International Student Exchanges Make a World of Difference

Original appeared on the Huffington Post.

It’s International Education Week, and the 2013 Open Doors Report, published annually by the Institute of International Education (IIE) with funding from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, shows an increase in both international students coming to the U.S. — up 7 percent to a record high of 819,644 — and American students studying abroad — up 3 percent for a total of 283,332 — during the 2012-13 academic year. Looking at the numbers over the years, there are 40 percent more international students studying in the U.S. than there were a decade ago, while the number of American students has increased approximately 80 percent in the past decade.

Having international students on American campuses and American students on campuses overseas ensures stronger people-to-people connections, a critical element in sustaining important bilateral relationships. In other words, having students studying around the world, and then returning home to graduate and get jobs, benefits us all.

“International education promotes the relationship building and knowledge exchange between people and communities in the United States and around the world that are necessary to solve global challenges,” said Evan M. Ryan, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs. “The connections made during international education experiences last a lifetime.”

This is particularly relevant when it comes to U.S.-China relations. According to the 2013 Open Doors Report, Chinese student enrollments increased in the U.S. by 21 percent in total and 26 percent at the undergraduate level. China was the fifth most popular study abroad destination for American students with just under 15,000 students, 2 percent more than the previous year. The values and skills both Chinese and American students learned as part of these international experiences should result in greater U.S.-China cooperation in business, government and other sectors; help keep open channels of communication; and strengthen global stability. It is with these types of benefits in mind that, in 2009, President Obama announced the “100,000 Strong” initiative to increase dramatically the number and diversify the composition of American students studying in China. The initiative has since transitioned to an independent nonprofit organization, the 100,000 Strong Foundation, which added Americans studying Mandarin.

“Virtually no major international issue — whether global economic recovery, climate change, or nuclear non-proliferation — can be solved without the active engagement of both the United States and China,” said Dr. Allan Goodman, president and CEO of the Institute of International Education.

But the world is a very big place, and the benefits of international student exchange go far beyond just the United States and China.

Recognizing the need to build greater ties with our neighbors to the south, the Obama administration launched “100,000 Strong in the Americas” in March 2011 to increase the exchange of students between the U.S. and Latin America. It seems to be working with Costa Rica, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador and Chile all making it into the top 20 destinations for American students. In particular, Brazil attracted 16.5 percent more American students than last year, and 20.4 percent more Brazilian students studied here, possibly attributed to a new program sponsored by the Brazilian government, the Brazil Scientific Mobility Program, which provides scholarships to Brazilian students, in mostly STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), to study in the U.S.

Other large increases in international students have come from Saudi Arabia, up almost 31 percent, and Kuwait, up 37 percent, both of which are driven by government-sponsored scholarships. And although there is not an equal swap of students with these two countries, American students benefit by having all international students on their campuses. Their presence and integration on campus, especially when done properly by the university and college, helps provide a more international experience to students, especially those who don’t study abroad. Moreover, this exposure just may be the spark needed for students to start thinking about studying abroad.

The international experience also helps young graduates increase their chances of landing a job. Today’s students need as much international experience as they can get: Employers increasingly seek workers who have both cutting-edge technical skills and cross-cultural competence. The latter is a skill strengthened when a person spends time studying, living and working abroad. And when it comes to multiple language skills, which are highly sought-after yet scarce, one of the best ways to improve proficiency is to spend significant time living and speaking the language in-country.

“The careers of all of our students will be global ones, in which they will need to function effectively in multinational teams,” noted Dr. Goodman. “They will need to understand the cultural differences and historical experiences that divide us, as well as the common values and humanity that unite us.”

Right now, less than 10 percent of American students receiving undergraduate degrees this past year had studied abroad at some point during their undergraduate programs. Through education, we can create greater understanding between the U.S. and every other country in the world. But in order to be successful, Americans must recognize the importance of these relationships and how study abroad can play a significant role. We’ve got a ways to go.