Fanta Aw: Planting Seeds with NAFSA’s New CEO
This month, longtime member and previous NAFSA president Fanta Aw assumes the role of NAFSA’s CEO and Executive Director. Originally from Mali, Aw came to the United States as an international student at American University, where she spent both her academic and professional careers to this point. Most recently, she was vice president of undergraduate enrollment, student life, and inclusive excellence. (Read more about Aw in NAFSA’s press release announcing her appointment as CEO.)
In this interview with International Educator, Aw shares memories and pivotal moments from her time as an active NAFSA member and member-leader, what excites her about her new position, and her vision and priorities for both the association and the field of international education.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can also listen to this interview on the International Educator podcast.
You’ve been engaged with NAFSA as a member for years now. Can you share with us a little bit about your own NAFSA story and how you first became involved as a member?
My NAFSA story may resemble that of many, which is that it started with the Adviser’s Manual and a regional conference. My first foray into NAFSA was the Adviser’s Manual, which I call our bible within the international education field. We’d pour over that document all the time as I was advising international students and I wanted to understand F-1 regulations and so forth.
Then I graduated to the next level, as I call it, to a regional conference. I went to the Region VIII conference because I’m a member of Region VIII. I will never forget because it was in Pittsburgh. I was blown away by both the scope of the conference and the breadth of subject areas that were being covered more than anything else.
I was incredibly gratified to see that there was, within the field, so many people who were passionate about this work. It became my network. It became my go-to community, as I often say, as far as a professional community because of that conference. I met a lot of people who had been working in the field for quite a long time, folks that I would consider trailblazers within the field.
The power of the network is what comes to mind as I think about my NAFSA story. It became that valuable go-to resource. I knew I could depend on it. I knew I could depend on both the reliability of the information and the timeliness of the information, but also the generosity of spirit of people who were willing to share with you the knowledge that they have. I knew I could call on anyone within my network if I had an immigration question or a question about a program. Sure enough, there would be someone, inevitably, who would be able to provide that information. And to me, that’s just amazing.
So that’s a bit of my NAFSA story. Especially if you’re in international student and scholar services like I was, you start with the Adviser’s Manual, then you make your way to a regional conference, and then from a regional conference you begin to volunteer. Then from a volunteer, you attend the national conference, and there you go.
How have you seen NAFSA change since you first became a member?
I’ve seen NAFSA change in many ways. Having been a member for decades, I have seen how much we’ve grown in terms of our public policy work. I can remember so many key moments where NAFSA really stood up for what I thought was right and what I thought was absolutely needed, and it became that convening voice and that consciousness for the work that we’re doing.
In particular, I remember September 11, 2001, and NAFSA’s role in trying to make sure that there were not draconian measures that were taking place around how we were thinking about international students. There was rhetoric and a narrative that was vilifying international students as a result of 9/11. I also remember NAFSA during the economic crisis taking place in Asia in 1997, knowing there would be impact on international students’ mobility to the United States. That was an example, again, of public policy work where NAFSA understood what this meant for our campuses and the impact that this would have on our campuses. Before that, there was Tiananmen Square, and concern for the Chinese students who were here in the United States, understanding what this would mean for our work, particularly for the students who were on our campuses. Those were hard times. There were times when folks were not always sure whether NAFSA should stand up as firmly as it did. And I’m glad that it did. We as members looked to NAFSA for that and were willing to support in all the ways that we could.
“There were times when folks were not always sure whether NAFSA should stand up as firmly as it did. And I’m glad that it did. We as members looked to NAFSA for that and were willing to support in all the ways that we could.”
Some of the other moments I recall are from the field of international student scholar services. We saw with 9/11 all the regulatory changes that took place the need for refresh and rewording around those regulatory practices. NAFSA’s ability to quickly get information out and provide the professional development that people needed to understand the regulations, to have the interpretation that was needed, became important. And then I look at international enrollment management, a field that had been there for a period of time. NAFSA had the ability to bring the different components together and create a cohesive approach to how we think about international enrollment management.
What those notable moments have in common for me is the role of member-leaders and the role of members. Members have always been a driving force for the work. They have given their time, their knowledge, and their talents. As a result of that, as a membership-based organization, you see the footprints of members throughout the time that I’ve been involved with NAFSA and their contributions in small and large ways. Whenever I walk down the exhibit hall or I walk around the conference, I’m reminded of how those sessions have come together—member-leaders working in partnership with the talented staff to make those happen. It reminds me that this work is so unique, and the role members play in the work that we do.
Many of the moments you mentioned are examples of NAFSA not just responding to geopolitical events and other outside forces, but also looking ahead to what’s needed in the field and getting ahead of the curve a little bit.
Absolutely. It’s the ability to be forward looking. I think the reason we’re able to do that is our members have the pulse of what’s taking place, and, as a result, are always able to provide NAFSA with the foresight that is needed. We also have the staff who are very engaged with member-leaders on a regular basis and can understand and see the headwinds that may be coming and consider how we can mitigate those. But, more importantly, they are always asking themselves the question, where is the field headed? And then with understanding where the field is headed, think about where NAFSA should be positioned to be most responsive proactively to the work that’s going on in the field, as opposed to being reactive.
“What those notable moments have in common for me is the role of member-leaders and the role of members. Members have always been a driving force for the work.”
This element of change and responding to the critical issues of our time has very much been embedded in the work that’s happened over the period I’ve been involved with the organization. And to be honest, that’s what excited me about getting engaged with NAFSA as a member-leader in the first place. Particularly after 9/11, I felt that I could raise my hand and say, given what’s happening, this is a watershed moment for the nation and for the world and for our field. And as member-leaders, we are ready to be of service in every way and any way that we can be of service.
Which moments or events define your time at NAFSA for you personally?
Oh boy, there are so many. I often say we stand on the shoulders of giants. I’ve been incredibly fortunate during the time that I’ve been involved with the organization to have met amazing professionals who are so steeped in terms of knowledge and were able to translate that knowledge into everyday practice. People who are incredibly generous with their time and their knowledge and were willing to share that. I’ve benefited tremendously from these mentors. I learned from them; I learned watching them do their work. I always say it was both art and science, and that’s something that spoke volumes for me. To know that they’re still here in the field and that they’re as energized by the field is really something. Many of them are part of the Phase II member interest group, some have retired, and many continue to come to the conferences. They continue to raise their hand and say, how can I help? How can I volunteer? How can I share the knowledge that I have? How can we pass this on to the next generation?
“I tell this story to students and colleagues that I work with because it was such a powerful metaphor for how one person can have such impact and how that impact can be replicated and expanded to others.”
A specific memory that been very much imprinted in my mind was a NAFSA conference—frankly I can’t remember where it was, but what I remember is the plenary speaker, Wangari Maathai. I will never forget Wangari Maathai and her keynote speech at the NAFSA conference where she gave the story of the hummingbird. I tell this story to students and colleagues that I work with because it was such a powerful metaphor for how one person can have such impact and how that impact can be replicated and expanded to others.
She was a powerful speaker. She was an inspiring speaker. To this day, I talk to people who remember it. Just last week I was meeting with a colleague from another institution who I hadn’t seen in decades. We started to talk about our NAFSA experience, and the first thing that came back for them was that keynote speech by Wangari Maathai. She was an environmental activist who had done such incredible work and had such impact. As we think about climate change and sustainability in the environment, to know that Wangari Maathai was a trailblazer in this area of work, and we were able to hear her at that conference has stayed with me as just one memory among many others. But it is one for the history books for me.
What do you see as the current state of the field of international education, and what is NAFSA’s place within that?
I think we’ve been down this road before, interestingly enough, at every juncture. Whether it’s national, international, or global geopolitics plays a major part in our work. It’s key to what’s happening, because it has implications for range of things within our work. So here we find ourselves again, in 2023, seeing what’s going on in our world. We’re seeing that climate change is real. We’re seeing crises like the devastating earthquake that happened in Turkey, with tens of thousands of people who’ve lost their lives. It’s unfathomable. Or you look at what’s happened in Afghanistan and what we’re seeing there. Also, the social movement in Iran, with young people and others who are asking for a different future.
We can point to every part of the globe, including the United States, and we can see how our world continues to change and the challenges that we’re confronted with. And international education is part of the answer. It is part of the answer to the questions: What is our shared humanity and how can we, through international education, better the human condition? This is what our associations are about. For all the associations that are evolving international education, that is really our central mission. And that is what motivates all of us to do the work that we’re doing—understanding the potential impact, but also, more importantly, understanding what the risks if we don’t do this work.
“International education ... is part of the answer to the questions: What is our shared humanity and how can we, through international education, better the human condition?”
The world is full of challenges. But I’m also one who deeply believes that in a world that is challenged, part of the answer to “how do we get to a better place?” is through international education. It is through mutual understanding. It’s through understanding that peace is something that every single human being deserves to have, irrespective of where you’re situated in the world. It’s not just for those with all the opportunities, but every single person deserves that.
More than ever international education will be needed in a very polarized world. Our ability to build bridges, to understand what we have in common, to understand the role of education and the ways that a 21st- century education is deeply needed, and to understand the issues of access and equity in education—that’s one of the most critical issues of our time. As I think about NAFSA’s role, I think about the opportunities for greater partnership. I believe that we are stronger together. I believe that there’s enough work to be done and that we can’t do it alone, and that therefore we are going to be in a much better place working in partnership.
Yes, the stakes are high when thinking about the risks of not doing this work. And it’s exciting to hear you talk about partnerships and the combined impact.
The thing I’m always reminded of is that with challenges come opportunities, and I always think about the opportunity side. It’s sometimes easy to be paralyzed by the sheer number of issues that we’re confronted with, so I always ask myself this question: in this time, what is the change that is needed to get us to a better place? When I look at the history of NAFSA and many of our associations and organizations, change has been the common denominator. It’s how we respond effectively to change. And I think we’re called to do that again. I think of the force of our membership and the force of members in helping to lead those efforts, and I’m very encouraged by that. I’m very hopeful of our ability to do this work.
Speaking of challenges and opportunities, what do you think your biggest challenges will be as you take the helm at NAFSA? And what are you most excited about?
I’m going to start with excitement because that’s who I am. I am excited about the opportunity to serve an association that I deeply love at this time in its history, knowing that it is not an “I,” it’s a “we” who are working together. I’m excited about the opportunity to work in strong collaboration with our members, our member-leaders, our staff, and our partners. I’m excited about working with others to tell the next chapter of international education. I think we’re at a pivotal moment, and we have an opportunity to tell our stories and envision a future. And that future will have to involve how we think about future generations, what will we tell them about international education, and what will international education looks like in the next 20 years or so. Knowing that we can chart that path is something that I’m really, really excited about.
I am also excited about getting to work around critical public policy issues. I’ve said before that the center of gravity is shifting, and we’re seeing it in all the ways that we can imagine. It’s going to be incredibly important for the United States to see itself as being part of and not apart from. We cannot deny the fact that in recent times there’s been some real challenges that have come our way and we’re not yet out of the woods. Our ability to regain our footing is going to be important. I’m excited about the opportunity for coalition building because I do think it’s through true coalition building that we’re going to get to the places that we need to get to.
Our members absolutely understand the importance of this work, but how do we make the value proposition for this work with campus leaders at a time where there’s so many competing priorities? How do we ensure that NAFSA as an organization is focused on the big, having a big tent?
With that said, the challenges remain what we’ve seen. It’s the challenge of how to make the case for the value proposition of this work today. Our members absolutely understand the importance of this work, but how do we make the value proposition for this work with campus leaders at a time where there’s so many competing priorities? How do we ensure that NAFSA as an organization is focused on the big, having a big tent? I would say there’s room for all of us, and that includes our global colleagues and the work that they’re doing around the world. How do we join in partnership around that work? And then within the United States, how do we continue to make sure that we are steadfastly committed to issues of inclusion—and not just in within the United States, but as we think about inclusion at large?
Those are some of the challenges that I think we have. With NAFSA, one of the things we found was that the pandemic taught us a lot. I’m hopeful that we can carry forward some of the good lessons from the pandemic and that we can mitigate for some of the headwinds that we’ve faced. I think we have the capacity to learn from that. For example, at NAFSA our annual conference is the premier event for us. But how do we make sure that we’re continuing to have that level of visibility throughout the year?
Those are some of the examples that come to mind for me as we look to the present and think about the future. But as you can tell from my voice, there’s much more excitement than apprehension around this. In some cases, one can call me the eternal optimist; perhaps that’s what it is. I always feel like in order to get somewhere, working together makes it not only possible, but also doable. And that I’m really looking forward to. I’m looking forward to working together—we will get somewhere if we are together.
You mentioned this next chapter of international education. What are your priorities in writing that next chapter for NAFSA in particular?
Part of it is our ability to aggregate the important work that’s been happening. To figure out ways to elevate that work because it’s taking place in many ways. Our ability to continue to tell the impactful stories will be important. I’ve often said that for those who are in the field, yes, we become the face of the work because as members, as professionals who are doing this work on an everyday basis, it becomes the face of the work. I want to extend that face to the beneficiaries of this work. Think about the multiplier effect of that. Every single member impacts how many students, how many scholars, how many other professionals in their work?
If we’re able to extend the face of the work to the direct beneficiaries, this is where I see the next level and the next frontier of our work. And why does that matter? It matters because we do this work because we believe that it has impact, and it does. Whether we’re thinking about future diplomats, scientists, educators, businesspeople—our work touches all of that. Students who graduate from our institutions move on to do amazing things. Our ability to tell those stories and to relate that back to the work that’s happening with our members and with the organization is where I see us going.
“We do this work because we believe that it has impact, and it does. ... Our ability to tell those stories and to relate that back to the work that’s happening with our members and with the organization is where I see us going.”
Another example of where I see us being able to deliver and, and where I see some of my vision for NAFSA, is around partnerships. I think in puzzles. And in this case, I’m literally seeing a mosaic and a round table. The round table, for me, is a metaphor of what togetherness look like. It’s not being afraid to engage with new and different partners and finding our shared collective interest in that work. Maybe it’s with partners that we have not even yet envisioned.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the history of NAFSA. For example, the institutions that helped to found NAFSA, and that the Peace Corps had such an incredible role in the field. Well, guess what? The Peace Corps is still here. It’s still here doing its work. And I ask myself, for the next generation of international educators, who are going to be our partners? Where are they going to come from? And I know we’re going to find the answers to those questions. But to find the answers, we should not be afraid to open the door wide and say, who’s willing to join us in this work? Because in joining us in this work, we can do more; we can have a larger impact.
I happen to have former students who are now mayors of cities, some of our most vibrant cities, and international education has been part of their stories. We want to get them to the table. We want them to share with us how has international educations made a difference in how they see solutions to issues. We need ambassadors everywhere, and they’re here. Whether they’ve gone back home as our international students, whether they were the ones who are part of the one quarter of startups that have been founded. Wherever they are, we need to reach out and we need to have their stories be told. Those stories intersect with the work that we’ve been doing, and we should not be afraid to tell them and to ask them to join us in our public policy work and to join us in helping those who are skeptics of our work understand the value proposition of this work.
That’s just an example of some of what comes to mind as I think about my vision and where I see those opportunities.
Over the years, you have been an engaged NAFSA member, member-leader, and even president of the Board of Directors. How will those experiences inform your role as CEO and executive director?
It is a coming home for me because this is where I started my career. I started my career with NAFSA being front and center as a direct beneficiary of the work of NAFSA. It’s near and dear for me. Coming into this role as someone who has been a member and a member-leader, I want to really understand from members where they see the current state of things. The ability to empathetically listen is going to be important. That’s one aspect of the work that I see.
We have an incredible base in this work, and the pandemic has really done a number on so many people in so many ways. I want to be able to re-energize them. And I think they will re-energize me in return to be able to get up every morning to do this work. It starts with the NAFSA office staff and the work that they’re doing on an everyday basis and what I can learn from that. I’m a learner; I love to learn. I’ve always said that’s why I’ve been in universities for the length of time that I’ve been in because I’m that student who never graduates. I’m curious, I want to learn. I want to spend time with members and other stakeholders to understand and to hear from their perspective where they see the opportunities.
“I want to be able to re-energize them. And I think they will re-energize me in return to be able to get up every morning to do this work.”
And yet, we know we can’t do it all. We’re going to have to make some decisions and we’re going to have to prioritize. In prioritizing, there’ll be times when we won’t agree on what some of those are. I am hoping that I have built some goodwill, and that when it’s time to get into what I call the messy negotiations, I will not be shy to explain why we’ve made the decisions that we’ve made. In my professional experience, people may not always agree with where you land, but when you take the time to explain provide the context, they will at least listen, and they will at minimum understand. There will be many of those times that will come up. By the same token, I think some of our best ideas as an association will come specifically from that engagement—that intentional, systemic, sustainable engagement.
That’s where I think coming in as a member and a member-leader affects the approach that I take. There’ll be a major learning curve for me. As I’ve said, it is an association that I’ve come to know, but I’m not coming in with the sense that I know it today. I’ve been away from it since 2017. The world has changed, the organization has changed, our nation has changed, our institutions have changed. I will be going in with fresh eyes, looking to understand on the ground how multiple stakeholders are viewing our work and what suggestions and ideas do they have for where we position ourselves and how we work in partnership. •
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