“You have to think of this as a long-term investment in a relationship,” said Lorna Middlebrough, the State Department’s education specialist for Iraq.
“Sticking in a few scholarship students is not the answer because it takes a long time to build the capacity to deal with the scholarship programme,” she shared. “It’s not a quick fix to fix the budget.”
Middlebrough made her remarks at the 3rd Annual IEP Stakeholders Conference of EnglishUSA in Washington, DC.
The conference — which drew about 150 individuals — provides an opportunity for IEP workers and others, such as embassy officials and accrediting agency leaders, to converse and gain practical insights, as executive director, Cheryl Delk-Le Good, explained.
“It’s invaluable to our members,” she said. “It’s about dialogue.”
While some of the presentations were overviews of the programmes and services that different organisations offer, the one at which Middlebrough spoke — “Working with Foreign Government Scholarship Programs in the Middle East and West Africa” — stood out for its abundance of practical advice.
“If you invite students from a particular country, go to that country, let the policymakers there see you”
It also focused on a region of the world that represents one of the most rapidly growing sources of international students to the US, observed co-panelist Andrew Masloski, a program officer with EducationUSA.
Specifically, the number of students from the Middle East and North Africa grew from about 77,000 in the 2012-2013 school year to more than 92,600 in the 2013-2014 school year, a change of 20.2 percent.
Meanwhile, the total number of international students in the US grew from about 819,600 to 886,000, or 8.1 per cent, during the same timeframe.
“That 20 per cent is the highest number by far of any other region in the world and it has been that way for a while now,” Masloski said. “The number of students coming from the region is only increasing.”
Masloski said hosting students from abroad plays a key role in national security. “When you bring people, especially young people, from other countries to the United States, it is their opportunity to recognise that there is a difference between the American people and American policies and the way things are talked about in the media,” he said.
But helping students interact with Americans is not always an easy thing to do, Middlebrough said. For instance, Omani officials seek to ensure that their students “stick together,” she said.
“For us, that’s not the most conducive to international exchange,” Middlebrough said. “But don’t be surprised if (Omani students) tell you: We have to live with other Omanis or hang out with other Omanis.”
Oman is has been rapidly expanding its scholarship programme because “they really need people with certain sets of skills to come back to the sultanate and work,” Middlebrough elaborated.
She offered a series of tips on things that IEP administrators and workers can do to optimize conditions for students from the Middle East and North Africa.
Among other things, Middlebrough suggested that IEP workers and administrators reach out to local mosques to better enable Islamic students to fulfill their prayer obligations and meet their dietary restrictions. “If you’re going to invite a ton of Middle Eastern students, you better have halal food and a place to pray,” she advised.
Other recommendations included visiting the home countries of the scholarship programs: “If you invite students from a particular country, go to that country, let the policymakers there see you,” Middlebrough said. “It’s a culture that relationships are very, very important, and the more you get out and invest in building the relationships, the easier it will be for you to not just work with the students but the programmes.”
And get a firm grasp of the true significance of grades from a given country. “Offer this information to faculty to help them understand fully the regions, because grading is often very repressive in a lot of fields of study,” she said. “It may not appear that the student is very talented until the faculty understand the context.”
“It’s different for every programme,” Middlebrough summed up. “You have to invest the time up front to see if that matches what you can deliver. Some may not be a good fit, and that’s OK.”