Event Report: International Education and Exchange: Building Bridges in Times of Turbulence, Meridian International Center, Washington, DC, 11/13/18

This week is International Education Week.  Established during the Clinton Administration, the week focuses on promoting international and global learning and engagement.   A major focus is on advancing study abroad as a means to building global competency.

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Tara Sonenshine

This morning I attended an event at the Meridian International Center: “International Education and Exchange: Building Bridges in Times of Turbulence” sponsored by Meridian, U.S. China Strong, and the Fulbright Association, both the national and National Capital Area Chapter.  A major focus of the event was looking at exchange between the U.S. and China.

Though I don’t focus on China in my work, I am an enthusiastic supporter of international exchange.  I did not do it in college, but my son spent a semester studying in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University while an undergraduate at the University of Maryland (and then went on to the Peace Corps), and my daughter, a sophomore at Towson University, will be spending the spring semester studying at Yonsei University in Seoul.  My wife teaches nursing at Montgomery College in Maryland and is taking students to the Dominican Republic in the spring.

My own work has focused extensively on community colleges.   I direct the National Community College Peacebuilding Seminar where international education is a central theme.  And I will have a chapter published in the upcoming edited volume Study Abroad Opportunities for Community College Students and Strategies for Global Learning (IGI Publishers) which will look at how peacebuilding can advance global engagement in community colleges.

For today’s program Ambassador Stuart Holliday welcomed us and shared about the work of Meridian.   He was followed by Ambassador Julia Chang Bloch who talked  about U.S.-China exchange.  Some 5,000,000 Chinese study abroad every year, with 350,000 in the U.S.   This represents about 35% of all foreign students (at the college level) studying in the U.S.   Having said this, the current administration recommended last year reducing the ECA (Education and Cultural Affairs) budget of State by 79%, which was opposed by Congress. It was reported today that overall foreigners coming to the U.S. for study abroad dropped 6.6% in 2017 while students going overseas has risen, but only for short-terms programs.  Today, nearly 11% of all U.S. undergraduates study abroad.  This is a positive trend, though the decrease in foreigners coming to the U.S. is troubling.

Tara Sonenshine, former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, then addressed some of the broader implications of exchange. (I was glad to see Tara at this event, she is very knowledgeable and I was a colleague of hers when I was at the U.S. Institute of Peace where she was Executive Vice President.  She is now at GW). She emphasized that the essence of exchange is human interaction.  Story telling is an critical aspect of global experiences.  It allows us to share in a personal and vivid way transformative experiences with others.  Exchange is really about the “change” that takes place during an experience.   International exchange and education are personal, real, and human, and that needs to be emphasized.  In response to a question, she was hopeful in the future of international education because of large number of women of diverse backgrounds joining Congress next year.

Meirong Fu followed.  She is a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University and has received several Fulbright grants.   She shared with us the beginnings of the Fulbright Program in 1947 in China and the resumption of the program in 1979 when Jimmy

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Panelists Johnson, Li, Liu and Holden

Carter was president.  Meirong felt that notions of mutual respect, self-reliance, and volunteerism are values that the Fulbright Program has brought to China.  She was followed by Mary Ellen Schmider, a board member of the Fulbright Association and a recipient of several Fulbright grants including to Lanzhou University in China, where she was the first female Fulbrighter. (I  know Mary Ellen through my work with the Fulbright Association.  She is a great ambassador of international education). She shared about her experiences teaching in China and how literature can be an important means to cross cultural understanding.  Mary Ellen shared how the Fulbright Program is supported by bi-national agreements between the U.S. and countries as well as through 50 Fulbright Commissions overseas.  One point she made is that members of Congress need to recognize the important economic contributions that international education makes in U.S. communities.

After a short break, Marlene Johnson, former lieutenant governor of Minnesota and former president of NAFSA, talked about origins of International Education Week. It was a collaborative effort between Richard Riley, Secretary of Education, and Madeline Albright, Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration, and it is now integrated across higher education.    She was followed by John Holden of the U.S-China Strong Foundation who argued the importance of foreign language instruction for Americans in order to enhance U.S.-Chinese relations.  Hongxia Liu from New York University/Shanghai and Jinzhao Li from Beijing Foreign Studies University both followed and talked about the importance of study abroad.

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