Rethinking the Partnership Paradigm

With international mobility drastically slowed, institutions are seeking creative ways to work with new and existing partners that can outlast the pandemic.
Photo: Shutterstock

Struggling with how to accommodate the more than 135 incoming international freshmen that Lehigh University was expecting on campus this fall, the office of international affairs spent much of the spring weighing its options. 

Staff considered providing remote learning to students in their home countries—all 36 of them—or allowing deferrals. But after working with new and existing partners around the globe, the result was something entirely new: the Lehigh in Residence program.

In most cases, incoming students will live and take classes on university campuses in their home countries this fall but pay tuition to Lehigh, which in turn will reimburse the partner institutions. The Pennsylvania college also agreed to accept credit for preapproved classes that students take on the partner institutions’ campuses; the only Lehigh course international students will take remotely is a required English language course for incoming students.

“What’s in it for us is these students matriculating to Lehigh and eventually joining us on campus,” Stacy Burger, director of global partnerships and strategic initiatives, said during a June webinar. “We also want it to be mutually beneficial for our existing and new partners.”

As international programs plan for an academic year that will likely begin without mobility, ensuring that global experiences continue requires new thinking—and new ways of working with partners. By one estimate, 1.5 billion learners worldwide saw their education disrupted this spring, from preschool through postdoctoral programs, suggesting that partners worldwide are seeking common solutions to what is an international challenge.

“We’re all experiencing the same things,” says Denise Dimon, PhD, associate provost for international affairs at the University of San Diego (USD). “The boundaries are reduced. We have the same desires and the same constraints.”

Building on Existing Partnerships to Create Something New

Partnerships in the service of international education are nothing new. They can be institution-wide, one-to-one, or class-to-class as faculty members and students collaborate with peers on research or participate in virtual exchange programs. Beyond collaborations with peer colleges and universities, institutions can partner with nonprofits, providers, government agencies, and other organizations to create academic offerings and intercultural learning opportunities outside of the classroom. Even in more normal times, partnerships often provide additional benefits beyond traditional student mobility, including faculty training, research, community development, and more.

“I don’t necessarily think institutions should look at partnerships differently now,” says Jane Gatewood, PhD, vice provost for global engagement at the University of Rochester and editor of NAFSA’s Guide to International Partnerships. “[But] if institutions have only been looking at partnerships as traditional exchange and mobility, it’s an opportunity to look at them in a more comprehensive way.”

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Even in more normal times, partnerships often provide additional benefits beyond traditional student mobility, including faculty training, research, community development, and more. Illustration: Shutterstock

For many U.S. institutions, the pandemic has provided windows to build on existing relationships. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) has a half-dozen strategic partners—five with global institutions and another with a government ministry. All six have been developed over at least a decade, span multiple areas of study and research, and receive sustained institutional support, says Katie Bowler Young, MFA, director of global relations. 

For example, UNC’s alliance with King’s College London focuses on graduate student-led workshops and conferences, which are held in person in London and Chapel Hill. As a response to the pandemic, UNC redirected funding from participating students’ travel awards to help them develop longer virtual summer programs. These programs feature student-led workshops and panels and greater faculty involvement that provides “multiple touchpoints to work together” with counterparts at King’s College, says Young.

“At a time when so much has been interrupted for graduate students, this [alternative programming] gave them a way to continue their path of scholarly inquiry and continue working and writing together,” she says.

“It may seem counterintuitive to say, ‘Let’s push the envelope right now,’ but every institution in the world is dealing with fallout from COVID-19. There are going to be shared goals and objectives from that.” —Jane Gatewood

At USD, an international consulting project has been a longtime hallmark of graduate business programs. Teams of students and faculty travel to Brazil, China, Germany, and other countries, where partners place them in ten-day consulting projects with international companies—for example, exploring branding for L’Oréal in Brazil and developing entry strategies for BMW in China. 

Time and geography have always been constraints on the number of students who can participate, says Dimon, but USD’s decision to make the projects virtual for the 2020–21 academic year has mitigated some of these constraints.

“Before, we had to send a faculty member who might supervise four or five teams,” she says. “Now, we can go anywhere. Faculty can have one project in Germany, one in Dubai, and one somewhere else.” Equally important, says Dimon, is that the expanded options will allow USD’s international partners to involve their own students in the projects. 

Adding New Partners to the Mix 

For both UNC and USD, long-standing relationships with international partners facilitated these rapid pivots during times of crisis. “Now that we need to think of doing something we haven’t before, we’re not reaching out to strangers but to friends,” Dimon says.

Even so, it is not impossible to reach out to new partners to explore innovative strategies during the pandemic. Lehigh worked with a combination of existing and new partners to ensure that international students could participate in Lehigh in Residence. 

“It may seem counterintuitive to say, ‘Let’s push the envelope right now,’ but every institution in the world is dealing with fallout from COVID-19. There are going to be shared goals and objectives from that,” says Gatewood. She adds, “If you don’t have this amazing portfolio of partners, now’s the time to assess why and what could change in the future. This isn’t the time to beat yourself up about that. This is the time to fix it.”

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“If you don’t have this amazing portfolio of partners,” says Jane Gatewood, “now’s the time to assess why and what could change in the future. This isn’t the time to beat yourself up about that. This is the time to fix it.” Illustration: Shutterstock

Institutions can also consider informal connections forged by faculty or administrators—and even alumni. At USD, for example, Dimon envisions alumni who work in countries where the university does not have institutional partners, helping connect students with businesses for consulting projects.

“This is an opportunity for institutions, [senior international officers], and partnership managers to recalibrate their strategies for relationship development,” says Gatewood.

Six Strategies for Strengthening Relationships

As international staff assess their partnerships, says Gatewood, it is imperative to remember one important thing: “At their core, partnerships are relationships.” 

Keeping this guiding principle in mind, institutions can cultivate successful partnerships through the following strategies:

1. Begin with institutional objectives. 

Focus first on overarching institutional goals and how they connect with international partnerships. “If you’re trying to right the ship and ensure that research continues, start there,” Gatewood says. “If the goal is ensuring global consciousness, start there.…Projects emerge from shared objectives and challenges.” 

2. Assess—and prioritize—partners

International offices should examine their own portfolio of partners as well as partnerships undertaken by academic departments and other campus units—an exercise through which past efforts to cultivate a broader institutional memory can reap benefits. Then comes the challenging work of identifying which partnerships should be deepened through new kinds of collaborative work.

Along with aligning outreach with internal objectives, it is important to recognize which partners are relatively easy to work with. Gatewood puts it succinctly: “Which ones are you going to be able to get on Zoom and talk with?” 

That was the first step staff at Miami University in Ohio took with their colleagues at Christ University in Bangalore, India, as they sought to determine how to continue a wide-ranging partnership between multiple academic departments as travel was curtailed. 

Researchers interviewing a woman in India
Faculty members from Miami University's College of Education, Health and Society interact with a partner organization of Christ University's Center for Social Action during a 2018 visit to Bangalore, India. Photo: Karla Guinigundo

“We pulled together faculty and staff engaged in the partnership, and they did the same,” says Karla Guinigundo, MA, director of global partnerships. “It allowed different people at the institution to understand the crux of the partnership. Faculty work with their counterparts, but the business faculty doesn’t hear what social work is doing and vice versa.” Due to the ease of this collaboration, the partnership was able to flourish amid global uncertainty. Beyond these initial calls, ensuring continued communication among disparate faculty and staff working together remains critical to success.

3. Enlist support from other departments

Since most on-campus departments are working toward similar goals of ensuring that international and domestic students are engaged and continue to have opportunities for cross-cultural learning, they can easily combine efforts to support one another amid uncertainty.

At Lehigh, Vice President and Vice Provost for International Affairs Cheryl Matherly, EdD, and other international office staff worked closely with a wide range of departments to confirm that courses taken at institutions participating in the Lehigh in Residence program would be accepted for credit once students arrive at Lehigh, according to Burger. 

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International partnerships allow for the international office to support other academic departments in new ways, fostering collaboration across campus. Illustration: Shutterstock

“People are willing to help,” she says. “They understand it’s a very challenging time, not just for Lehigh but for institutions around the world to have international students on our campuses.”

In return, international partnerships also allow for the international office to support other departments in new ways. As part of efforts to expand virtual exchange opportunities at Miami University, the global affairs office is developing online forms to identify interested faculty members and communicate with the college’s global partners “so we can do some matchmaking,” Guinigundo says. “We’re jumping into how we can support faculty more in virtual learning.”

4. Rethink research models

Faculty engaged in international research are likely familiar with emailing digital files back and forth across the globe, but many research collaborations depend on intensive in-person meetings to complete projects. The challenge now, says Gatewood, is that “no one can sit in a Zoom meeting for 2 days with the same people, so there have to be other ways to huddle around research objectives.”

At UNC, in-person meetings among graduate researchers were replaced with longer, multiweek programs featuring a range of both group and one-on-one activities. “As we were making the transition from in person to online, we recognized that not everything translates with the same perfect precision,” Young says. 

“A lot of really good ideas have come from these new and potential partners. We’re taking advantage of some silver linings when things didn’t look so great a couple of months ago.” —Stacy Burger

The shared challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic also represent an opportunity to emphasize interdisciplinary efforts among international projects. At Miami University, for example, the mechanical engineering department began developing personal protective equipment (PPE) in response to the pandemic, and faculty will work with counterparts at Christ University to address supply chain and logistical issues. 

“Researchers are smart, savvy people,” Gatewood says. “They’re always going to find ways these crises present opportunities.”

5. Provide options to faculty. 

As institutions pivoted to online learning across all disciplines, international offices have helped support faculty who are committed to providing global perspectives virtually. At the University of Rochester, the education abroad office is developing a portfolio of options that faculty can consider for international collaboration—ranging from virtual exchange and codeveloping teaching courses to one-off events, such as hosting virtual museum tours. “We’re trying to create opportunities that make it easier for faculty to do some plug-and-play options,” Gatewood says. 

6. Quantify partnerships’ returns on investment

At a time when institutions are facing significant shortfalls and budget cuts, justifying a program’s return on investment becomes vital—even in areas, such as research, that are difficult to quantify. At the University of Saskatchewan, for example, when international staff quantified the return on investment on international research programs as part of the institution’s internationalization strategy, many early returns exceeded 100 percent, and in some cases, 10 times that amount. 

Long-term Silver Linings 

Efforts to develop new international partnerships that accommodate the effects of the pandemic will continue to yield fruitful results long after mobility resumes, experts say. 

“A lot of really good ideas have come from these new and potential partners,” Burger says. “We’re taking advantage of some silver linings when things didn’t look so great a couple of months ago.”

USD is considering maintaining the virtual consulting projects beyond the pandemic as a way to promote “equitable access and inclusion,” Dimon says, for the hundreds of students who do not have the time or financial resources to study abroad. At UNC, when in-person courses resume, the experience of using virtual models will likely help prepare graduate students for those face-to-face meetings—and support place-bound graduate students who are unable to travel. 

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“We’re getting interest from departments who are not our usual suspects,” says Denise Dimon at the University of San Deigo, which indicates that international faculty will likely remain a strong presence in courses once mobility restarts. Illustration: Shutterstock

“One of the cornerstones was building out programming in the short term that’s setting groundwork for the kinds of connections we can continue to build upon in the long term,” Young says. “We know this model can open up and include more students.”

Models such as the Lehigh in Residence program could ultimately translate into a broader rethinking of financial models that embed international experiences and other activities—such as internships and microcredentialing—through partnerships with institutions, employers, and community organizations, says Karen McBride, EdD, former international partnerships manager at the University of Dayton. 

“Students are coming in and don’t want to fight really hard to have an experiential experience with extra time and extra cost,” says McBride, now president and founder of Bound LLC. “We’ve got to figure out billing and placement models that maximize resources on both sides and business on both sides.”

Another hopeful prospect is that faculty across disciplines are becoming more attuned to the value of international education in engaging students. “We’re getting interest from departments who are not our usual suspects,” Dimon says, arguing that international faculty will likely remain a strong presence in courses once mobility restarts.

Moving forward with these promising innovations in international partnerships will require that educators continue to be proactive during uncertain times. “What I’m trying to do is not just look at this time period as being on hold,” says Guinigundo. “I don’t want to approach partnerships as waiting to see how this plays out. I want to continue moving forward, continue building relationships, and having new and innovative things come out of it.”  •

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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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.