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In the last few months, Covid-19 has upended higher education, transforming how we teach and study, how research is conducted, the very rhythms of campus life. But perhaps few other parts of the academic enterprise have been as hard hit as international education. With closed borders and little travel, study abroad and foreign exchange programs have been canceled and research collaborations put on hold. Many international students are pursuing this semester online from their home countries, while those still in the United States must cope far from their networks of family and friends.

Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education convened — and I moderated — a panel to talk about the future of international education. Despite what Harvey Charles, a professor of international education at the University at Albany, called a “trifecta of catastrophe” — in addition to the pandemic, he cited the recession and the reckoning around race — the group was surprisingly upbeat.

There is opportunity in crisis, said Cheryl Matherly, vice president of international affairs at Lehigh University. “It is forcing international educators back to being really clear on what is the purpose for the work that we’re doing. While I’d rather have gotten to this discussion in another way than what’s happened in the last six months, I think this is a potential, real turning point.”

Stephanie Doscher, director of global learning initiatives at Florida International University, said colleges will need to be guided by objectives beyond enrollment totals and international tuition. “Those who are focused on learning are resilient because they are finding a way to keep people learning,” she said. “Those who are focused on the business model are susceptible to risk and are vulnerable.”

The speakers offered practical strategies for reimagining international engagement, including expanding virtual exchange, broadening student research opportunities focused on grand global challenges, and rewarding faculty members for embedding global learning in the curriculum. Many institutions have diversity close to home, said Ahmad Ezzeddine, associate vice president for educational outreach and international programs at Wayne State University. There is deep educational value in “interacting with those communities through a global lens, which we have not done.”

If you missed the virtual forum, you can register to view it on demand.

A bonus: We were able to get to only a fraction of the questions submitted by audience members in the hour-long session. But the speakers agreed to respond to several more, lightly edited for space and clarity:

Do you feel there are international resources and communities within the U.S. that would provide global learning opportunities that can be shared across institutions through collaborative engagement?

There are opportunities for students to explore international, intercultural issues within the U.S., which can be impactful as abroad experiences. In many instances, these programs are intended to both provide robust intercultural experiences and help students connect international issues to a U.S. context. Just as with study abroad programs, these types of experiences can lend themselves to work with a consortia, especially if organized around a common theme. Programs such as the Washington Semester have a long history of D.C.-based semester study and internships. Other organizations, such Global Ties, developed Meet America for international students already studying in the U.S. to visit American cities as part of organized study tours. At Lehigh, we designed Lehigh Launch, a first year experiential semester program in the American West, in which students take a highly integrated set of courses examining a common set of themes related to population and migration, environment, and natural resources. Although delayed by the pandemic, the program design is very similar to semester study abroad programs and is intended to provide placed-based, immersive learning.

How do we ensure all students have equitable access to the academic, interpersonal, and career benefits of global education and that we don’t create a two-tiered system where financially well off students participate in in-country, immersive experiences and others only have access to virtual exchanges?

It would be a mistake to believe that education abroad is the only path to global learning. It would also be misleading to assume that those who participate in education abroad achieve a superior experience in global learning than others who do not. What matters in the end is that all students are exposed to a curriculum that offers them multiple, intentional, and substantive engagement with global perspectives, and that can happen with or without education abroad.

Having said that, education abroad, intelligently conceived, can be truly transformative in the education experiences it affords. We must remain committed to preserving and even extending study abroad opportunities for students. There are a number of things we can do to minimize the financial burden on students to engage in study abroad, such as developing bilateral exchanges and integrating education abroad more tightly with the curriculum so that it becomes part of the basic cost of delivering a college education. Until everyone has access to similar amounts of resources, inequality will be a part of higher education and international education. Our role as international educators is to advocate for global learning broadly conceived, while at the same time seeking to universalize education abroad opportunities.

If we rely more on virtual exchange could we risk cutting ourselves and students off from those geographical areas and populations that don’t have the technology to communicate?

When we talk about technology making global learning and collaboration more accessible to all, the opposite is also true: Technology-only learning makes education less accessible to many. UNESCO estimates that the move to online-only education was an obstacle for nine out of 10 students worldwide. While it is true that technology-enabled global learning such as COIL and virtual exchange are possible using only a cell phone, Covid-19 has revealed that in much of the world not even that is possible. In 2016, the United Nations passed a non-binding resolution condemning governments that intentionally disrupt internet access. This begs the question: Should access to broadband be a human right?

How would you balance the opportunities that hybrid learning could offer with the financial dependence the field has had on student mobility? Can our field survive without mobility for the foreseeable future?

The almost exclusive focus on mobility has limited our ability to think broadly and creatively about other ways we can realize the benefits of global learning. Now we have an opportunity, although not by choice, to change that. This new approach may require us to offer programs without having to charge for them. I would argue that experiences like virtual exchanges should not and will not be fee-based. So the question is how do we support them? Our operations and staffing will probably look different as a result. This, however, will require institutions once and for all to embrace global learning as a core aspect of the learning experience and to make it an integral part of the institutional business model, not an add-on or auxiliary service.

The dilemma is that all of this is happening while higher education in general is dealing with its own pressures and while the value and cost of higher education are being called into question. The case for this new business model can be made, but our challenge is how do we, as international education professionals, articulate it and push for a seat at the table?

For more reading: A group of international educators weighed in on the future of education abroad. It is a time “for new thinking, a moment to move education abroad forward as a field and potentially to transform it,” they write in University World News.

Suggestions please! Now that the fall semester is underway, I want to bring back latitude(s) coffee hours, informal online forums to discuss current issues in international education. (You can watch earlier sessions on international students and race and OPT.) Are there specific subjects you’d like me to highlight or speakers you want to hear from? Send me your ideas at

A Propaganda Bust

Critics have accused Confucius Institutes, the Chinese-funded language and cultural centers, of being propaganda arms of the Chinese government. But research by a Harvard doctoral candidate found that students in Confucius Classrooms, the high-school equivalent of Confucius Institutes, did not develop pro-Chinese attitudes. While the students showed interest in Chinese culture, they actually developed less favorable views of China over the course of an academic year.

“My findings suggest that American students — even young high-schoolers — are discerning and able to process conflicting signals in the learning environment,” Naima Green-Riley wrote in the Washington Post. “It is unlikely that they are being indoctrinated by the Chinese Communist Party.”

WeChat Ban Halted

Starting at midnight, the Trump administration banned WeChat and TikTok, the Chinese social-media apps, from mobile apps stores, citing national security and data privacy concerns. But a last-minute injunction halted the WeChat ban, while the administration gave TikTok a temporary reprieve.

The government action would have blocked the apps from being downloaded and would prohibit hosting and other services to WeChat, which experts say could effectively disable the app in the U.S. (American users could access it through a VPN — much as banned apps and websites like Facebook and Twitter are reached in China.) Still, although the apps have been lumped together, the impact of the two measures is not equivalent.

While Tik Tok is primarily used by Americans for entertainment, WeChat is an essential communications tool, used by Chinese students to keep in touch with friends and family back home, by American colleges for Chinese recruitment, and by U.S. faculty members to collaborate with Chinese colleagues, to name a few. I delved into the higher-ed implications of the WeChat ban in an earlier issue of latitude(s).

Teaching via Zoom

Are you a professor teaching students this semester who are in China or other countries that practice Internet censorship? How are you navigating security and privacy concerns? Are you changing your curriculum or assignments with students abroad in mind? Did your department or college give you any guidance? I want to talk with you for a future story. Email me at or message me through LinkedIn or Twitter.

Around the Globe

The Office of Management and Budget has finished its review of a rule that would replace duration of status for international students with a “maximum period of authorized stay.” The next step for the rule is publication in the Federal Register for public comment.

Laureate Education is selling off its educational holdings in Brazil.

Thai authorities have demanding that university leaders tell students to cease protests against the monarchy.

Universities in Israel and the United Arab Emirates have signed an agreement to work together, the first since a recent peace accord.

The Justice Department has charged five Chinese nationals with computer hacking schemes that have targeted universities, social-media companies, and other victims around the world.

China’s national science academy has pledged to focus research and development on “key areas of national interest” over the next decade.

The faculty advisory board of the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto’s law school has resigned following a controversy over the hiring of a new director for the program.

Despite the pandemic, Indian and Nepalese students still want to study abroad, according to a new survey.

Free-speech legislation in Britain could target student unions.

A Chinese student in Texas woke to find the word “spy” written in Sharpie on her apartment door. Now the image is circulating widely on Chinese social media.

Chinese high schools and universities will make depression screening a part of regular medical check-ups.

Could Singapore be a model for academic freedom in Hong Kong?

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And finally…

The weather turned brisk this weekend in New England — I forgot how quickly fall arrives here — making it a good time to curl up indoors with some reading. Luckily, I had a lot to dig into:

  • A USC professor wanted to use culturally diverse examples in his business communications class. But when Greg Patton used a Mandarin expression that sounds something like a racial slur, students complained and he was removed from teaching the course. He spoke for the first time with my colleague Tom Bartlett about being at the center of international controversy.
  • The FBI tried to recruit an Iranian scientist as an informant. When he said no, they accused him of being a spy and arrested him. After the flimsy case against him fell apart, he was thrown into ICE detention — where he got coronavirus. Read this Kafkaesque tale in the New Yorker.
  • She loved good gossip, didn’t know how to use the oven, and reveled in being known as the Notorious RBG. Longtime legal-affairs reporter Nina Totenberg says an affectionate goodbye to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Friday night.

’Til next week — Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.