International Education in an Interdependent World: An Interview with Dr. Fanta Aw, NAFSA
International education is at an inflection point. The pandemic disrupted student flows and transformed learning environments, while political polarization and geopolitical tension cloud the field’s future.
Although alarming, today’s challenges also underscore the value of an international education. Reflecting the world’s growing interdependence, these issues transcend national boundaries and demand global solutions. To Dr. Fanta Aw, who took over as the executive director and CEO of NAFSA: the Association of International Educators earlier this year, this makes international education a “must have” for the world’s next generation of leaders.
She speaks from experience. Dr. Aw’s early days as an international student continue to shape her outlook as NAFSA’s leader today.
In the days before the start of the fall semester, WENR sat down with Dr. Aw to discuss the state of the field, the indispensability of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and the transformative power of international education.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
You assumed the role of NAFSA’s CEO and Executive Director six months ago, however, you have been a leader in the international education field for decades. Can you share some of the milestones on the journey that brought you to NAFSA today?
When I think about milestones, what first comes to mind for me is my own personal journey. I come to the work of international education, and to NAFSA in particular, on a personal level, because of my own journey as an international student and what that journey has meant to me.
As an international student, I had to traverse what it means to leave my home country, come to a different part of the world, and immerse myself in a different educational system. I’ve had to face the trials and tribulations that come with this journey, but I’ve learned that when you come out at the other end, you often find that you are in a better place intellectually, personally, and socially as a result of the education you received and the privileges that that education then affords you. Knowing how I’ve benefitted from this experience, and knowing that not everyone has been afforded a similar privilege, makes me hope that every student of great talent and promise around the world has the opportunity for international education.
Tied to my personal journey is my intellectual journey. I majored in business. Like many other international students, I gravitated toward a major that would open the most professional opportunities. But in the process, I really discovered what it meant to be on a campus intellectually and what it meant to have intellectual exchanges with other people.
The other milestone is coming into the profession of international education. I caught the international education bug by accident, learning that there’s a profession dedicated to international education that I had never imagined, and I eventually started to work on a part-time basis within the field. This gave me the opportunity to see what international education had to offer and how I could utilize my intellectual background, in business and sociology, in the field.
I never thought that international education would become a career, but it did, I would say more by passion than by design. So, my intellectual journey eventually led me to a professional journey and to a 34-year career at American University in a myriad of roles focused on student success, the role of DEI in higher education’s social responsibility, and the place of international education within higher education.
Finally, as a professional, you need a professional network, to keep refining your skillsets and tools, and NAFSA was that for me. When I came into the field I was told, if you want to be connected to the field and to develop professionally, you will want to think about NAFSA. I became a member of the organization over 25 years ago, and over time took on various leadership roles with the organization.
What inspires and motivates your career-long dedication to international students and to international education?
Being in a global economy, being in a world that is ever more interdependent, I wake up every day thinking about the young people of promise around the world and what they are able to do when they are afforded a world-class education that has at its center an international experience. To know that we can have a small hand in that is something that motivates me and keeps me inspired.
How has your academic and professional experience at American University shaped your outlook as NAFSA’s leader?
I went to American University, a global university that enrolls students from around the world, that offers globally oriented programs, and that has prepared a generation of students to enter the global economy.
But I recognize that that is not the experience at every institution.
NAFSA works with over 3,600 institutions. This inspires me to think about how we can democratize international education. That’s really the piece that I’ve learned from my professional experience at American University. How do we scale up what was done at American University?
This also has to do with DEI. How do we make education more equitable for the majority of people? There are many institutions where there’s the appetite, but not necessarily all the tools or the wherewithal to do it right. And then there are institutions who still don’t understand where this fits within a 21st-century education. We have to ensure that universities have the curriculum to do that, that they are oriented toward that kind of work, and that they understand the value proposition of an international education.
When I think about my academic experience as a former international student, at the end of the day, universities are about people. Universities are about producing the next generation of leaders. I believe that the next generation of leaders, in order to be effective leaders, have to have international education be part of their education. It is not just nice to have, it is a must have today in today’s world.
How has being a female, and having West African roots from Mali influenced your leadership and professional trajectory? How has it shaped your outlook as NAFSA’s leader?
Being a woman from Mali in West Africa, a country that many classify as a developing nation given the average income and the poverty rate, yet a country that has a rich culture and history, is something that I carry with me every day.
My trajectory is a bit different because I am also a third cultural adult, in that I grew up in Mali, but I also grew up around the world. In many ways, that really shaped my orientation as a woman, as someone with West African roots, but also as someone who has lived in different parts of the world and who was educated in the French system.
All this impacts how I see the world and how I think about my work. It makes me aware of what it means to be from a part of the world that is not just misunderstood, but about which people are often completely unaware. So, part of our work is educational, making people aware of parts of the world that are not very well understood. And the value of international exchange is in many ways to bring the world to people and bring people to the world.
And so, for me as a woman, I look at this work as the work of head and heart. It’s not enough to have an intellectual journey with international education, there also has to be a journey of the heart. And that journey of the heart happens with people-to-people exchanges. And some of it cannot be mediated by technology. It really has to be people-to-people exchanges.
Our work is also about equitable exchanges so that you don’t have one part of the world dominating another part in knowledge creation and dissemination and in determining what is valued as knowledge. It’s about ensuring that there’s an understanding that knowledge can come from everywhere and anywhere and is not the exclusive domain of the West. We come from rich cultures with rich histories, and we have contributions to make, and these contributions deserve to be heard, understood, and valued.
The crowds at this year’s NAFSA Annual Conference & Expo were among the largest ever. If you could choose one insight or call to action for attendees to take away from this year’s conference, what would it be?
We are emerging from the pandemic and the world has changed. What this change means for the field of international education is that each and every one of must listen more, must understand more, and must engage more. We cannot take for granted that international education, as we’ve valued it over time, will remain so. We need to, every single day, be able to make the value proposition of why international education matters even more so now. In an extremely polarized world, in a world seeing so many global challenges, we require global solutions. And global solutions require an ability to think more globally and to think more internationally.
The theme of this year’s NAFSA Annual Conference and Expo was ‘Inspiring an Inclusive Future.’ What should every international education leader do to increase inclusion?
I would say that the work of inclusion is an everyday job. It is a journey, not a destination, and with that journey we start with ourselves. That means really asking ourselves on a daily basis: How am I being inclusive in my everyday work?
Also, if we are indeed inclusive, we need to ask ourselves if we are actually achieving better results? I’m of the mindset that real inclusion will lead to better results.
Because inclusion is a journey, we also need to be able to interrogate exclusionary systems of practice and ask ourselves: Who do these systems benefit and why? And how can we change these systems to ensure that this is not a zero-sum game? Exclusion means that somebody wins, and somebody loses. So, how can we get from there to a win-win situation?
My philosophy is that we are absolutely interdependent. So, the decisions that I make and who I bring to the table determine what kind of solutions I get. And the more diversity of mind and belief systems that you bring to the table, the more as a leader you’re likely to make robust decisions because you have the benefit of different perspectives.
That isn’t something to fear. It’s something to embrace. Every international educator should have the courage to embrace different perspectives and to see inclusion as an asset to become a better decision maker and, frankly, to become a better human being.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives at U.S. higher education institutions are increasingly under threat, particularly following the Supreme Court decision ending affirmative action in university admissions to certain state legislation banning DEI-focused initiatives. How are you and your colleagues responding to these trends? What implications do these developments have for international education?
I think the most important piece for us is that we have to be outspoken about these issues. Silence in many ways gives the upper hand to those who are fighting to take us back.
For us at NAFSA, we also need to make sure that we work in partnership with others. This issue is not something that one organization can change. We have to work on coalition building and making sure that we collectively speak out about why DEI matters in higher education and in international education.
These are not just domestic issues but are issues that those in international education should really care about. They involve questions about who decides what students should be taught. One of the things that the U.S. prides itself on is academic freedom. In the U.S., we talk about the importance of academic freedom; we talk about the importance of different perspectives in the educational system; we talk about how important it is to prepare students for the world in which they are going to be living. These threats to DEI run counter to what we say we value. How can we speak about the importance of these values when, at the same time, we are retreating from everything that has to do with DEI?
So, these issues have implications for educational quality, but they also have implications for what equity looks like. Who gets to have an education and why? And what type of education should they be getting? So, they have profound implications for those of us who are in international education.
A recent report from the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration found wide disparities in visa refusal rates for students from different regions of the world. Visa denial rates were especially high for students from Africa and the Global South. How can international education leaders work to advance equitable visa policies?
Visa denial rates are a symptom, not a cause. The larger cause, from where I sit as a sociologist, has to do with the way the U.S. engages with Africa and where Africa fits within the U.S. foreign policy framework.
Visa denials are one example of the barriers that the U.S. puts in front of young people of promise from Africa who want to come to the U.S. This sends the message that Africa is not as important as the rest of the world. I don’t think that that’s the intended message, but that is how it is going to be understood by the folks who are on the ground and who want to access the same education as so many others.
For me, again, this is an issue of equity and inclusion. Who do we in the U.S. allow to come and study? And who has more challenges and why?
Africa is incredibly important for the U.S., and I think that the U.S. not engaging as much as they can and should will have implications not just for today but for generations to come. When I think about the U.S.’s relations with other countries, much of it really starts with people-to-people exchanges. International students are folks who then become ambassadors or business partners or the people you will one day talk to about peace-making and so forth.
So, if we’re not educating the next generation of African leaders at the rate that I think we can, this will be not only a loss for the students and their families and the societies in Africa. But it will be an even greater loss for the United States.
U.S. visa and immigration policies have failed to keep pace with the dramatic changes in the higher education sector over the past few years. For example, student visa policies that limit the number of classes international students can take conflict with the growing prominence of online learning at U.S. colleges and universities. What can international education leaders do to advance policies needed to attract and retain international students?
That the U.S. has policies that are not really in step with the progress made in higher education points to why we at NAFSA believe that the U.S. needs a national strategy for international education.
The U.S. has so many different governmental agencies involved in international education. It is vitally important that they coordinate, collaborate, and communicate. You cannot have one arm of government behaving in a way that is contrary to another arm of government. You cannot have one agency saying that the U.S. values international education while another agency puts up all these barriers. So, NAFSA has been advocating for a national policy that would ensure that international students are truly welcome, not just at the point of entry, but throughout their studies here.
In the meantime, we have to continue to educate government agencies about the developments happening in higher education. Because what I fear is that agencies either will not be aware of important developments or, in being aware of them, will be too slow to respond. And we need to get governmental responses accelerated.
Could you tell us about one of the NAFSA initiatives that you are most excited about?
I’m particularly passionate about creating robust and vibrant pathways for the future of our field and preparing the next generation of international educators for the future. As a professional association, our ability to understand where the profession might be going and how we can prepare and entice people to join the field is very important. So is making sure that the people that are coming into the field reflect, look like, and come from our larger world.
As a former international student, what words of wisdom would you share with the next generation of international students?
That you don’t have to do it the way we did. Create your own path and imagine the impossible, because the impossible is possible.
I would also say to them—and I know it’s not fair—that we are very hopeful for the future. We know that there are major global challenges—which in many cases, we helped create—but we are hopeful that you will be part of the solution and not part of the problem.