Voices
The IE Interview

Putting the “Social” in Social Justice

A conversation with LaNitra Berger, PhD, about advancing social justice in international education.
"Every day that we don't have diverse students participating in international education, I believe we're losing out on an opportunity to develop student leaders," says LaNitra Berger, PhD. Illustration: Shutterstock
 

There is growing momentum in international education around advancing social justice, and these issues are rightly at the forefront of the important discussions happening across the field. Longtime NAFSA member LaNitra Berger, PhD, edited the book on it: Social Justice and International Education.

Berger currently serves as the president of NAFSA’s Board of Directors. She is also the senior director of fellowships in the Office of Undergraduate Education at George Mason University. Throughout her career, she has worked to help underrepresented students gain access to transformational education abroad opportunities and careers in public service.

Here, Berger discusses how advancing social justice in international education became a passion of hers, changes she’s seen in the field over the course of her career, the role international students play in the dialogue around racism, and big and small ways to advance social justice in international education—from daily work on campuses to an overarching national strategy.

Then, Berger answers questions from attendees at NAFSA’s recent Summit for Diversity and Internationalization, and she shares more with us about the intersection of art history and international education.

 

Listen to this interview on the February 2022 episode of the International Educator podcast.

 

 

The book Social Justice and International Education doesn’t operate on one singular definition of social justice. Instead, each chapter author describes their own definition and how that definition has guided their work. Can you tell us about your own definition of social justice, especially in the context of international education?

There are lots of ways that you can define social justice, and I intentionally included many different definitions of social justice in the edited book. But I follow the definition that social justice is the pursuit of a just, fair, and equal society using collective action. For me, the social part of social justice is key—that we are constantly building relationships and working in coalition with different groups, organizations, institutions, and partners. The pursuit of equality and justice is done working closely with other people.

The way that manifests itself in international education is that we are working on our campuses, not just with our advisers and students, but we’re making partnerships across the institution. We are working with the financial aid office, academic affairs, and student groups. On a community level, we’re reaching out to different community organizations to make sure that our students understand the role that communities play in global education on a national level. On a policy level, we’re working with our members of Congress and elected officials to create policies that support the international education of students and scholars.

For me, the social part of social justice is key. ... The pursuit of equality and justice is done working closely with other people.

It’s crucial that as international educators, we’re constantly looking at how to build partnerships and relationships and how to think about partnerships and relationships that we haven’t cultivated in the past. For me, it’s extremely important that we do this work using our valued partners and build new partners in the pursuit of social justice.

How did advancing social justice in international education become an interest and a passion of yours?

I'm glad you asked that question. I want to first take this time to acknowledge the importance of our nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). These institutions are national treasures. They're unique to the United States and its history, and they were profoundly important in shaping my understanding, curiosity, and interest in international education.

It started when I was a young child. My mother attended Tennessee State University in Nashville, which is a historically black college. When she was a student at the college, she took science classes from faculty who were German Jewish refugees. I write about this at the beginning of the social justice book that in the 1930s and 40s, HBCUs were the first institutions to step forward and accept German Jewish refugee scholars on their campuses. Through understanding my mother's own educational journey, I understood how institutions can both do the right thing from a rights perspective and help refugee scholars, but also how those scholars in turn influenced an entire generation of Black graduates. My mother spoke fondly of her education and how she was pushed and challenged, not only in the classroom by these scholars, but because these scholars also stood up against the racism and segregation that they saw in the South. I carried that with me for most of my childhood.

I saw what these institutions were doing with so little resources, and I thought, “What could they achieve if they were given more resources, and what can other institutions learn from this example?”

Then I had the opportunity to work for a trade association of HBCUs called the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. That's really where I got my start in international education as a professional. I was hired to do a research study of internationalization on HBCU campuses, and in the course of conducting the survey, getting the results, and looking at the results, but also following up with individual institutions and visiting those institutions and doing site visits, I gained a really strong understanding of how underresourced institutions like HBCUs have been able to do extraordinary work in educating their students and giving them an international education.

I saw what these institutions were doing with so little resources, and I thought, “What could they achieve if they were given more resources, and what can other institutions learn from this example?” That is where I began my work in social justice and international education, and also how I began my connection with NAFSA.

What are some of the changes you have witnessed in the field in the area of social justice over the course of your professional career?

I've been doing this work for 17 years, and what I've learned as a social justice advocate is that it's very important to balance taking the long view and feeding your sense of urgency. For me, these problems needed to be solved yesterday. Every day that we don’t have diverse students participating in international education, I believe we're losing out on an opportunity to develop student leaders. And that, to me, is a tragedy and must be addressed. At the same time, I know that as one person, there's only so much that I can achieve in a lifetime, and I have to build structures and relationships so that this work can continue.

That being said, I’ve seen a lot of change in the course of 17 years. The Open Doors data showed that that very few students from HBCUs, or Black students in general, studied abroad. And that number has been in trending upward since I've joined the field. It’s a slow change, but there is change. I’ve also seen more attention to these issues coming up at national conferences like the NAFSA annual conference, at The Forum for Education Abroad, at AIEA—there’s much more conversation about the importance of social justice in our field. It’s so critical that we have these discussions with each other in these national arenas.

For me, these problems needed to be solved yesterday. Every day that we don’t have diverse students participating in international education, I believe we're losing out on an opportunity to develop student leaders. And that, to me, is a tragedy and must be addressed.

We’ve also seen a greater emphasis on the student experience, both for international students and for students going abroad. When I first started in the field, it was very important for us to just get the students on the plane and to get to their host country, but there wasn’t as much attention paid to what the experience was like when they got there. And that goes both ways, for us sending U.S. students abroad and for the United States receiving international students. Now, there's much more conversation about a concept called inclusive excellence and what that means for improving the types of experiences that students have when they’re overseas.

This is an important shift in the way that we talk about diversity and international education, social justice, and international education. Many programs now think more intentionally about the types of programming that they offer. More of the programming is focused on how to get students into marginalized communities and how to get students to ask different questions about the histories that they may be learning. This is important for students to have a much more complex understanding of the country in which they're studying.

Another important thing is the emergence of different types of international education organizations and how we’ve all been able to work together. Diversity Abroad is an organization whose mission is to support diversity in the field of education abroad. It has developed a series of programs and a very popular conference where these issues are front and center. It’s great to have this voice in the field. I’ve been pleased to be able to collaborate with Diversity Abroad with NAFSA and AIEA and to see those organizations come together to address some of these important challenges in the field. That’s something that in the last 17 years has only gotten stronger and more important.

Are there particular areas where you think there is more work to be done?

There’s more work to be done in all areas. We still have a long way to go in terms of getting more U.S. students to study abroad. The Open Doors report indicates that there are still not enough students participating in education abroad. We know that this is a transformative educational experience. For example, we know that 80 percent of college freshmen want to study abroad, but only 10 percent of those students end up studying abroad before they graduate. And this number is even lower for minority students and underrepresented students. We’re missing out on an opportunity to develop students as whole individuals, as scholars, as leaders, and as professionals. There is a lot more work that we need to be doing in that area.

We're missing out on an opportunity to develop students as whole individuals, as scholars, as leaders, and as professionals.

The same goes for international students. We want international students to come to the United States to study. We want them to contribute to the intellectual life of our universities and our communities. And if they’re interested in staying, we want them to be able to contribute to the U.S. economy and in other ways. It’s not only important that we bring international students to study here, but that the diversity of the world is reflected in those students, as well. We don’t want this opportunity to only be extended to those who can afford it. We want to bring the smartest, most creative, most innovative students to the United States, regardless of income. NAFSA’s public policy team is working on that as one of their priorities.

Even though there’s more work to be done, it's helpful to look back and see what we’ve accomplished. It gives us a signpost as to how we can continue to work together in coalition and community to make change in the future.

In a blog post you wrote in July 2020, you say, “International students are crucial in our efforts to create sustained dialogue on both subjects,” meaning the COVID-19 pandemic and systemic racism. Can you tell us more about the role international students can play in the dialogue around racism and how can we elevate their voices on campus?

Yes, definitely. This was a priority for me to address in the social justice book. There are several chapters written by scholars and chief diversity officers that talk about the different ways that international students are socialized on our college campuses. When you think about international students coming from different types of race and class backgrounds in their home countries, and then coming to the United States and being seen and viewed in a completely different way, how that can be incredibly difficult and challenging for students to both go through that process and pursue their studies. It’s important that we develop the resources on campus to acknowledge that this happens and to give students the support that they need.

International students have so much to contribute to our conversations about racism on our campuses and so much to learn and bring back to their own countries as well.

In addition, international students are as savvy as any other students, and they are students of history and culture as well. Oftentimes they’re as aware of American history and culture as American students are, and they have their own views that are shaped by their lived experiences. Here’s an example: I give presentations at George Mason University to international students, and I talk to them about various aspects of African American history and culture. In one of those presentations, a student stood up when I was talking about Harriet Tubman. He said, “I know Harriet Tubman. I love Harriet Tubman. She’s my hero.” I thought that was fascinating—that this student from Saudi Arabia had not only read about Harriet Tubman, but found some aspects of her struggle as something that he could identify with and something that he celebrated personally.

International students have so much to contribute to our conversations about racism on our campuses and so much to learn and bring back to their own countries as well. That’s the important reason as to why we want them on our campuses; we want to have rich, layered, and complex conversations that people can take something from and make changes in their own [life]. I believe that international students are absolutely crucial to the work that we do around ending racism [and promoting] antiracism and social justice on our campuses.

As someone who works on a campus, what are some ways you think that international educators can incorporate advancing social justice in their everyday work?

This is a really good question for me. Social justice work is a calling, but it’s still something that I have to wake up every day and recommit to. It’s very difficult work. It has consequences. Many people reject the idea of social justice. One should not enter into this work with the idea that it’s all roses and positivity. It’s very difficult work. It’s important for international educators who are committed to this work to do two things. Number one: make that daily commitment to educating yourself, commit to a culture of allyship, and commit to a culture of sponsorship. That's the first thing. And by that I mean that you should constantly look and see when you're in the room who needs help and how can you use your power and privilege to help those people. And also, who's not in the room, why aren’t they in the room, and how can you bring them in the room? That’s the sponsorship piece. Those are important aspects of doing this work and making progress.

Social justice work is a calling, but it’s still something that I have to wake up every day and recommit to. It’s very difficult work. It has consequences.

The other thing we have to do goes back to the community piece that I mentioned at the very beginning, the social aspect of social justice: Connect to each other in our shared struggle. This work can be draining, and it's easy to burn out. But we can’t afford to have people who are committed to this work burn out and move away from it. It’s important to stop, take stock of what you've done, and to use other people for support as well. I rely very heavily on my colleagues, many of whom are also my friends, in talking about challenges, letting them know when I'm frustrated, asking them for help, thinking through challenges, and also celebrating the victories.

On a larger scale, how could a national strategy for international education in the United States, led by the White House, be part of a solution for diversifying and growing the community of students that are engaged in international education?

I'm excited that we’re even talking about a national strategy for international education. This has been decades in the making, and this is such an important time for us to be having this conversation. A national strategy for international education that’s led by the White House sets the tone that the United States is not just a collection of states or institutions that are committed to doing this work of engaging in the world. It also says that the country as a whole is committed to this, that we are coming together as a community to set a tone that international education and engagement in the world is important. We are focusing on how to get as many different types of people involved in international education, not just the people who [have historically] participated in international education. How can we get everybody to commit to doing this type of activity?

When we start to send different types of students abroad, we send more and more ambassadors and cultural diplomats out there to talk about these complex issues in host countries. They can also bring back new views and thoughts about these issues from their host communities. When people have the chance to get to know each other and their histories and their community, they humanize other people instead of othering them. That's why it’s so important for us to have this national strategy on international education.

When people have the chance to get to know each other and their histories and their community, they humanize other people instead of othering them.

Additionally, we know that education abroad is a leadership pipeline. Students who participate in education abroad develop the skills that they need to become the next generation of diplomats, college presidents, thought leaders, business leaders, and scholars. The more people we have participating in these types of experiences, the more leaders we will build throughout our society. That’s why I think a national strategy is so important.

I also want to say that the national strategy needs to begin at the secondary school level. The international education divide begins at a young age when some students are tracked into the three Rs and not able to engage in subjects like geography, the arts, or foreign language classes, [while] other students have already been able to travel as young children. This is, to me, the most critical aspect of what a national strategy will look like: How are we going to ensure that the students we receive in higher education have already been exposed to international education in meaningful ways so that when they come to institutions of higher education, we're able to talk with them more specifically about what they want to study and how they want to study it abroad, rather than simply also having to convince them that they should be studying abroad. It’s important for us to think about that.

For the United States to say at a national level that we want international students, international students are welcomed in the United States, we need your perspectives, we need your creativity, we need your thirst for knowledge and opportunity—this is a powerful statement. We saw recently how not making this statement made a difference in terms of our posture toward international students. And now it’s time for us to reassert the importance of international students on our campuses and how much we want them to be part of our campus communities.

NAFSA recently held the Summit for Diversity and Internationalization, bringing together pairs of senior international officers and chief diversity officers to discuss diversity in international education. A few themes emerged from that event that we’d like your perspective on. First, how can international educators begin conversations around diversity on their campuses?

Starting a conversation is difficult. Local and national events in the last 1.5 to 2 years have made the conversation easier to start. We all have seen what has gone on in our country in terms of how COVID-19 has ravaged communities and in terms of what has happened to People of Color in a variety of ways: anti-Black violence, police brutality, and anti-Asian violence. These are conversations that we can't pretend end when they get to our college campuses. We need to have this type of conversation, and we need to talk about what it means on a global level. The conversation begins with an individual reaching out to someone else on their campus. It always begins with two people or a handful of people.

The conversation begins with an individual reaching out to someone else on their campus. It always begins with two people or a handful of people.

You can think about the social aspect of social justice—what kinds of partners and allies are on campus, who can help to do this work. Look for unusual allies, look for people who you might not ordinarily work with and start those conversations with them as well. There’s something that all of us need to be doing in order to change a culture in which certain students feel unwelcome on campus, or certain students feel as though they can't access or participate in global education. Getting to an understanding of why that is on your particular campus is where that conversation should start. Once you’ve started that conversation and brought in more allies and started to build these coalitions, you can then craft a strategy to think about how you will approach your supervisors and, eventually, the upper administration so that they can understand that this type of commitment has to be made at all levels of the institution

Once these conversations begin and coalitions are built, what are some of the key arguments to convince institutional leadership to implement a diversity strategy?

Yes, you have to convince your leadership to invest in these initiatives. I can speak from my perspective, from the work that I do on my campus and my commitment to inclusive excellence. When we see students succeed, it then becomes obvious that this is part of our mission, that we should not be leaving certain students behind. When that happens, you have some students who may hoard opportunities and win a bunch of awards and study abroad multiple times, and then others who feel completely unengaged and disconnected.

Those students don’t give back to the university. Those students do not talk about their alma mater. They do not contribute because they felt unengaged. We’re missing out on key constituencies.

Those students don’t give back to the university. Those students do not talk about their alma mater. They do not contribute because they felt unengaged. We’re missing out on key constituencies. That is, to me, a business situation. We want students to feel connected and to reinvest in their university in a variety of ways through giving, hiring students when they have that opportunity [and] supporting students in other ways. It’s important to show that diversity is important to our bottom line, but it's also the right thing to do. We shouldn't be engaging a very small cross section of our student population; all students need to feel that they can fully participate in the university’s intellectual and social life. If we're not achieving that goal, we need to understand why we're not achieving that goal and figure out ways to change that.

Now for the last question from the Summit. How do we talk about social justice and diversity, equity, and inclusion in international spaces where constructs of race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, and so on might be understood differently?

Diversity, equity, inclusion and international education—the intersection between those two is the center of the complexity. The conversations that we’re having at this intersection are exactly where we need to be for our entire institutions. No one exists with just one identity. We all have intersectional identities, and the ways in which those identities inform our outlook on the world are both culturally determined and situationally determined. It’s fantastic to have an international conversation where constructions of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation are fluid and understood differently. This is how we start to challenge our own notions and the idea that our notions of these concepts are fixed and culturally determined.

Every time we come together to have these conversations, we are coming together and contributing ideas and creating new knowledge.

We need to acknowledge that these conversations look different depending on where you’re coming from and what your lived experiences are. That’s where they become richer conversations. That’s where we learn that there's no one way to think about race or ethnicity or sexual orientation, and that we can push and challenge each other to take a little bit of something from one place and a little bit of something from another place and form something new. The whole point of scholarship and higher education and the work that we do is to create new knowledge. Every time we come together to have these conversations, we are coming together and contributing ideas and creating new knowledge. Being together in these spaces to have these conversations is constantly creating new ways to think about diversity, equity, and inclusion and international spaces. And it's challenging our students, our faculty, and our scholars to think about it differently as well.

Bringing the conversation back to your own experiences, could you talk about your work as an art historian and how it affects your work in international education?

Yes. I'm always happy to talk about my scholarship. I am an art historian, and my area of specialty is art and social activism in the Black and Jewish diasporas. I recently published a book called Irma Stern and the Racial Paradox of South African Modern Art: Audacities of Color in December 2020. I feel very fortunate that I was able to publish two books in 2020. This book is a culmination of over 20 years of research. That is how I was able to study and live abroad as a graduate student. I wrote this book on a German Jewish South African artist named Irma Stern. She was born in 1894 and died in 1966. Her life corresponds with some of the most important historical moments in Europe and Africa in the twentieth century.

She was a fascinating person. She was a woman artist at a time when it was difficult for an artist to make careers in art. She traveled frequently herself. She lived abroad in Germany and traveled back and forth by boat between Germany and South Africa. During World War II, she rented a car and drove to what was then known as the Belgian Congo and painted Black women there. She had a very interesting life.

It’s important for me as both an international educator and as an art historian to always keep that in mind and to make sure that in all the work that I'm doing, I'm opening doors for other people who may not have had access to those fields before.

What was also interesting about Stern, though, was that despite having all of this access to the world and being able to travel through Europe and travel through Africa—and she painted very beautiful portraits and images of Jewish South Africans, Black South Africans, colored, or mixed race, South Africans—she still didn’t fully embrace the idea of racial equality. She believed, at the end of the day, that Black people in particular were inferior to white people, and she never changed her views over time. This was a challenge in studying her and putting her work into context. She was able to paint women in wonderful and interesting ways, but she struggled deeply with understanding the racial issues of South Africa at the time and how she fit into those. My book looks at that paradox of how she was able to paint Black women, in particular, in such a compelling way, even while not fully believing that they should be equal.

This book was 20 years in the making; it started out as my dissertation, but it was also really the way that I became an in international educator. I was able to study and live in Germany and in Cape Town, South Africa, to do research. As an art historian, my area of expertise is unique. Art history, for many years, has been Eurocentric and focused on male artists on the European continent—not nearly as much focused on women artists in Africa and other parts of the Global South. I've really enjoyed my journey as an art historian, but the discipline itself began in a way that was geared toward people who had financial means. Before the advent of photography, you had to travel to the major museums in Europe to be able to see works in person. Once photography was invented, it was much easier to understand art and be a scholar of art, because there were reproductions.

Some of those elitist aspects of art history still remain today. It’s important for me as both an international educator and as an art historian to always keep that in mind and to make sure that in all the work that I'm doing, I'm opening doors for other people who may not have had access to those fields before.  •

 


 

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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About NAFSA

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

NAFSA membership provides you with unmatched access to best-in-class programs, critical updates, and resources to professionalize your practice. Members gain unrivaled opportunities to partner with experienced international education leaders.