenges. These project-based elements enhance student learning and give something back to the partners abroad for their participation and contributions to the program. With each program, I have had to shift my approach accordingly to make it more likely that we find mutual benefit in our collaborations.

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Navigating the Threat of a Neocolonial Mentality

A key critique of education abroad, particularly models that emphasize learning about local social justice issues, is that faculty and, by extension, students may assume a neocolonial stance. Such a stance often frames the U.S. perspective as more advanced, virtuous, or right in relationship to people of local communities (Chang 2017; Zemach-Bersin 2007). The risk of this is heightened when a program is designed to include volunteerism, service-learning, and/or internships, which can reproduce power imbalances and assumptions common in global south-north relations.

Neocolonial Threat

As a social work faculty member, I (Tasha) know that many social work students desire to assist people and communities by being of “direct” service to individuals. Many students come into our field full of idealism and a desire to see the tangible results, with some even unconsciously anticipating gratitude from the people they set out to “help.” So, when a group of students invited me to join them for a tour run by an educational travel organization billed as an “anti-human trafficking delegation in Thailand,” I was pleased to hear directly from the provider that it was a “reality tour.” The intent was raising awareness rather than providing on-site service.

The organization’s aim was that we would all become cognizant of the issues and bring this knowledge home to share with others in our own communities and hopefully inspire interest and local action. This made sense to me: We all had a lot to learn about the topic in general, and especially in a Thai cultural context. None of us had been to Thailand, none of us spoke Thai, nor had any of us had any social work experience with human trafficking victims or Thai clients, even in the United States, so we were not in a position to be of assistance, let alone culturally responsive.

Most students appreciated this approach and, upon return, engaged in several meaningful local actions to spread awareness and counter human trafficking in Los Angeles, California, and in Thailand. Nearly all the students participated in a local walk-a-thon to raise funds for proposed anti-human trafficking legislation in our state. The whole group also initiated its own fundraiser for the legislation and for an organization we visited in Thailand.

Nonetheless, during the travel portion of the experience in Thailand, two students were frustrated and had difficulty accepting our intent of raising awareness. They had wanted to serve the Thai people directly in some way and expressed disappointment in the experience, even though this would have gone against what the local organizations sought from their engagement with us. The two students had also imagined that they would hear directly from victims/survivors rather than the organizations that served them, even though this could have placed survivors in the uncomfortable and potentially harmful position of having to relive their trauma by recounting it yet again to strangers.

Lesson Learned

I now view this as part of the reality of working with different learners who are at different stages of their developmental process, particularly in light of the powerful, neocolonial, deficit-based narrative that features U.S. Americans (and frankly, social workers) as saviors. Though our predeparture preparation included discussion about the stance our group would take and the establishment of learning goals, I realized in hindsight that different activities might have been more effective at ensuring that students managed their expectations and set appropriate learning goals. Rather than the large group discussion exploring participants’ “hopes and fears” about the experience, it may have been a more constructive and consciousness-raising approach to assign a written reflection on our discussion about the program’s aim to engage at home rather than provide service in-country. Reviewing and discussing the students’ learning goals privately before departure may have also helped to manage expectations

Striving to Subvert Neocolonialism

Different Approaches to Goals

In meeting a new potential university partner from an Afro-Colombian region, we (I, Tasha, and a faculty colleague from my campus) initially had high hopes for a balanced south-north student mobility program. We wanted to avoid creating a learning experience that would disproportionately benefit students from our U.S. campus and/or reify economic, political, and social power imbalances between our campuses. However, our host contact explained that mobility for her students was not a likely possibility given the myriad structural obstacles (socioeconomic, racial, political, etc.) they faced, even with potential grant funding. Instead, she impressed upon us that, from their vantage point, hosting our students would present their campus with the most significant intercultural and international learning opportunity for the largest group of their students and was, therefore, what they were most interested in pursuing with us.

So we worked collaboratively to develop goals and objectives for the program over the course of 18 months. We also preintroduced students to each other through a Facebook group and assigned “buddies” several weeks prior to our students’ arrival. Our primary intention was to help both groups of students explore intercultural communication and structural inequities through their interactions with each other, so we built in sustained contact through academic lectures, site visits, and social activities; conducted multiple reflection sessions that included program participants and their local buddies; and incorporated self-reflective journals to complement the homestays and other learning activities. We also designed a formal research project related to student learning outcomes for both groups that provided ongoing reflection opportunities even after the program ended. This “high intervention” (Bathurst and La Brack 2012) approach was at the heart of the experience for both groups of students and led to powerful outcomes.

Lesson Learned

The program’s setting in an Afro-Colombian region provided a meaningful opportunity to challenge our 12 U.S. students’ (four identified as Black/African American and eight identified as Latinx, though not of African descent) assumptions about Latinx identity, culture, and communication. Similarly, students from our host community had their stereotypes about “Americans” and people from Los Angeles (“Hollywood”) pleasantly debunked through exposure to our students’ diversity in terms of racial, socioeconomic, and other identities. Our high intervention approach seems to have facilitated the raising of both groups’ consciousness of varying forms of oppression across national boundaries. In addition, many host students reported that they felt motivated to continue their academic studies, to dive more deeply into learning English, and even to find ways to overcome obstacles to studying abroad as a result of their involvement with the exchange. The U.S. Latinx students articulated greater awareness of anti-Black racism, and the U.S. Black students were empowered through their connection to the vastness of the African diaspora. This experience highlighted for us the value of the experience (just as our partner predicted), despite the lack of south-north mobility, and helped us become more flexible in our planning for future programs where economic imbalances make bilateral mobility difficult.

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Navigating Structural Barriers

International education activities often present staff and faculty with challenges to surmount, whether they stem from institutional structures, informal practices, campus culture, or a combination of these. If these institutional elements are recognized from the outset, however, they can be more easily navigated and overcome to enhance outcomes and increase access for students.

Barriers to International Student Integration

The student body at my (David) institution, the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, is composed of around 30 percent international students. This, and our commitment to language learning and intercultural competency development, led us to believe that integration would automatically happen. However, in focus groups on equity and inclusion on campus, we learned that there are many barriers to integration. For example, international students’ contributions to group projects may be thwarted because they are not native speakers of English, thus often leaving them left out of efforts related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Lessons Learned

Through focus groups, we realized that from their arrival on campus, we were separating international students in ways that created community divides. In response, we developed a session on navigating our diverse community for all students that is conducted in small groups with faculty, staff, and peer facilitators. In this session, we share examples of implicit bias, marginalization, and oppression and we guide small groups that include U.S. and international students to work together to develop inclusive practices.

Program Design for Social Justice

In general, social justice-oriented educators and international educators often believe that social justice work must include service or take place in the global south. We argue instead that all programs can, and should, be designed and run in ways that promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice regardless of content and location.

Just as public policy may be used to promote equitable behavior, we recommend that policies be evaluated from a social justice lens. This may include critical policy analysis (Iverson 2007). By critically examining the ways that injustice is built into policies and then refining policies to disrupt that reproduction of inequity, educators can make social justice part of the fabric of their work rather than an optional add-on that can be chosen when convenient.

Program Objectives and Learning Outcomes

From our review of the literature and professional practice resources related to program design, we find that most focus on the benefits derived by U.S. student participants, with a strong emphasis on the benefits to employability. As other authors have noted (Buckner and Stein 2019; Fiedler 2007; Vavrus and Pekol 2015; Yao and Viggiano 2019; Zemach-Bersin 2007), this emphasis on the benefits to U.S. students, on U.S. interests, and on human capital development is deeply rooted in neoliberal ideals and is directly at odds with a social justice orientation.

Instead, we propose that designing for social justice requires that we begin with program objectives that are social justice–oriented for everyone involved, throughout the process. With these clear goals in mind, it is also important to incorporate, from the very beginning, a plan to assess and evaluate program efficacy in guiding students to these outcomes. This is a crucial aspect of critical praxis that requires reflection and refinement. 

Program Content

All programs must include content that allows U.S. and international students to critically examine how privilege and power function at home and abroad and pushes them to examine their roles in confronting and dismantling structural inequity. This may require programs to use both culturally relevant content (Ladson-Billings 1995) and a problem-posing approach (Freire 2009). Additionally, programs that seek to advance social justice will need to decolonize the sources of knowledge, the ways that knowledge is created on the program, and the ways that the learning is distributed. Content should be informed by diverse voices in the local community and be based on scholarship, narratives, live history, conversations, observation, self-inquiry, and other sources.

Program Pedagogy

As we discussed in the section on critical pedagogy, teaching methodologies also need to be designed to foster social justice for U.S. and international students. Not only do program leaders and faculty need to critically engage with the program content, they also need to examine their teaching methods to deliver a critical pedagogy (Ladson-Billings and Tate 1995) that builds on the strengths of students, supports them in critically self-reflecting and examining their identities, and exposes and confronts systems of oppression. Critical pedagogies can be applied to internationalization at home, work with international students, and education abroad program design.


As we began this chapter, we asserted that internationalization and international education activities have the potential to foster social justice for all involved. From this review of theory, research, and practice, we have sought to show that achieving this goal will take more than reconsiderations of recruitment strategies, program locations, costs, and student demographics. Instead, we believe that we must critically examine the underlying mission and values of internationalization and international education activities. From this perspective, we can begin to define policies, design programs, articulate practices, utilize critical pedagogies, and assess our work based on how it contributes to social justice and humanization at home and abroad for U.S. and international students and their communities.

We believe that it is only by framing all of our work with the explicit intent of dismantling systems of inequity that we can begin to move our field toward realizing international education’s full potential for positive and meaningful global change. This will require all of us in our roles as international educators to critically self-reflect. We must take stock of our own levels of awareness, our own identities, and our own relationships to power and privilege in order to confront the systems of inequity within which we work. We must ourselves engage in this challenging yet liberating process in order to support students in doing the same through their international education activities.  •



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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. 

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