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Expert: U.S. Higher Ed a Key Resource for Global Outreach

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

American colleges and universities are an “essential part of our nation’s diplomatic outreach” and critical to building the cross-cultural relationships necessary to solve the world’s most pressing problems, a U.S. State Department official said at an international education forum Tuesday.

“The citizens of just one nation alone will never overcome our global challenges,” Thomas A. Shannon, Jr., U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs at the State Department, told attendees at the forum.

Thomas A. Shannon, Jr., is U.S. Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department.

“Economic opportunity, good governance, energy security and global security can only be advanced by committed individuals, institutions and nations working together to find solutions,” Shannon said. “It’s all about partnerships.”

Shannon made his remarks on the second day of the eighth annual forum of EducationUSA, a State Department network of over 400 international student advising centers in more than 170 countries. Among other activities, the network helps American institutions of higher education better understand how to recruit international students from diverse parts of the world.

Shannon’s remarks come at a time when American colleges and universities are increasingly benefitting from international enrollment. It also comes at a time of uncertainty for international students who wonder about their safety and security at a time when many believe anti-immigrant sentiments have been stoked by President Donald J. Trump, whose campaign rhetoric, border crackdowns and travel bans they say have created an atmosphere of hostility to foreigners.

With the possible exception of a joke about how hot and humid it was last week in D.C. — “and I’m not even talking about the weather,” Shannon said, an apparent reference to chaotic shifts in staff at the White House — Shannon steered clear of any talk about Trump’s politics. He said 2016 marked the first time that more than one million international students were studying in the United States. He cited statistics that show international students contributed $35.8 billion to the U.S. economy and supported an estimated 400,000 American jobs, statistics which he said make international higher education the nation’s seventh largest service sector export.

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At the same time, Shannon said international students “contribute far more to U.S. colleges and universities than can ever be measured economically.”

“International students enrich American campuses and classrooms with perspectives from around the world and improved learning environment for all students,” Shannon said. “When American and international students have the opportunity to learn alongside each other, they transcend stereotypes and expand world views and connect with people in places previously unknown.”

Shannon praised universities as being “incredible resources” because they “move beyond the politics and economics of the moment and grasp the social possibility of the world in which we live.”

Shannon also described his experience working with the Brazil’s “Science Without Borders” program as one of the most interesting experiences of his nearly 34-year career.

The scholarship program — launched in 2011 but which Brazil reportedly shut down earlier this year due to rising costs and uncertain benefits — sought to send 100,000 Brazilian students abroad to study STEM fields at top universities throughout the world.

“It was all about pushing Brazilian college students — both undergraduate and graduate — to universities around the world in order to jump-start their science, technology, math and engineering programs and to link their students with internships . . .  that would provide them a larger experience than just an academic experience,” Shannon said.

“It was quite remarkable,” he said, recalling how the program forced participants to rethink higher education and how to build more enduring partnerships between universities in different countries.

Shannon’s remarks resonated with attendees such as Randy J. Dillard, a recruiter coordinator in the Office of International Affairs at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

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Dillard said when his institution participated in Brazil’s “Science Without Borders” program, it unexpectedly led to partnerships with Brazilian universities, which in turn led more students from UM-Dearborn to study abroad in Brazil. Last year, he said, about 20 students from the campus studied abroad in Brazil.

“It starts to show that the ability to study in another country is not as hard as it may seem,” Dillard said, explaining how the Brazilian students inspired more students from the campus to visit Brazil. He noted that many of his university’s students have not experienced life outside of the metropolitan Detroit area.

Dillard said the program also helped build better cross-cultural understanding among students.

“Automatically, your biases . . . your preconceived notions .  .  .  change when another human being is doing the same major as you and you’re trying to solve a problem,” Dillard said. “When you’re solving problems together, you don’t have that same bias. You don’t have that ‘otherness.’”

Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at jabdul-alim@diverseeducation.com or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.

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