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NAFSA: international educators told to combat ‘unwelcoming rhetoric’

The international education community has a vital role to play in promoting the values of openness and inclusion in the face of unwelcoming political rhetoric in the run-up to the US election, stakeholders were told at the annual NAFSA conference, held last week in Denver.

Bryan Stevenson urged delegates to "change the narrative" around immigration. Photo: The PIE News.

"It matters what people say in the presidential campaign – if you promise something, people will hold you to it”

“At times, our political rhetoric sends an unwelcoming and even uninformed signal to the world,” commented NAFSA’s outgoing CEO, Marlene Johnson, saying that educators have a social responsibility to combat this.

“At times, our political rhetoric sends an unwelcoming and even uninformed signal to the world”

Opening the conference, attended by some 9,000 stakeholders, Johnson said that politicians must be made aware of how international students help to bolster the US’s diplomatic relations and security.

“What we have come to appreciate these last years is that international education has become an even more critical tool for the shaping of our foreign policy, for improving our security and strengthening our economy and promoting mutual understanding and cooperation among all nations,” she commented.

She pointed to a statement published by NAFSA’s board of directors, urging prospective candidates for the US presidency, senate and congress to “embrace policies that create a more welcoming and globally engaged United States”.

Johnson said that it is important for international educators to put pressure on the future president of the US – and therefore all of the presidential hopefuls – to make the “values of international education, immigration reform and lifting the embargo [on Cuba]… at the centre of the election agenda”.

During one of the conference plenaries, director of the law NGO Equal Justice InitiativeBryan Stevenson, also said international educators should weigh in on political conversations around immigration.

Stevenson urged delegates to “change the narrative” on immigration, nodding to presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s pledge to build a wall on the US-Mexico border.

“If we buy into the politics of fear of anger, we will accept inequality,” he said.

Stevenson also stressed the importance of “staying hopeful” in light of the harsh political rhetoric being thrown at the topic.

“We’re hoping at this conference to have our colleagues to really start thinking provocatively about our field”

Echoing Stevenson’s comments, NAFSA’s president, Fanta Aw, told The PIE News: “It’s easy to be overwhelmed by everything that’s around us, and in many ways to be paralysed by it, but we have to have hope because the opposite of hope is a very scary proposition.

“We’re hoping at this conference to have our colleagues to really start thinking provocatively about our field, to have some deeper reflections about the nature and purpose of the work that we’re engaged in,” she said.

During the conference, delegates were encouraged to take positive and proactive action to ensure the voice of the sector is heard in political debates.

Briefing delegates on public advocacy, Ilir Zherka, executive director of the Alliance for International Exchange, said that international educators can hold would-be political leaders to account in the run-up to the election by asking questions at public forums and town hall meetings.

“It matters what people say in the presidential campaign – if you promise something, people will hold you to it,” he said.

“By showing up at town halls and asking questions you’re also helping to create a record of where people stand,” he pointed out.

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