Re-envisioning Internationalization: International Education for What?

It is estimated that 1.7 billion people in the world live in absolute poverty. Close to 40 percent of the world’s population lives without access to improved sanitation, with the vast majority in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. And when it comes to education, only 10 percent of the world has access to a secondary education, and this proportion plummets to 1 percent for a higher education.

But these problems exist in the developed world, too: about 33 percent of American students enrolled in college never complete their degrees, and a third of all incoming freshman have taken at least one remedial course in reading and/or mathematics.

Clearly, we are living in times that are fraught with multiple problems that range from those that affect the individual alone, to those that affect entire communities and societies. Against this backdrop, as over 3.7 million young students move beyond their countries’ borders to obtain an international education and with so many countries and organizations investing vast amounts of human and financial resources in promoting a global education, the question must be asked: an international education for what and for whose benefit? Beyond the obvious individual and cultural benefits, what is to be gained from the mobility of students and what local or global problems is an international education helping solve?

The genesis of this question goes deeper and can be traced to the vast divide between two seemingly overlapping yet disparate fields: international education as those of us in the “exchange” or internationalization field know it, and international education as defined within the field of international development. Experts and practitioners in one field simply do not speak to those in the other. Those of us in the field of international higher education rarely pose critical questions about the broader implications and relevance of internationalization in providing solutions for global, national or community-level problems. To what extent are we, for example, guiding our future internationally mobile students to think about the Millennium Development Goals, or the Education For All initiative, or the Dakar Framework for Action as a frame of reference for selecting their future course of study and professional career?

Although international service learning has always been a time-honored tradition in western countries, it exists for the most part on the fringes of formal higher education and training. But there are some exemplary programs that have attempted to bridge this divide, and where an international experience is seen as a critical pathway to addressing development issues. One such program is the  Ford Foundation’s International Fellowship Program that draws upon talented individuals from marginalized groups from around the world to use their educational experience to address key social issues. Another example of an initiative that encourages the application of international learning to everyday problems is Engineers Without Borders, which provides U.S. engineering undergraduates with community development opportunities abroad. As one step towards documenting these types of activities, IIE has recently expanded its Open Doors Study Abroad Survey to collect data on internships abroad (and other types of applied learning experiences) both for credit and noncredit, in the private and public sectors.

Scaling up and replicating these types of initiatives in not an easy endeavor. From a research perspective, the major challenge, of course, is assessing the ultimate impact of higher education mobility or educational exchanges. How can we measure the contributions of international education to solving global problems? In addition to reporting on international students’ fields of study, should we also attempt to synthesize mobility data by areas of potential impact such as public health, education and the environment? These are just some of many questions that need to be addressed.

The selection of a study destination and field of study will ultimately be an individual one, driven by personal and professional aspirations, but we all can play a role in shaping the next generation’s thinking about how their learning can help solve some of the world’s most endemic problems. But for that to happen our field first needs to rethink and redefine our current understanding of internationalization.