Here is a guest blog post from Jeff Abernathy, president of Alma College, a private liberal arts college in Alma, Mich.
The image of American college students celebrating Osama Bin Laden’s death in streets across the nation was not a particular surprise. Most of these students have lived with the loss of the World Trade Center for more than half of their lives, and Bin Laden was, as one Boston University student told an NPR reporter, our Lord Voldemort.
But the endless images of college students celebrating a major military accomplishment left me grasping to recall the last time American
students were so deeply animated by international political events.
We might use the moment to reflect on troubling trends in our colleges and universities.
Last year, international study by American college students went down, modestly, for the first time since the Institute for International Education (IIE) began tracking the data 25 years ago.
We can speculate on the reasons for the decline--a tough economy, security problems internationally, an increased emphasis on the internship over international study--but it could not come at a worse time for our nation. Our colleges need to lead the way in engaging a nation that has traditionally not made a priority of engaging with the world (the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries notes that only 30 percent of U.S. citizens hold passports!).
One positive development is that the number of international students studying at American colleges and universities went up at the same time: IIE reported that 690,923 international students enrolled at U.S. institutions last year, a 3 percent increase that includes a 30 percent jump in the number of Chinese students in America. At a time when the United States is having substantial difficulty sorting out just what we can sell to the world, higher education emerges as a key product.
When I returned from a visit to China earlier this year, a lawyer friend who works on trade issues with China quipped, “We’ve been trying to figure out how to sell something to the Chinese for thirty years, and the colleges have finally figured out a net export strategy.”
A moribund world economy didn’t prevent these students from seeing the benefit of investment in an international education.
American colleges and universities can do better. We have the opportunity to become more deeply engaged with the world in the years to come, to lead the nation’s century-long turn from an inward gaze. Our continuing disengagement with the world is an historical artifact of the American 20th century that we can ill afford today.
At Alma College in Michigan, we have not traditionally served a large number of international students, though we have at times in our past sent large numbers of our students abroad.
We aim to become more international in the years ahead, in part through our efforts with the Osgood Center for International Education. Working with this D.C. partner, we expect to place more students in the nation’s capital for study of international issues. We intend to send more students abroad through programs that we will build with Osgood. And we have initiated a program in China that we expect to bring Chinese students to Alma, building on a long-standing agreement that will soon bring 25 students per year from Ecuador.
Such outreach could not come at a more important time for our students, most of whom are from Michigan. We hope to educate them to engage with the world, realizing, as they must, that they won’t be competing primarily with their peers from across the Midwest through their careers. Rather, they will be competing with the millions of graduates from China and India and the rest of the world who acknowledge that their future is dependent upon the ability to interact effectively in a global economy existing within diverse cultures.
We will work to be sure that our Alma students will come to know the policies of India’s Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh or China’s President Hu Jintao better than they ever knew the policies of Bin Laden. Some day, I hope we will see American college students take to the streets to protest injustice caused by economic policy as heartily as they endorsed this recent American victory.