Future-Proofing: How International Education Leaders Foster Resilience and Fuel Innovation

Preparing international programs to face the future—and making the field sustainable for the next generation.
As the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to secure the future of internationalization on campuses has never been clearer. Illustration: Shutterstock

When COVID-19 shuttered international exchanges across the globe in March 2020, Kira Espiritu had flashbacks to the H1N1 influenza virus (also known as the swine flu) pandemic of 2009.

The H1N1 crisis, while not as disruptive as the recent coronavirus situation, caused the University of San Diego (USD) to cancel its longest-running study abroad program, the Guadalajara Summer Program. Launched in 1963, the program involved multiple generations of Mexican families who hosted USD students over more than 4 decades. For these communities, the 3-week course provided a major source of income, as hundreds of USD students participated each summer.

More than a decade later, USD hasn’t resumed the Guadalajara program.

“The loss of that program decimated the home-stay families because that was much of their income for the summer,” says Espiritu, USD’s assistant provost for international affairs and director of international studies abroad. “[When COVID-19 came around], I was thinking, ‘Why didn’t we learn a lesson about how to remain engaged with a community, even if you can’t be mobile?’ The latest pandemic hit all of international education hard. We were not prepared [as a field]. We did not have backup plans or sustainable models in many places. As a field, we’re now having to rethink what an international experience looks like if borders are closed and there’s no mobility.”

As Espiritu’s experience shows, uncontrollable external forces can have a tremendous impact on international education—along with local communities that partner with institutions. Whether on a global level (pandemics, presidential administration changes), on individual campuses (changing leadership, team members leaving), or personally (layoffs, career transitions), these factors often lead to sweeping changes.

“We were not prepared [as a field]. We did not have backup plans or sustainable models in many places. As a field, we’re now having to rethink what an international experience looks like if borders are closed and there’s no mobility.” —Kira Espiritu

As the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to secure the future of internationalization on campuses has never been clearer. The field as a whole—along with individual campuses and international education professionals—must step back and take in the big picture, setting up for future skills and looking forward holistically.

The Big Picture

In addition to pandemics or other global health crises, multiple factors can threaten the sustainability of international education. Here are a few influences that affect the field.

Geopolitical Dynamics

Trade deals, border or territorial disputes, regional power struggles, and other geopolitical events influence international education. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, for example, has affected Russian and Ukrainian students studying in other countries, international students studying in Russia and Ukraine, and institutional partnerships with Russian universities. The Trump administration policies, including the Muslim “travel ban” and immigration policies that blocked entry into the United States by many international scholars and their families, created barriers for certain students who otherwise would have studied in the United States. Additionally, anti-immigrant rhetoric fueled fears among prospective students that the United States would be a hostile study destination.

Climate Change

International education is rooted in mobility and travel. But Philipp Reichert, director of global engagement at Canada’s University of British Columbia-Okanagan Campus, says institutions should reflect upon their impact on the environment. While international travel is still a critical piece of internationalization and education, Reichert suggests that schools could do more to expand virtual global experiences and on-campus programming that would provide access to greater numbers of students while mitigating the field’s carbon footprint.

“We still need to connect with each other in person,” Reichert says. “But [there are ways to help] students build global competencies while also recognizing the fact that, as community members, we need to be contributing to positive change rather than just perpetuating status quo.”

Gaps in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

The pandemic and other recent world events—such as economic uncertainty and widespread Black Lives Matter protests—have increased public awareness of issues surrounding systemic racism, immigration and refugee crises, climate change, voting rights, health-care equity, and food insecurity. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are central to these concerns and integral to global learning. However, overall student mobility—both inbound and outbound—does not reflect the world’s true diversity. A key step to sustainability of higher education is making greater efforts to attract students, faculty, and staff representing a wide range of ethnic, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds.

“We’re in a world where there are a lot of imbalances and disparities—and that happens even in the United States,” says Godlove Fonjweng, executive director of international programs at Prairie View A&M University in Texas. “These world disparities impact our work, [and we should be aware of] the significant challenges that our students [of color] face going abroad.”

“International education needs to address and answer some of those questions around diversity, equity, and inclusion, specifically [considering its place] within higher ed.” —Jessica Sandberg

Jessica Sandberg, dean of international enrollment management at Duke Kunshan University in China, adds: “There’s the issue of access, and some look at higher education as a participant in a racist and privileged system that benefits those who already have status and have privilege. And so, international education needs to address and answer some of those questions around diversity, equity, and inclusion, specifically [considering its place] within higher ed.”

Job Burnout

During the early days of the pandemic, international education professionals across the globe scrambled to bring students home, revise course formats to virtual models, and reevaluate priorities and establish new workflows. Everything happened at once, and decisions needed to be made quickly. No one in the field had faced a crisis of this magnitude, and circumstances changed almost daily. Conditions were uncertain, and long-term planning was impossible.

Just like their colleagues in higher education, international educators are being asked to take on more responsibilities, often without being able to hire new staff or secure pay raises. While they have handled the challenges gracefully, most are exhausted. They are burned out.

“People in international offices tend to be very passionate about what they’re doing and have always been focused on supporting students,” Reichert says. “They care about the work they’re doing, and that can lead to burnout. We’re at a very real risk of burning out the best of the best.”

Expect Change

Change is inevitable and, often, unpredictable. But it is possible to learn from past crises. And, as international education professionals acknowledge some of the challenges facing the field, it’s easier to make preparations that may insulate individual campuses and the field as a whole against future changes.

For Sandberg, keeping things in perspective helps. Having started her international education career around the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she has seen cycles of decline and growth within the field. Prior to the Trump administration’s travel ban, for example, international education went through a boom period from a recruitment and enrollment perspective, Sandberg says. However, the pandemic and harsh political conditions have made things difficult.

“Those of us who started our international education careers in the 9/11 era can see the ebb and flow of downturns and recovery [in the field],” Sandberg says. “[For those of us who] weathered that storm [of 9/11], it feels like an important touch point and an early lesson in the fact that yes, [international education] is going to be vulnerable to conditions that are completely outside of our control. And so the idea, the notion that we have to plan for [these crises] shouldn’t be new.”

Weathering Future Storms

The past 2 years have proven clearly that there’s no going back to prepandemic ways of operating. What does international education look like going forward? How can professionals in the field future-proof and protect their operations against the impacts of unexpected crises or widespread changes? Here are a few areas to consider.

Staff Recruitment and Retention

The Great Resignation is a workforce phenomenon that emerged from the pandemic, leaving many industries with a shortage of workers—many of whom discovered that they could find better opportunities with higher pay and greater flexibility. Millions of U.S. workers are still quitting their jobs as businesses struggle to fill positions. While much of the impact has been felt in the retail and hospitality industries, recruiting and retaining professional staff is a concern for all employers.

How can campus international offices equip staff with the right skills and retain the best professionals? It starts with solid recruitment strategies, says Sonia Feigenbaum, senior vice provost for global engagement and chief international officer at the University of Texas-Austin (UT Austin).

“The Great Resignation [shows us] that people are thinking differently about their career paths,” says Feigenbaum. “As we recruit, we are looking for team members who have demonstrated the ability to adjust and pivot their work as needed. But we also recognize how critical our team members are to our university’s success. At UT Austin, we just released a strategic plan [in which] we clearly state that [our team members] provide critical services that underpin all university operations.”

To address today’s recruiting challenges, Feigenbaum’s Global Engagement team has repurposed the digital tools and other new approaches that sustained operations during the pandemic to create greater flexibility for where and when employees worked. These approaches have also expanded prospects for professional development through online learning and mentorship opportunities, for example. Additionally, UT Austin strives to offer competitive salaries and benefits, as well as a compelling career track and leadership opportunities within the institution, she says.

“The Great Resignation [shows us] that people are thinking differently about their career paths. As we recruit, we are looking for team members who have demonstrated the ability to adjust and pivot their work as needed.” —Sonia Feigenbaum

“We are very receptive to the needs of our staff,” Feigenbaum says. “We are keeping our ears to the ground and listening to what our staff needs, while also serving our stakeholders in the ways that we should.”

When the budget permits, team members can be encouraged to attend regional and national conferences to boost their skills and network with other professionals. Staff can also enroll in courses on campus, taking advantage of tuition discounts, or participate in talent development courses offered through their institutions’ human resources division.

Feigenbaum’s division has offered cross training within several of its units to allow staff to upscale and move across career functions. This not only promotes professional growth, but also supports the organization at times when external forces require educators to be nimble, she says. Staff can learn from each other while gaining fresh perspectives.

“We promote a culture that values personal growth, holistic well-being, and community building,” Feigenbaum says. “We build inclusion, equity, and belonging as we nurture and recognize and celebrate the functions that are performed by the staff. And that meaningfully impacts our students, university, and community. So, we are looking at the whole person, and we’re looking at their career trajectory. We’re very nurturing in our approach.”

Jody Pritt, director of international student and scholar services at Georgia State University, adds that leaders should take steps to ensure that staff members not only have opportunities for professional growth, but also for professional enrichment and satisfaction. That means providing opportunities for team members to build relationships, to celebrate birthdays and milestones, and to laud the positive outcomes of their work.

“We all have a very personal connection to [the field of international education],” Pritt says. “Many of us feel that we’re in a really special profession, and we can rely on one another. One way that we can retain good staff is by providing opportunities to learn about how special our field is, even [on our own campuses]. We don’t need to always look to the national level. It may be saying, ‘Look at [how we helped] this student, and this is an outcome of our effort.’ We can get so busy with compliance work and administrative work that we forget ‘the why’ of our profession. Reminding one another of the reason we love being in this field can be really helpful.”

Embrace Technology

Most international offices are finding creative ways to repurpose the digital (and other) tools gained during the pandemic and using them in new, cost-effective ways to advance their work. For example, in enrollment and admissions, virtual programming and outreach have opened up new pipelines of prospective students that weren’t accessible a few years ago.

Though the technology for virtual learning has been in place for years, most campuses weren’t fully utilizing it. But, when the pandemic shut down institutions nearly overnight, the higher education community swiftly put digital mechanisms in place. Internationalizing the campus meant connecting students across the globe through channels such as Zoom and Slack.

At USD, Espiritu partnered with a professor at Tecnológico de Monterrey (Toluca campus) in Mexico to teach an introductory management course that focused on organizational and conscious human behavior. The partnership is part of USD’s Collaborative International On-Line Learning (COIL) initiative, which “connects students and professors in different countries for collaborative projects, activities and/or discussions as part of their coursework,” according to the USD website. USD has partnered with various Tec de Monterrey campuses for over 30 years, says Espiritu.

Espiritu and her counterpart in Mexico divided their students into intercultural teams that worked together virtually to complete projects in case studies. While physical travel is the preferred way to internationalize the campus, Espiritu says virtual exchanges open up international experiences to new populations of students.

“Those virtual opportunities opened up a whole new world for students who can’t travel for a variety of reasons, which can be work or that they’re a part of an athletic team or that they’re DACA students who can’t legally travel.” —Kira Espiritu

“The students were introduced to people from a different culture, and it still allowed them to have a cultural experience,” Espiritu says. “Those virtual opportunities opened up a whole new world for students who can’t travel for a variety of reasons, which can be work or that they’re a part of an athletic team or that they’re DACA students who can’t legally travel. We clearly don’t want all of our programs to be virtual, but we should keep the door open for allowing a few of them to remain because we captured an audience that can’t traditionally participate in our regular programs.”

For Pritt’s team, one of the surprising benefits that resulted from the pandemic was an improved workflow thanks to electronic I-20s.

“We have saved so much funding just on paper alone, and we were able to renegotiate Xerox and copier contracts because we don’t need to copy as much as we need to scan,” Pritt says. The new method also has made life easier for international students. “If a student traveled home and forgot to get their I-20 signed, it was a three-person endeavor to get something shipped, as well as a cost to either the school or the student. Now we can turn that around in 20 minutes.”

Pritt’s team also has been able to streamline advising through use of a virtual queuing system that has reduced the number of calls coming into the front desk that are put on hold. Because this system has freed up staff time, the department has been able to implement other services and activities. For example, this year, it hosted a reception to celebrate its graduates. Additionally, her staff was able to refresh the department website.

“We’ve freed up time for staff to do other things and to be strategic,” Pritt says.

Build Cross-Campus Connections

An important part of future-proofing international education is ensuring globalization throughout the academy. That means building connections across campus and helping others throughout the institution understand the value of international experiences for students, as well as for faculty and staff.

“Integrating international education . . . means to embed it into the campus curriculum, instead of thinking of it as an extra,” says Dawn Wood, dean of global learning at Kirkwood Community College (KCC) in Iowa. “It’s about building it into the mission, vision, and goals—into the thread of what we do as institutions. [We do that] by getting involved, being really hands on with faculty and what they’re doing in the classroom. We have to be with the faculty, directly interacting with students in the classroom in whatever form that takes: in their syllabus, in their curriculum, in the activities that they’re doing, in the faculty training, in the onboarding of faculty to the institution. All of it has to be integral.”

At KCC, all faculty and staff have opportunities to engage in global learning along with students. For example, the college’s Global Learning Department offers a Global Service Award program that allows faculty and staff to participate in some of the study abroad programs for free and without taking vacation time. Additionally, the department provides Arabic courses for faculty and staff to help them better serve the community’s large Arabic-speaking population.

“It’s in our mission to identify community needs and to serve our local community,” Wood says. “We do that with a global vision because we want to be a leader in global education.”

Maintain Personal Marketability

As many learned during the pandemic, an economic downturn or shifting circumstances in the international education space can result in layoffs or furloughs. And, sometimes, individuals realize a different career would be a better fit. Maintaining personal marketability by continually expanding professional skills is critical.

International education professionals don’t have to wait for their supervisors to provide career development opportunities. Individuals have plenty of ways to make themselves more marketable and be prepared for inevitable changes.

Take advantage of learning opportunities, both on the job and through academic courses, professional conferences, networking, and more. Self-care also is critical to prevent burnout and to leave room for creativity and innovation.

“The future is always uncertain, so the idea of considering, ‘How do you prepare for an uncertain future?’ is really about ‘How do you prepare for life?’” —Sonia Feigenbaum

Change is inevitable, so look to the future with an eye to the next career steps, embracing the projects and initiatives that inspire.

“The future is always uncertain, so the idea of considering, ‘How do you prepare for an uncertain future?’ is really about ‘How do you prepare for life?’” says Feigenbaum, adding that many international education professionals can expect to change institutions more than once during their career.

Feigenbaum encourages individuals to take a more “philosophical approach” by asking questions such as, “What do I want my life to look like 2 years from now, or 5 years from now?” “Whom do I know in the field of international education?” “What are my transferable skills?”

“It’s important that individuals don’t lose sight of their overall vision and goals,” Feigenbaum says. “If you’re going to be nimble in an organization, you should also be nimble in your own life.”

Facing What’s Ahead

As the constraints of the pandemic fall away, it’s important for international educators to brace for dramatic changes in the field—to step back and consider the factors that threaten the future of internationalization on campuses. Leaders must be creative and set up themselves and their teams with the skills to move the field forward.

“Just being able to have an open conversation [with your team] about what people’s needs are, and being transparent in saying, ‘I don’t have this information; this is new to everybody,’ is important,” Espiritu says. “As a leader, [it’s important to] utilize the resources that we have through our professional network in the resources available within NAFSA. The worst thing is to feel like you’re alone. The field has been so impacted collectively that everybody has had to struggle with changes.”  •

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 serves the needs of more than 10,000 members and international educators worldwide at more than 3,500 institutions, in over 150 countries.

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