Fanta Aw was until recently the president of NAFSA, the world’s largest international education association with approximately 10,000 members. She is currently vice president of Campus Life at American University and whose mission is to integrate the institution’s students to an environment of diversified learning directed towards global citizenship. She is a global reference on issues related to higher education internationalization – involving internationalization at home, inclusion, diversity and equity -, Fanta spoke to a packed auditorium during the opening plenary of the 2017 FAUBAI Conference.
Born in Mali, at the age of seven Fanta moved to Liberia where she completed most of her studies at a French school full of foreign students. “My first introduction to the world of international education”, as she always says.
Her second experience would be in the United States where she came to get her college degree and have the opportunity to work in the American University’s international relations office. “I learned a lot about immigration, cultural integration and interculturality there, in addition to having the opportunity to put into practice a few programs that helped in the transition of students to a new educational environment”, she recalled.
In the interview below, Fanta Aw talks a little about these programs, the difficulties she faced to insert the social aspect in the internationalization process, among other topics.
After all this time working with foreign students, what are the biggest difficulties these students face in adapting to a new environment?
Fanta Aw: I think it varies according to their educational level. Young graduates are usually more adventurous while postgraduate students are more focused and mature. In both cases, their adaptation influences their goals in a decisive manner. Students from countries with more traditional cultures that come to our university and find out who they are and what subjects really interest them. These are students that came to the USA because their parents want them to become doctors or lawyers, but suddenly they become enchanted by the arts or humanities, for example. This can create a conflict with their family or upon their return to their country of origin. In a way, these students are negotiating their identities.
During this period at the international relations office, did you develop any projects focused on these students?
Fanta Aw: We created a project for students that were planning to go back home after graduation. The same situation happened to me: you go back home, but your home is no longer the same place. The project involved a presentation about careers to help them in their return to the job market in their country of origin, guidelines on how to create a network of contacts, how to negotiate their identity when they go back home. The project also involved egresses from other countries that were able to share their experiences.
I also remember that we created the International Women’s Group in the 1990s, which brought together female students concerned about returning to their country of origin and who it would be for them as women to make such a transition. We met with 40 to 60 women every Friday to exchange experiences about what it means to be a woman in different parts of the world, to create a network of contacts, among other issues. What pleases me is that almost 40 years later, a few of these women are still in contact with each other.
We notice that your work has always had a special focus on the social aspect of internationalization. Do you think that universities are doing a good job in this aspect?
Fanta Aw: I think that the purpose of universities is the public good, form the citizens of the societies in which they will be inserted; but there are a few distractions along the way: competition between universities or the need to help our students to find jobs as soon as they conclude their courses, for example. In some cases, the universities forget that they are part of the community where they are located and that we have the responsibility of helping solve local challenges as well as solve the global challenges we face as institutions. Part of my interest is to understand how we can return to our original mission and include internationalization within it.
But it isn’t always easy, is it? Especially when we observe certain internationalization trends such as rankings. They don’t usually evaluate these aspects you mentioned.
Fanta Aw: Nowadays, universities face unprecedented challenges. For example, what is the balance between competition and collaboration? What is the balance between global education for citizenship and technical training? And to be honest, I don’t have an answer. I feel that the universities that are doing the best work are those that understand their role within the community in which they are inserted and have a social commitment.
During your lecture you drew attention to the relationship of power between north and south in terms of research funding. How can we solve this issue?
Fanta Aw: Unfortunately we live in a time where money is power and power dictates the priorities, whether it is power in terms of agenda proposition or of where our resources will be invested and for which benefits. I believe that we must reexamine this relationship in different levels. One of them is to understand that knowledge does not necessarily come from the North to the South. A lot of knowledge is produced in the South, which can benefit the North. There is room for reciprocity and this implies for example, in valuing indigenous knowledge, which up to now has been absent from this scenario. I believe that international education is not neutral and we must be aware of the relationships of power.