“International education is always at a crossroads, as it should be,” Lee Feinstein, founding dean of the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, said at the recent opening of the first symposium offered as part of the Indiana University Bicentennial.
The two-day International Education at the Crossroads conference honored the 60th anniversary of the National Defense Education Act, which has had a dramatic effect on expanding language and area studies through Title VI funding at all levels of education across the United States. Throughout the conference, national and global leaders in education, business and government explored the past, present and future of language and area studies.
Expert speakers, distinguished panelists and active participants explored how institutes of higher education intersect with the global community when their faculty collaborate with researchers around the world, their students study abroad or international students learn on their campuses.
For a global university like IU, with strong international programs and initiatives with roots going back over 100 years, the importance of language and area studies is profound. So is communicating why IU’s global perspective gives it strength and how the university’s international engagements are having an impact in Hoosier communities.
“The best university education instills an understanding of the world outside of the boundaries of the United States: of the history, ancient or modern, of the cultures, religions, politics, economies, institutions, languages, art and literature of other countries,” IU President Michael A. McRobbie said during his introduction of the symposium’s keynote speaker. “Such an understanding is even more important today, when the world is more interconnected than ever, and when there is hardly a discipline or profession that is not affected, to greater or lesser degree, by globalization. Not only is this educational dimension a matter of practical necessity, but it is increasingly being demanded by students.”
In his keynote address, American Academy of Arts and Sciences President Jonathan Fanton praised IU for its international focus and its work to translate global engagements into preparing students for an increasingly interconnected and competitive world and meeting the needs of key industries.
At the same time, Fanton and other conference participants emphasized the need for colleges and universities to do more to spread awareness about the positive impact of language and area studies.
Fanton pointed toward the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ efforts to encourage policymakers to support international education initiatives such as the “Bridging America’s Language Gap” petition, which was signed by IU, other universities, and leaders in business and government. The petition seeks national support for language education to maintain and enhance America’s global leadership.
“Neglecting the importance of language learning puts the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage,” Fanton said.
A panel of speakers discussed how universities navigate the challenge of communicating the importance of language and area studies to local communities and policymakers, as well as communicating to the global community our continued commitment to welcoming foreign students and faculty who make valuable contributions to our campuses.
Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, said higher education is operating within a “complicated landscape” due to political divides on immigration and the nation’s relationships with other countries.
“We are not helped by the national rhetoric,” Coleman said. “The United States needs to remain a global leader and be respected around the world.”
Safwan M. Masri, executive vice president for global centers and global development at Columbia University, emphasized the importance of approaching potential international collaborators with a focus on multilateral and “mutual learning” that underscores how U.S. institutions and their international counterparts can benefit equally from learning about the culture and politics of their respective home countries.
“Our approach to outreach is driven by the recognition that there is a lot out there that we don’t know about,” he said.
While universities strive to build bridges across the globe over unsteady political waters, they must also set a course for maintaining strong ties with students, parents and legislators within their states.
McRobbie also noted that IU’s relationships around the world have translated into positive impacts in the U.S. For instance, through the WeCare project, IU has worked to reduce infant mortality rates in Indiana by collaborating with community organizations to develop strategies to support maternal and infant health. IU’s work is based on concepts learned from its AMPATH program in Kenya, which focuses on improving the health and well-being of medically underserved regions around the world.
Hamilton cautioned that higher education institutions need to continue reaching out to policy makers and leaders within local communities.
“Don’t rest on your laurels,” he said. “Americans tend to think we’re number one, but that’s not written in Indiana limestone.”
Coleman also referenced the support universities receive through Title VI funding to reach out to K-12 educators as a way to build bridges between higher education institutions and the community.
Title VI funding has helped IU reach 8,219 Indiana teachers, pre-service teachers and students through professional development and educational activities since 2015.
“Title VI has allowed us to serve a wide swath of people, institutions and sectors, on the coasts and at the crossroads, in urban and rural communities, in classrooms and newsrooms, ultimately making our country smarter, more prepared and more secure,” Hilary Kahn, conference co-chair and assistant dean for international education and global initiatives, said during the symposium. Kahn co-chaired the conference with Deborah Cohn, professor of Spanish and Portuguese in the College of Arts and Sciences.
While symposium participants recognized that the future of language and area studies is uncertain as universities find themselves at a crossroads with their local, national and global communities, they were certain of the value of international education for all.
As Fanton noted, language education offers new perspectives and a “cultivation of the mind.”
“We must improve access to languages for everyone,” he said.