I was recently talking with a colleague about the state of the field of International Education (IE). We were reflecting on how we still hear stories about higher education senior administrators who are unaware that our field IS an academic discipline unto itself. It seems that they are often thinking “Who amongst my senior leaders travels internationally and thus might be interested in a job leading international education programs?”, when instead they should be thinking “Who can I find to lead international education who has managed both face-to-face mobility and virtual exchange programs and the staff that administer them; is fluent in the theories, models, and practices of internationalization, including “at home” programs; holds an advanced degree in International Education or a related field; has conducted research and published in IE journals; who has presented at IE conferences; and who understands the regulatory requirements and changing realities that affect the field of International Education? In other words, many senior leaders seem to assume that anyone can “do” International Education, while in reality, they should instead know to identify IE professionals who have the skills, knowledge base, and training necessary to do the work well as of Day 1.
Perhaps our senior leaders are too focused on other responsibilities to take notice of all that an International Education office does. Perhaps we in the field are not doing an adequate job of advocating for ourselves and our work. The truth is likely in the middle. But any way you consider this, the issue is that outside of our field, there are still many in senior leadership positions who are unaware that International Education IS an academic discipline unto itself.
So, what exactly constitutes an academic discipline? From both practical and academic perspectives, there are several markers:
- Disciplines have a canon of literature grounded in generally accepted theories and with which experts are expected to be familiar.
- There are a significant number of respected peer-reviewed journals that publish new research.
- There are numerous advanced degree programs at both the master’s and doctoral levels.
- There are associations with frequent professional and academic meetings of scholars and practitioners that have as their purpose the training of rising professionals, the sharing of new knowledge and skills, and the acknowledgement of excellent practice and knowledge production.
International Education has been meeting these criteria with greater frequency for over seven decades. NAFSA: Association of International Educators was founded in 1948 and held its first conferences at that time; there are now additional professional associations that focus on specific areas of the field, including Diversity Abroad, The Forum on Education Abroad, Global Leadership League, and World Education Services, to name a few. The first MA in International Education was established in 2000, and there are now countless related books and journals as well.
Why is this important? Until campus leaders understand that International Education is a distinct academic discipline and practice, , they will not fully value the impact of our work on our students, programs, and institutions. Using a Human Resources lens, they also will not be able to fully acknowledge the skills, insights, and value of the work of their staff.
As such, I’d like to propose two ideas that might support international educators in helping their leadership to understand the field. They are both pretty simple, but their application can be easily overlooked.
The first is to be able to talk about both the day-to-day aspects of one’s own work as well as the issues, challenges, and successes of our field at large. One way to do this is to be able to articulate the breadth, depth, and detailed learnings gained at professional meetings. For example, this past fall, I had the good fortune to attend the NAFSA Region VI/VIII bi-regional conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This gathering offered 56 sessions, three day-long workshops, and multiple networking opportunities. As is common at NAFSA conferences, sessions were labeled according to the association’s knowledge communities: international student and scholar advising (30), education abroad (23), teaching, learning, and scholarship (5), international education leadership (4), and international enrollment management (4). (Fourteen were designated as “shared interest.”) And of course, this was just one of ten regional conferences this year; there are multiple such gatherings across content areas and geographic areas. The point is that instead of talking about international student advising or study abroad, or even how much fun it was to explore Pittsburgh restaurants (even though true), professionals can educate their leadership by instead talking about the details of what they learned, i.e., how to promote environmental stainability within education abroad programs, welcoming practices for inclusion of students and staff with diverse identities, making programs accessible to those with learning and physical differences, and advocating for support for one’s professional development. (Hint: Start with the “why,” as in why your professional development is important not just for you but especially for your institution. Thank you, Amanda Yusko, The Ohio State University, and Todd Goen, Virginia Military Institute, for this practical advice!) Since conference topics reflect the latest thinking about current issues and concerns in the field, they provide detailed verbiage that we can employ to describe the field in more detail and thus, educate our supervisors about the work that we do.
A second way to help others understand what we do is to talk in detail about the skills and knowledge used by international educators in our work. Two helpful resources are NAFSA International Education Professional Competencies 2.0 (2022), which details 12 areas through which international educators can “see themselves” (as described by NAFSA in the introduction) as well as present themselves to others, such as senior administration, and NAFSA’s International Education Professional Competencies (2015), the original version of the document. I mention both here because each takes a different approach, with the first identifying skills and knowledge across general areas of expertise (i.e., business, communications, compliance, etc.) and the second identifying skills and knowledge that pertain to specific areas of expertise (i.e., education abroad, enrollment management, internationalization, and student and scholar services) as well as across general areas (i.e., advocacy, communication, financial stewardship, human resources, etc.). Both are excellent resources for specific verbiage about the work of international educators. (Other organizations offer similar documentation as well, but I’m mentioning NAFSA here as an example as it is the most comprehensive of our professional associations.)
As we continue to explore the practice of International Education, I encourage you to practice talking about what you do and what you know in the most detailed and descriptive, and heartfelt too, ways possible. Be ready when you are called to defend a budget request or when you bump into your provost so that you can describe the impact and value of the work in the most professional and passionate ways. Be prepared to explain how International Education is a discipline and practice that requires specific knowledge and skills. Seek out meetings in which you can help senior leaders on your campus to really understand what International Education is all about, and how it contributes to institutional priorities, programs, and students, and yes, to the creation of a more peaceful world.
I want to close with an acknowledgement of your amazing work. At the start of International Education Week this year, my faculty colleagues Dr. Alla Korzh and Dr. Melissa Whatley, and I, sent the following message to our students. I share it here as well as it applies to all those who work in International Education:
Congratulations to each of you for being part of this important work and amazing field. We know that international and intercultural experiences, whether face-to-face, virtual, or some blend of the two, are the only way that people will learn not just to tolerate, but to actually appreciate differences across nationality, race, gender, religion, political affiliation, ability, economic access, and more. But even in the best of times, peace across difference will only be possible if our and future generations continue to cross those boundaries with curiosity, humility, and open hearts. The moment we cease to participate in international and intercultural education experiences is the moment that society will begin to recede to the very place that we have worked so hard to leave. This makes YOUR work ever more important, no matter which part of the field you are specializing in . . .thank you for your dedication, your hard work, your vision of international education! It is an ongoing process but even as challenges persist, the world IS shifting in positive ways. . .
Sometimes I think that ours is a field where success would mean that international education isn’t necessary anymore because peace across difference would be a given. But of course, human nature doesn’t work that way and there will always be a need for intercultural learning, for understanding across difference. So, thank goodness that our field, our discipline, is well-established. There will always be more to learn but we are doing the work, asking questions, having conversations, listening to new ideas, researching and writing, rejecting old assumptions, and pushing ourselves into new terrain. Thank you for all you do.
Please feel free to contact me with your ideas, questions, or thoughts at Sora.Friedman@sit.edu and together we’ll continue our practice,