Deborah Pierce

On April 20, 2021, NAFSA Vice President for Public Policy and Practice, Dr. LaNitra Berger presented Deborah (Deb) Pierce, formerly of Northern Illinois University (now retired) with the 2021 Advocate of the Year Award at NAFSA’s virtual Advocacy Day.

The Advocate of the Year award recognizes a member of the NAFSA community who embodies the spirit of advocacy and serves as an inspiration to others by engaging their elected officials in a constructive and sustained fashion over time. This year’s Advocate of the Year, Deb Pierce with her year-round and more-than-a-decade-long commitment to thoughtful and strategic advocacy, exemplifies the award’s ideals.

Deb can be described as a true evangelist for international education, who has thrown her whole heart into the mission of bringing the world to the U.S., and the U.S. to the world. Her deep knowledge of the issues, tenacious spirit and unbridled enthusiasm for advancing international education make her a true advocacy powerhouse.

Her advocacy successes include relationship building with the staff of her senior senator at the time, ultimately securing his role as the original sponsor of the Senator Paul Simon bill, NAFSA’s signature legislative priority to grow study abroad.

Deb was also instrumental in rallying her federal relations officer and other advocates across the state to urge that same senator to maintain higher education’s exemption from the H-1B cap, a complex and sensitive subject that she took on without hesitation.

More recently Deb helped NAFSA craft expert Senate testimony on the role of universities and the control of sensitive federally-funded research, connecting NAFSA staff with experts who could contribute compelling testimony.

A regular participant of NAFSA’s Advocacy Day and stalwart participant in Connecting Our World campaigns, she maintains her relationships with her members of Congress and their staff all year long. She has become a well-known face and trusted name in these offices. She is also not afraid to initiate communication with staffers on her own as well, and has been known to share a well-argued op-ed in support of immigration reform, for example, or to take to Twitter to applaud a lawmaker’s helpful vote or statement.

After almost 18 years as a senior international officer, Deb retired from Northern Illinois University and relocated to Florida. Despite moving to a state with a less favorable political climate for NAFSA’s policy priorities, she has remained engaged and undaunted. That is because, in her words: “International education is the very best and most experiential way to help reduce the amazing amount of misunderstanding that most people have about the world. That’s why I’ve always said that international education is a mission, and you can’t retire from a mission. So, onward!”