NAFSA: Association of International Educators

Celebrating the 60th Anniversary of Connecting Educators Around the Globe
bridges vol. 18, July 2008 / Institutions and Organizations

by Caroline Adenberger

This May, more than 9,000 international educators flocked to the Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, to attend the biggest gathering of its kind worldwide: the annual conference of the “Association of International Educators,” or NAFSA, the world’s largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education.

NAFSA logoThis year’s conference also marked the 60th anniversary of NAFSA. During an entire week, participants from 111 countries exchanged ideas and best practices in international education. The conference offered a vast array of learning and networking opportunities for international educators, focusing on the most crucial topics in international education and exchange today: from study abroad and international student and scholar advising, to global education trends and systems, and international education policy.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} NAFSA history in a Nutshell

Sixty years ago, with the end of World War II, the United States found itself in a leadership role in a new and dramatically changed global political climate. The US Congress at that time understood the importance of having a better knowledge and understanding of the world, and academic exchange would be one of the best tools for reaching this goal. By passing the Fulbright Act in 1946 and the Smith-Mundt Act in 1948, Congress established the basis for a federally funded international educational exchange program.

But action was not restricted solely to the policy makers on the Hill. Outside of Washington, DC, international educators were taking steps of their own. The same year Congress passed the legislation to fund international exchange programs, the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers was born at the University of Michigan during a conference on international student exchange. There, representatives from academic institutions, government agencies, and private organizations joined together on behalf of foreign students who were stranded in the United States during the war.

NAFSA Founder Mary Thompson
One of NAFSA's founding members: Mary Thompson at the NAFSA 2008

NAFSA received an important institutional boost when its then-president, Jim Davis, was asked to chair President John F. Kennedy’s task force on the international exchange of persons. The recommendations of the task force became law with the 1961 passage of the Fulbright-Hays Act, which expanded government-sponsored exchange programs.

Today, with nearly 10,000 members, NAFSA continues to play a strong leadership role in Washington, DC, as an advocate for the importance of international education to the US. International students now comprise only 3.9 percent of total enrollment in US colleges and universities. For the 2006–2007 academic year, this translated into a total of 582,984 international students at US colleges and universities. An interesting detail is that roughly 70 percent of those are self-sponsored or fully funded by overseas sources.

The number of outgoing US students increased by 8.5 percent to a total of 223,534 persons in the 2005–2006 academic year. The percentage looked at over the past 10 years sounds even more impressive: It has increased by 150 percent.  But don’t let yourself be fooled by this: In relation to all students enrolled at US colleges and universities in any given year, this number reflects just a little over 1 percent of the whole student body…

Staying competitive for international scholars and students

At the NAFSA conference, Shideh Hanassab, director of research at the University of California’s Dashew Center for International Scholars and Students, presented the results of a 2007 electronic survey of 1,570 international students and academics, which represents about 44 percent of all foreign students and scholars at UCLA. Ever since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, foreign students and scholars have encountered serious difficulties when applying for visas to enter the US. The responses to the UCLA survey are certainly alarming, but to many people they do not come as a total surprise:

The majority of survey participants reported having experienced delays at both American consulates abroad and ports of entry into the country. Thirty-eight percent of respondents with F-1 student visas and 56 percent of those with H1-B work visas said visa delays had forced them to alter their travel plans, while 39 percent of student-visa holders said they had been held up when attempting to enter the United States.

Vic Johnson
Vic Johnson, Senior Policy Advisor at NAFSA

bridges spoke with Vic Johnson, NAFSA’s senior advisor for public policy, about how NAFSA seeks to increase the support within the US government for international education and exchanges. Mr. Johnson was recently recognized by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs for his sustained leadership at NAFSA, his advocacy for the educational community, and for his continued work with State and other government agencies on improving student visa policies.

bridges: Mr. Johnson, in which direction do you think US international education and exchange will head to in the future?

Vic Johnson: That's a difficult question to answer. On the one hand, we know from our own polling that the American public strongly supports international education programs and understands the need for more Americans to better understand the world, to speak foreign languages, and to interact with students and scholars from other countries.  At the same time, we're in a period of intense growth and competition in the international education field – countries across the globe are ramping up efforts to prepare their citizens with global skills and to attract the best and brightest from other countries.  The United States has a lot of catching up to do in this competition. NAFSA will continue to advocate for proactive, sensible public policies to support international education, because we believe it is an enormous asset not only for the United States but for the cause of global peace and understanding.

bridges: In the global competition for international students and scholars, how can the US ensure that they stay competitive with other countries?

Vic Johnson: What we need more than anything is an international education policy for the United States, coordinated by a White House official designated by the president, that would direct the various agencies and offices of the US government that deal with international student and scholar exchanges. [We need] to work together in a proactive and deliberate way to restore the United States' status as a magnet for international students and scholars.

bridges: What kind of international education legislation would you like to see enacted by Congress?

Vic Johnson: Right now, one of our highest priorities is the passage of the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act, an historic piece of legislation that would launch study abroad participation among American college students into a new era.  The legislation has passed the full House and is awaiting a vote in the full Senate, where it has 47 co-sponsors. Thousands of American citizens have written letters to Congress urging support for this bill, and dozens of higher education and international education organizations have endorsed it. Earlier this month, the co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission published an op-ed piece in the Christian Science Monitor urging Congress to pass the bill. We certainly hope they will do so.
bridges: What role does NAFSA play in ensuring that international education agendas don’t get overlooked by US legislators? How can single individuals interested in international education support NAFSA’s mission?

Vic Johnson: NAFSA is a membership association of more than 10,000 international educators located at organizations and institutions around the world. Our public policy advocacy is centered on giving voice to the commitment of our members to expanding and strengthening international education exchanges.  NAFSA's members share a belief that international education advances learning and scholarship, builds understanding and respect among different peoples, and enhances constructive leadership in the global community.  Individuals can support our mission by joining the organization and by participating in our grassroots advocacy efforts.

The author, Caroline Adenberger, is the editor of bridges and the deputy director of the Office of Science & Technology at the Embassy of Austria in Washington, D.C.