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NAFSA: Association of International Educators Conference

November 4, 2014


Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It’s a pleasure and an honor to be here today. Let me at the outset thank all of you for the important work that you are doing. Step by step, student by student you are building an international community linked through knowledge. A community that begins with students and then continues through friendships between men and women from all corners of the globe. A true international community undivided by borders and united through shared experiences that each of you makes possible every day. Whether you are advisors, admissions personnel, recruiters, English language specialists, study abroad staff, or other international education personnel, you play a role that is often not acknowledged in the large enterprise that makes up a university. But you are integral to its missions and crucial to its success.

Let me also thank you personally since my journey from India to this podium today was enabled through professionals such as you. And I am not alone. Thousands of students travel to the United States every year for higher education just like I did not quite 30 years ago. Because of the guidance of personnel just like you, so many of us have stayed in academia, hopefully making contributions to what is, undoubtedly still, the best system of higher education in the world.

There is no doubt that due to technological advances the world has become smaller, and telecommunications have changed the way we all think and act. Capital moves across borders instantaneously, and the movement of products, people, and services is faster than ever before. Isolationism is definitely not an option. While cross-cultural influences have always been part of the modern world, today they are ever more powerful because of their immediacy. We access the same information and same websites, buy products made all over the world, and at times do not even know if we are being assisted on the phone, or on the Web, by people next door or across the ocean. Finding the right balance between global and local is one of the key challenges of this decade, as is the need to increase our capacity for cross-cultural understanding.

We live in a world that faces tremendous challenges that know no national boundaries. Among them are poverty and hunger, terrorism, water shortages and the irreparable harm done to our oceans and lakes by industrialization. Others include increasing population, pollution, the escalating global tensions between development and sustainability, the rise of diseases that are resistant to the very medical advances that were once considered to be the means to eradicate them, and of course, in today’s world we face the previously unthinkable complexities and interdependencies wrought by a global economy in which the bursting of a housing bubble in the United States is felt from New Delhi to London, and from Beijing to Nairobi, and in which a disease in Northwest Africa can lead to fear and chaos in this Metroplex thousands of miles away.

Today, more than ever before, we need to recognize that the key to solving these problems is the understanding that that no one people, no single group or party, no nation by itself—no matter how wealthy or powerful—can address all these issues. The key is the development of an informed and engaged global citizen, and education is the foundation to that development. I am reminded of Horace Mann, often considered as the first great American advocate of public education, who said, “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” And yes, it is the great equalizer, a tremendous force that transforms people through enabling them to get to know each other, breaking down barriers, preconceived notions, and fears as students work together and learn from each other.

The United States has always attracted the best and the brightest from across the globe to its universities. Our student populations are increasingly representative not of the local communities in which they are situated but of the globe. Even the University of California System, which largely controlled its out-of-state ratio, now has up to 20 percent from outside California with an increasing percentage from overseas.

The questions that I have for the future are not based on whether increasing internationalization of our campuses will take place, but how this will happen. We have four specific, yet interacting mechanisms, and perhaps even a fifth.

The first is the traditional mechanism—students from across the world joining us, bringing with them their cultures and experiences. They create a wonderful learning environment for our students, enabling them to learn about the world from the safety of their homes, imbibing foreign cultures, learning new languages and customs, and developing a greater understanding of people who look, act, speak, and perhaps even think in different ways. This has been the established method and an effective one. As a nation, we’ve used it to our advantage, not only attracting the best intellectual talent to our shores and then keeping it here to add to the tremendous value of this nation, but also by ensuring that those who return to their home countries go back with a gentler, friendlier perception of our nation. Friendships formed at universities have helped build corporate alliances across international borders and even solve political standoffs. This is diplomacy through education at its best—the creation of lifelong friendships through the common toil and hard work and, yes, the joy of being students together.

The second is that of study abroad. It’s a powerful concept and one that we need to do much more to grow. While our students gain significantly from the presence of international students at our universities, they gain even more by adding an immersion experience to their educational portfolio. There is nothing that quite captures the experience of being in a culture and living it morning, evening, noon, and night. Perceptions and preconceived notions are cast aside quickly, and our students gain experiences that will stand them in good stead throughout their lives. Yet this is still not used to the extent that it could, with far more international students coming here on exchanges than U.S. students going to international locations. As administrators, we need to do much more to change this trend—to encourage, and in a larger number of cases, make it an inherent part of the curriculum to spend at least a semester abroad. Asking our students to delay their graduation, pay added tuition, fall behind their classmates who will be in the job market earlier, is inherently a poor argument for the value of study abroad. We need to rethink our curriculum to ensure that a period of study abroad can not only be undertaken within the normative period of study, but that its academic component also counts for what would otherwise have been missed at the home university.

The third is through faculty exchanges. While an important contribution, they are an indirect one. I will not spend more time on this beyond to say that they do refashion how we teach and what we expect of our students—both important aspects in a global economy and a world that is growing smaller by the day, if not the hour. But the engagement of faculty is important. Be patient with us, please. We are immersed in what we do—teaching and research—and we often isolate ourselves in our disciplines and may not readily recognize the importance of international education. This is an area of significant need. Patience, continued enthusiasm, and education—from you to us is the key.

The fourth is through the establishment of branch campuses in international locations as has been done by a large number of U.S. universities. In some cases, this essentially creates a mini replica of our campuses in a foreign land and enables students to experience a U.S. education without moving from their own zones of comfort. While this has economic and geopolitical advantages, in some cases it falls short of the concept of true internationalization unless it is combined with the two-directional flow of students.

The fifth, and in my mind an aspect that we have to pay increasing attention to, is that of online education. Advances in technology now make it possible to open the university to the masses, irrespective of geography or income level. Elite no longer has to mean elitist. Constraints of time, space, and location no longer matter, and that is an undeniably powerful set of constructs. Students study together, interacting in real time across thousands of miles, sharing in a way that would probably not have been possible in a face-to-face environment. I’m extremely proud that UT Arlington is leading in this area with online courses in areas like nursing being offered in Latin America in Spanish, and in China, among other countries. Online courses such as the ones offered by UT Arlington and MOOCs—massive open online courses—are indeed another facet of the internationalization of education. They bring the excellence that resides within our physical walls to masses in a way that physical campuses cannot. They open virtual doors and create pathways to interactions and understanding at a level of participation that is hard to even imagine in terms of physical contact.

The amazing aspect is not what MOOCs and online courses are doing now, but what they might be enabling a decade from now. Not only are they attractive options for students who do not have the resources to travel internationally, but they also provide the means to expand access and quality in underserved regions around the world. Imagine courses at UT Arlington now being available in South Africa, or Mongolia, or for that matter any region in the world. The very concepts of students and classrooms are changed. More generally, because online courses depend on peer-to-peer interaction through chat rooms, email, boards, and more, and serve more students than we would be able to manage within bricks and mortar, they have enormous potential for cross-cultural exchange among students from different nations. Consider the effect, often not in the best light, of films on the perception of America and what we are assumed to represent, and now consider the opportunity in front of us. A similar population open to receiving ideas, but this is not based on fantasy and fiction, but on reality—education as a means of creating true understanding, partnerships, and global engagement. This opportunity is real, and a tremendous one. It is already making dramatic changes in how we view academia and the role of universities in the future. If looked at through the lens of internationalization, it could revolutionize what we can, and should, do.

Technology will undoubtedly drive the future, and it’s a future that we need to embrace, even if it has a lot of unknowns with doors opening everyday in areas that we did not even imagine possible 10 years ago. But at the bottom of all this is a very human thread—one that I have lived myself. I came to the United States for my doctoral degree in 1986. I chose a university based on far less information than is available to students today. I visited the U.S. Embassy and its Information Service branch, the USIS, and I researched areas of study and matched them with universities. Geography and location, cost, the top faculty in the field I wanted to specialize in—all were very important. I know I did not apply to California or Texas because I had relatives here and I wanted to go elsewhere—but at the end, I chose a university—the University of Delaware—because of three factors. It had the only NSF Center in Composite Materials, it had a tremendous reputation as related to its faculty in this area and, perhaps at a subliminal level, because of the word of mouth regarding its great International Center and its welcoming attitude to international students. The human touch, that even today—when technology provides great resources to search and match—will be an important, if not the final determining factor.

After graduation, I stayed on at the University of Delaware for five years and had unique opportunities to represent the university and the United States through NSF-funded teams in Japan, as well as in collaborations with Australia, Brazil, and Germany. I was able to see firsthand the effect of “study abroad”—but from their perspective—sending students to study here and gain from that period of stay. I was then recruited to UCSD, which for a while had the highest number of study abroad participants in the nation—including in engineering and the sciences. The power of developing a curriculum that allows a student to go abroad, spend time and study, immerse themselves in a culture but not have to worry about losing a year of their lives, is immense. And we need to do more of it. Taiwan, Japan, countries on the Pacific Rim—all provided tremendous opportunities, and we took each one of them. International collaborations are more than MOUs—an agreement to agree that we will sign an agreement when we agree to do something. These are just pieces of paper. I know we like to stack these up, but they do not help. Let’s do more things that are specific.

At the University of Alabama in Huntsville, I had the unique opportunity to work with, and support, tremendous faculty, and we initiated programs in Panama with CATHALAC in the areas of sustainability and water resources. Forty students or more would travel in summer for a period of immersion in Spanish and to conduct research. And in another effort, with the drive of our Vice President for Research, Dr. John Horack, who was from NASA, we established programs with the University of Rostock and the German aerospace agency, DLR, in areas such as space weather. These were wonderful opportunities for students and faculty—true programs with international impact.

Does it change the way I approach administration? Of course it does. On the one hand, I see easily the dangers of having too many international students or just those from a single country. On the other, I am aware not just of the difficulties faced in integrating with the population, but also the challenges based on preconceptions. I couldn’t be Indian because my accent, which was decidedly more British when I first came here, did not sound like what others thought was the typical Indian accent. I couldn’t possibly be Indian if I grew up eating meat and preferred Tchaikovsky, Strauss, and Copeland to the ragas.

And I hope these will help me as I move forward. I look to Jay Horn and many of you in the room to help educate me further as we develop a new, more efficient, and more enabling way of reaching out, and even inward, so that we can do more.

But let me tell you a bit about an extremely international community right in the Metroplex—UTA—41,000 and growing, with about 12 percent of its student population comprised of international students from over 120 countries. For the second year in a row, we are ranked as the fifth most diverse national university, and we were named one of only six next generation universities. We are a university on the rise, one that is setting standards for others to follow.

We are a community that draws students from the Metroplex, the state of Texas, the breadth of our nation, and from over 120 countries across the globe. Each time I walk across campus, I feel the same sense of energy as one does at a large international airport —people from all walks of life and points around the globe, moving with purpose toward their destinations and dreams. The diversity of our campus, the aspirational nature of our students, the drive of our faculty members, the spirited, hard-working, and dedicated manner in which we all pursue our individual and collective goals—I believe these are hallmarks of this institution.

But unlike the experience of a sole traveler in an international terminal, we at UT Arlington are connected to one another. These connections form as we work side by side in labs and studios; as we take classes and study together; through friendships forged in student organizations; as we cheer on or participate in athletics; and as we engage in a variety of activities—face-to-face and online. This self-perpetuating combination of excellence and achievement—highly ranked academic programs attracting the best and brightest scholars—yields national and international accolades. These honors further accentuate UT Arlington’s status as a pre-eminent place for intellectual pursuits and a driver of positive change, a model 21st century urban research university, and a gateway to education for the globe.

While I’ve compared our campus to an international terminal, I have to remind myself that in reality we are situated next to DFW Airport, one of the largest hubs in the world and a gateway to the globe. Just last month, we hosted a summit of leaders from Latin America who are establishing relationships with Asia. DFW Airport and by connection, UT Arlington, could well be the center of modern trade routes, linking countries in one continent with another. Think of Arlington as the hub with the spokes pointing to the different areas of the world—a glimpse into the future. We are building our strategic plan around this theme—a megacity in the making and a gateway to the world.

But coming back to this conference lets me emphasize that there has probably not been as important, or critical, a point in the history of academe for international education as right now. Technology has brought us closer, but conflicts pull us further apart, both as related to safety and from political and social embargoes and boycotts. Education is not just an equalizer. It’s the great enabler—combining intellect with heart and soul.

You have the power in this room to make it happen. I implore each of you to go back to your institutions to take on a new meaning in your roles, a new vigor to convince your administrations of the need for more integrated and stronger efforts. I am confident that among your students are the leaders of tomorrow, leaders that internationally will make this world smaller, better, and safer. And, YES, we do have the ability to make that happen.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak with you this afternoon.