By Kate Hellmann and Daniel Ponce-Taylor


International educators play many important roles on campus—strategists, leaders, advisers, and advocates, to name a few. The work they do encompasses a wide breadth of issues and requires agility to connect the dots and work with various stakeholders across campus and in the wider community. Here, we focus on the connection between sustainability and international higher education by asking, “How do higher education institutions worldwide—and international educators in particular—explain the value and urgency of aligning institutional strategies and programs with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs)?”

As international educators, we must remain true to our purpose to make the world a better place (if not save it), and there is certainly urgency to the work we do. It is therefore worthwhile to learn about areas of excellence at institutions of higher education around the globe in order to find ways to emulate or expand such efforts within our own spheres of influence and especially within the context of our own positionality.

The authors of this article hail from a public research institution in the United States and a transnational nonprofit in Europe, which gives us a wide lens on the SDGs and their influence on international education. From our experience, we know it can be difficult to visualize how to undertake such efforts strategically and systematically, especially with the urgency needed to achieve the goals set out in the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Doing so entails looking more deeply at the 17 SDGs, which were created as a blueprint to enact change across the world with the intent to end poverty and inequality, protect the planet, promote peace and justice, and more, now and into the future. An international education professional could posit that the SDGs holistically summarize the purpose of work in the field and now can be used to “officially” inform it by looking at how to change mindsets as well as examining how to expand areas of excellence in the SDGs. That is, international educators have the ability to plant the seeds of sustainability by providing students, staff, and faculty globally with opportunities to learn, collaborate, teach, and conduct research to solve today’s global challenges. These are the foundational acts that catalyze change worldwide. In short, international educators embed global perspectives into educational systems, social and political capital structures, languages, and cultures.

In order to enact such change, sustainability and the SDGs should not be the end goal but rather a transitional phase toward a regenerative mindset. Wahl (2019) notes that sustainability itself is not enough and that creating a regenerative mindset is needed, meaning that a culture that is healthy, resilient, and adaptable is key. International educators are well positioned to help create these regenerative mindsets in the work they do.

Through the SDGs, international education can provide the first steps toward changing the collective mindset by creating a community of professionals and institutions that are willing to reassess how international education has been implemented, moving away from valuing mainly quantifiable metrics toward paying more attention to overall quality and increasing the focus on collaboration for tackling shared challenges. In other words, evolving to a regenerative mindset where our actions create the conditions for continuous renewal in order to transcend and flourish amid ever-changing life conditions (Lee and Lundemo 2021). And just as other regenerative approaches and fields have the potential to radically change or restore ecosystems, economies, and societies, regenerative international education programs have the potential to not only change students’ perceptions and values but also to support social, economic, and environmental changes in the host community (Ponce-Taylor 2021).

These proposed changes include rethinking how international education is designed and implemented, for which the SDGs play a vital role in shifting mindsets toward regeneration, providing opportunities to support the cultivation of environmental and climate literacy and offer impactful service components as part of the program design. The SDGs offer a diverse range of tools and objectives to fit a variety of needs and purposes, matching the myriad of existing institutions and international education opportunities. Tools and objectives aside, comparing the SDGs in practice reveals different approaches across the world that international educators can leverage and alter to fit their own contexts.

SDGs in Practice Across the Globe

The 2023 Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings—which compare sustainability efforts in research, stewardship, outreach, and teaching using institution-provided data for SDG 17 (Partnerships for the Goals) combined with the top three results from the remaining 16 SDGs —report seven universities in the United States made their top 100 list for a sustainability impact rating (Donadel 2023). One institution, Penn State University, was recognized for its deeply integrated and expansive efforts across a number of SDGs and particularly for its commitment to SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities). Penn State has established sustainability councils at multiple levels of the institution; built community partnerships to implement the SDGs across Pennsylvania through its campuses and strengths in subjects such as agriculture, engineering, health care, and arts and humanities; promoted responsible stewardship of natural resources; and aligned much of the university’s strategic plan with the SDGs (Penn State Sustainability 2023). Similarly, Washington State University, where one of us works, established a sustainability committee to focus on fostering and promoting cutting-edge, innovative, and impactful research efforts around sustainability; the goal is to insert sustainability into the DNA of the institution as a land grant university focused on workforce development and to cultivate graduates who can further the SDGs to solve the problems that today’s world presents. These examples highlight how institutions can link SDG efforts to their values in an integrated manner to highlight a deeper, mission-centric motivation.

Elsewhere in the United States, different universities are finding new ways to drive progress on the SDGs. As Alaou (2021) points out, Carnegie Mellon University is reviewing and tracking courses, publications, and other nonacademic activities to see what aligns with the SDGs. At Arizona State University, which ranked sixth overall on the 2023 THE Impact Rankings, SDG 11 is being promoted together with a multistakeholder initiative for innovation and inclusion called Phoenix Global Rising and a smart-region consortium called the Connective. If we look at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the strategic plan of the university in 2020 centered the university’s work across the 17 SDGs. These different models at U.S. universities demonstrate that public-private partnerships, strategic plans, and mapping activities are all effective ways of bolstering work toward the SDGs.

European universities offer more examples of SDG implementation for international educators to consider, many of which are focused on policy and the European Green Deal—which aims for climate neutrality of the continent by 2050, promoting sustainable investments for regional development and driving collective transformative change that will protect people and the ecosystems—having made more robust progress in terms of operationalization of the SDGs as well as measurement and evaluation. In their article, Lis et al. (2022) note that European universities are “drivers of fresh thinking and innovation and key contributors to the objectives of both the European Green Deal and the UN SDGs.”

We can see this, for instance, at Sorbonne University in its efforts on SDG 11 and SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), from establishing policy efforts and partnerships to conducting research on diversifying the diet and expanding agricultural output for a more plant-based diet to sustain larger populations. The University of Bordeaux and the University of Barcelona focus on SDG 5 (Gender Equality), as both institutions have areas that focus on equality and feminism, among other things, which has moved from policy to operationalization and measurement of effectiveness. Such examples point to the importance of driving past policy and mapping activities beyond short-term action.

Another example is the University of Manchester, which has ranked in the top ten of the THE Impact Rankings for the last five years. Of particular interest is Manchester’s report on the SDGs from 2021–22, where every goal has multiple action steps not only in the United Kingdom but, for a number of the SDGs, elsewhere in the world, such as the focus on SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-Being) through protecting Kenyan communities against COVID-19 and educating diverse communities about parasitic infections. The University of Manchester has moved past tracking activities into multifaceted action steps and beyond the scope of its campus borders. These examples of leaders at European universities who engage in multiple steering committees, structures, and commissions that push the SDGs and sustainability in particular show how the SDGs are integrated throughout many European universities based on the values of the institutions and the systems and structures put in place, making them an enduring set of practices. This, in many ways, follows a deeper understanding and commitment that European citizens tend to show toward sustainability and collective responsibility in this shift toward sustainable behaviors.

A few other examples from the THE Impact Rankings illustrate additional successful approaches to strategically integrating the SDGs around the world. Higher education in Mexico, for instance, plays a crucial role in sustainable development in teaching and learning, which is well documented in research from Mexican universities (Tapia-Fonllem et al. 2017; Machado 2023). Many Mexican universities have integrated the SDGs into their curriculum and degree programs as well as experiential learning activities for all students (domestic and international). A great example of this is at the University of Veracruz, where the university has worked SDG 4 (Quality Education) into increased access for marginalized groups in teaching, research, and community engagement, with a focus on environmental protection, health, livelihoods, and gender equality. Similarly related to research and community engagement, at the University of Lagos Center of Excellence for Sustainable Environment and Social Inclusion in Nigeria, research and teaching comes together in the form of service and projects to benefit communities (Unilag Sustainability Challenge 2023). This type of approach can be effective in bringing the work of international scholars to practitioners to reach the SDGs.

As we look elsewhere, many higher education institutions in Australia balance embedding the SDGs as part of their institutional values and implementing impactful strategies that help achieve the Global Goals. More specifically, they have embedded the SDGs in strategy and business operations and have developed country- and fieldwide guidelines, positioning their institutions as sustainable and green leaders. At the University of Technology Sydney, the SDGs are embedded in the mission and objectives of the institution—the university was one of the first Australian universities to become a signatory to the UN SDGs. At the University of Newcastle, nearly 11,000 publications related to SDG 17 have been published, covering a range of topics like green building, the Newcastle Institute for Energy and Resources, and more. This alignment of priorities by SDGs and metrics demonstrates how Australian universities consistently lead the way on sustainability and the SDGs, and their leaders both in government and in higher education are examples to the rest of the field. A long-term vision of the importance of sustainability within larger national strategies in Australia has made key resources available to embed sustainability and SDGs in collective action plans.

Highlighting the work of these institutions is not exhaustive of all efforts on the SDGs in higher education worldwide. Importantly, progress changes daily, as universities become increasingly global and embrace the urgency to address the SDGs. Inevitably, developing a regenerative mindset and embedding it into ways of knowing, teaching, learning, and conducting research goes beyond what is happening at a particular university or geographic area. Perhaps the key is to create mutually beneficial relationships that bridge these facets of transaction and value with resources in a collaborative fashion, weaving together teaching, research, service, and action for the long term.

Next Steps for Collective Action

Changing mindsets toward regenerative action and building toward the implementation of the SDGs in individuals’ contexts is not easy. However, international educators are experienced partnership builders who are uniquely positioned to connect these points and partners and help institutions of higher education and private industry make continual progress toward the SDGs. For international educators to be effective in advancing the work of the SDGs at their institutions through a regenerative mindset, collaboration and long-term planning are critical, as are institutional support and resources. The SDGs provide a platform to demonstrate the importance of international education by sharing lived experiences and solving problems to create a more sustainable future. Here are some general steps to guide international educators as they advance the SDGs:

  1. Understand the SDGs, how they are interconnected, and how they can apply to your context to build the foundation for a regenerative mindset.
  2. Determine which SDGs align with your international activities, goals, mission, vision, and values to ensure maximum impact.
  3. Develop a plan to see these priorities operationalized that includes both short- and long-term funding and resources to allocate to these goals.
  4. Develop a plan to see these priorities operationalized that includes both short- and long-term funding and resources.
  5. Develop and operationalize a tracking and communications plan that tells the sustainability story for the institution and connects the SDGs to international education and engages internal and external stakeholders.
  6. Measure and evaluate the effectiveness of your plan and adjust it at regular intervals.

From buzzword to purposeful design, action, and implementation, sustainability and the UN SDGs as represented across institutions of higher education on a global scale offer different opportunities as we work toward building more pathways to a regenerative mindset in our field. Global student and scholar mobility and teaching, learning, and innovative research align to bring us closer to change when we focus our efforts together on knowledge integration beyond transactional approaches to help create a sustainable future and world for us all.

There is no doubt that international higher education can be a critical element to furthering progress on the UN SDGs. By communicating the value and urgency of this work and embedding it into operations at universities across the globe, international educators are uniquely positioned to provide innovative tools and partnerships that enable global stability and increased prosperity as a result of progress toward the SDGs. Indeed, the work of international education should be in direct alignment with the UN SDGs and one of the main drivers to achieve them.


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Donadel, Alcino. 2023. “Only 7 U.S. Universities Make THE’s Sustainability Impact Rankings’ Top 100 List.” University Business, May 31, 2023.

European Commission. 2023. 2024 Annual Work Programme—“Erasmus+”: The Union Programme for Education, Training, Youth and Sport. Brussels: European Commission.

Lee, Jenny J., and Ola A. Lundemo. 2021. “Why Sustainability Is Not Enough in International Education.” University World News, June 5, 2021.

Lis, Aleksandra, Soledad Garcia Ferrari, Jan-Martin Wiarda, Doris Alexander, Verena Blechinger-Talcott, and Günter M. Ziegler. 2021. “European Universities—Driving the Sustainable University of the Future | UNA Europa.” Falling Walls Foundation. Accessed April 19, 2024.

Machado, Carolina Feliciana, and J. Paulo Davim. 2023. “Sustainability in the Modernization of Higher Education: Curricular Transformation and Sustainable Campus—A Literature Review.” Sustainability 15.

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Ponce-Taylor, Daniel. 2021. “Regenerating Study Abroad.” NAFSA Education Abroad Knowledge Community Network Blog. Last modified July 21, 2021.

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Tapia-Fonllem, César, Blanca Fraijo-Sing, Víctor Corral-Verdugo, and Anais Ortiz Valdez. 2017. “Education for Sustainable Development in Higher Education Institutions: Its Influence on the Pro-Sustainability Orientation of Mexican Students.” SAGE Open, January-March.

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Wahl, Daniel Christian. 2019. “Can Regenerative Economics & Mainstream Business Mix?” Regenerate the Future (blog), Medium. Accessed April 30, 2020.

Kate Hellmann, PhD, is the director of international student and scholar services at Washington State University (WSU) and also the programs and resources coordinator for the NAFSA Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship Knowledge Community (TLS KC). At WSU, Hellmann is responsible for retaining and supporting the international community through regulatory, holistic, and academic support and events, programs, and activities. For NAFSA’s TLS KC, she chairs the review of the Innovative Research in International Education Award and efforts to embed the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals into international higher education.

Daniel Ponce-Taylor, MSc, is the sustainability and strategic partnerships director at the Intercultural Outreach Initiative. As the co-chair for the NAFSA Sustainability Special Interest Group, he hopes to engage NAFSA members in productive, critical, and innovative discussions to ensure the field of international higher education and global student mobility take into account sustainability issues as a critical and central part of their design and implementation. Ponce-Taylor also serves as the vice president of the Climate Action Network for International Education (CANIE) European Chapter.

Want to Learn More?

Join us on Tuesday, May 28 for the preconference workshop Using the SDGs as a Framework for Internationalization and other sustainability-focused programming throughout the week at the NAFSA 2024 Annual Conference & Expo!

Join the NAFSA Sustainability Special Interest Group (SIG) and the Climate Action Network for International Education (CANIE), and find colleagues at your institution or within your networks who are also invested in this work. You too can become an advocate for SDG implementation within your professional networks!


New Book!

Cover of Global Goals, Global Education

Global Goals, Global Education: Advancing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals offers a comprehensive guide on how higher education institutions worldwide can contribute significantly to the advancement of the 2030 Agenda. With sixteen chapters that highlight higher education institutions from around the world that have effectively embedded the SDGs into their work, this book serves as a practical guide for higher education institutions that want to build or strengthen their alignment with the SDGs.