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Why It’s Important To Keep Our Educational Borders Open

By Jen E. Clarke, executive director, One To World

Corporate conversations around improving diversity and inclusion have become more critical in recent years, fueled by the charged political atmosphere of the Me Too movement, athletes taking a knee, border barriers and more. Less prominent, but critically important still, is the threat to a boundary that’s not as visible: the “open borders” in education that have historically allowed for some of the brightest minds to enrich our campuses.

I know this because the organization I lead, One To World, has served international students, Fulbright scholars and international educators for the past four decades at more than 65 colleges and universities in the New York metropolitan area. Every day, we spearhead programs that bring unofficial global ambassadors into American schools, homes and workplaces.

What the U.S. has to offer is unique — not just world-class academic programs, but also the freedom inherent in the experience of studying at our nation’s campuses. However, with the recent twists and turns in immigration and foreign policy, there’s a real concern that the U.S., while aiming to be “great again,” is becoming less competitive in the international higher education market, in which it previously had the pole position. 

It is this concern that led me to join the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion as a signatory, to add our organization’s unique mission of fostering intercultural exchange to the broader campaign of workplace acceptance. Addressing global differences at schools and campuses can set the foundation for employees and executives to be more culturally sensitive and open.

High-quality higher education and the dynamism of the New York City region have made the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut the biggest magnet for international students, with New York alone drawing over 100,000 annually to its renowned institutions.

But in 2016, for the first time in over a decade, international student enrollment in the U.S. began declining. Between the fall of 2017 and 2018, new enrollments of international students were down by 5.5 percent at the graduate level across the nation, according to the 2018 “Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange” issued by the Institute of International Education. At the undergraduate level, new enrollments were down 6.3 percent across the U.S. during that same period. We are concerned that this decline will only continue.

Currently, thousands of international scholars in the New York City area are pursuing degrees in science, math and other STEM-related fields of studies, even as fewer Americans are selecting these career paths.  These STEM paths give birth to innovation, new discoveries and advances that will transform economies. In fact, some of the best-known start-ups were founded by international students: SpaceX, Eventbrite, WeWork and Stripe, to name just a few.

Included in the ranks of international scholars are the elite Fulbright grantees from around the world. Each year, the New York area draws over 800 of these international talents, who have overcome rigorous, highly competitive stakes to be chosen to represent their countries at our institutions. They join their American classmates in pursuing traditional, as well as leading-edge degrees, ranging from business and law, to integrated digital media and robotic software engineering.

Following their studies, many Fulbrighters will return to their hometowns to take up leading roles in government or the private sector. One To World is designated by the Department of State as the official coordinator of Fulbright programs in the New York area, and I can tell you that the Fulbright scholars  arrive full of enthusiasm to embrace their academic goals, and also to build bridges between their home countries and the American communities beyond their campuses.

We set up informal dinners inside homes for them; bring them into New York’s leading boardrooms, to our elite military institutions, like West Point; and into public school classrooms. They and other international students are unofficial ambassadors to American K-12 students, peers, professionals and families. And vice versa.

This was the intent of Senator J. William Fulbright when he founded the educational exchange program after World War II. He believed that creating a tipping point of people who had actually visited each other’s countries and experienced one another’s cultures would prevent future conflicts.

One To World has witnessed the benefits of these cultural exchanges directly. We know international students increase global fluency on our campuses, are a potential source of top talent for global and American firms and contribute to the economic health of local businesses and the cities in which they reside.

Without having more welcoming policies toward international visitors, including students, we risk losing this important resource and “soft power” abroad. Other countries are dangling more attractive visa regulations, offering after-graduation work options and financial assistance. Meanwhile, the U.S. is implementing travel bans and stricter visa requirements with longer processing times, making it harder for students to come with ease.

For all of these reasons, we’re concerned to see classroom seats being filled by fewer and fewer international students. Closing off the educational borders will only serve to cut us off from becoming more culturally competent, make our world a little less compassionate and rob us of diverse knowledge and connections.

Last week, I joined our academic partners in celebrating International Education Week, which included the inaugural International Education Day at the United Nations. It’s a welcome annual spotlight, and in these uncertain times, especially meaningful to us, as it gave us an opportunity to advocate for open educational borders before a global audience.

Diversity and inclusion has often  been thought about in the context of the American experience. But with technology shrinking the world into one global village, we believe that real inclusion must embrace cultures from all over.

The CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion was spearheaded by PwC U.S. Chairman Tim Ryan.

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