The PIE: How did you come to work at VCU and what does your work involve?
Jill Blondin: I came to VCU in 2013 to direct VCU Globe, which is dedicated to building cultural agility in undergraduate students. I directed that program for five years, and following that, I had the opportunity to serve as the executive director of the Global Education Office, first as interim in 2018 and now fully since 2019.
VCU is a large public urban institution, and Richmond a really wonderful place with a lot to offer. Our office is really aligned with the mission of the university. We try very hard to help expand the global footprint of the institution through international partnerships, through encouraging inbound and outbound mobility and trying to foster research collaboration, as well as providing on-campus intercultural opportunities for students to engage in. We also provide immigration services over to the visas that we sponsor, so we have quite a few students we serve in the immigration services enterprise as well.
The PIE: How have recent projects been going in light of the pandemic?
JB: I think sometimes people are surprised to learn how active international offices have been during Covid. Everybody understands how travel has been compromised, whether it’s by embassy and consulate closures, airlines, testing, vaccination. Institutions around the world had to recall study abroad students back to their home countries. That actually began what has been a couple of years of intense activity for international offices. I would argue that we’re even busier now due to playing a reactive role to the totally dynamic nature of Covid. We’ve had to step back and say, ‘how could we serve our students better by providing opportunities on campus? How do we provide a more robust education abroad experience for our students? How do we support our international students?’
Essentially, we are trying to support all of them, both through immigration guidance, which has also been subject to restrictions in the US, and also to support students who have not been able to travel home. Obviously, I wish that Covid hadn’t occurred – but I do think it’s presented an opportunity for international educators to demonstrate the value we bring to higher education.
We’ve been able to keep our institutions compliant when it comes to immigration, and provided a great deal of thought leadership – but it’s forced everybody to be innovative and creative in the way we deliver global learning. I actually find this to be tremendously exciting and feel really optimistic about the future and the present global education. I feel that way about my colleagues, both in my office and the administration of VCU, the faculty and students – but I also feel that way about my peers at other institutions.
“At federal level, the US is taking steps to maintain competitiveness”
The PIE: How can the US strive to maintain momentum as other countries like the UK and Canada begin to gain ground again?
JB: There has been so much change in the way students can study, whether it’s online or in person. But higher education is one of the greatest exports of the US. It has been that way for a long time, and I think it will continue to be in order to maintain our competitiveness. One key element is research collaboration opportunities for students who are coming from abroad to have experiential learning, whether that’s in the form of studying here, or volunteering, to research to internship opportunities. I think that being able to provide that and making the value proposition of study in the US is important, and it’s vital for us to not only continue to support our students, but to make sure that students in various countries understand the level of support that we’re providing.
We as individual institutions can enhance the support we provide to international students, which I think we must continue to do for their success – providing career services in a thoughtful way that acknowledges the challenges that they have – but at the federal level, the US is also taking steps to maintain our competitiveness, including some of the immigration guidance.
The support for STEM fields is brilliant, but I would like to see enhanced options for non-STEM fields as well. I’m an international educator, and part of that is my work as an art historian. The importance of the humanities also can’t be overestimated because there’s a critical thinking piece which is also hand in glove with international education. I don’t think we should leave the humanities behind, although I totally recognise the importance of STEM.
The PIE: China, and Japan, for example, have had bans on international students since 2020. What destinations are you currently focusing on around outbound mobility?
JB: In the past decade or so, even longer, I know that international education administrators and study abroad staff were trying to encourage destinations outside of Western Europe, for instance, trying to get people to see opportunities where it makes sense for a student from a curricular standpoint to encourage their professional development, career opportunities and language and intercultural course. We’ve encouraged students to study at less travelled destinations because of the opportunities those places present.
What we’ve seen in Covid is, in some ways, a return to a lot of locations that have been very popular historically – for example, Western Europe – and we’re excited about that. Any resumption of study abroad now, if it’s done safely, is a net good for our enterprise. But I do think what we would like to see is a resumption of study abroad to places where students haven’t been able to go during Covid, so I think it’s a challenge to our field to grow in that area again and to encourage that, as we can do safely.
The PIE: What is on the table for 2022 when it comes to international recruitment? How can you reboot momentum?
JB: I think we’re very nimble – so we’re prepared as we can be. We’ve shown a lot of flexibility, and as things change, we’re always prepared. For VCU, what we’re really trying to do is keep expanding our global footprint. We’re looking to recruit more international students into our high-ranking programs and expand the number of students who are studying abroad – faculty who are engaged in outbound mobility research collaboration in particular.
We are also very interested in expanding our relationships with embassies in the US in order to foster all of these relationships. Essentially, it’s a strategy that helps expand VCU’s global footprint thoughtfully and in a way that capitalises on providing excellent experiences for students who come to our institution. We want to grow in ways that we haven’t done and really intensify current relationships, but also forge relationships abroad where we haven’t before.
“I think we’re very nimble – so we’re prepared as we can be”
The PIE: What do you make of the recent Open Doors data on international scholar trends?
JB: The IIE data was not surprising given the circumstances, but it does show the uphill battle that we have with going forward. Like I said, the way that I have viewed the past couple of years is an opportunity for us to ask how we can benefit our educational enterprises. As we look at the research we’re doing now, a lot of it having been informed by Covid, it gives us an opportunity to look to international partners to try to encourage cross disciplinary collaboration. For instance, if every institution accepted a Fulbright Scholar, we could grow those numbers.
There is an intentionality that’s going to be required to bring those numbers back up – not just for the sake of saying we have more international support in the US but rather to think about the opportunities that it presents for both sides. We have to come together to understand what our research priorities are, which should involve international collaboration and then work from there and say what could benefit, what could move our research forward? And then what partner would be ideal to do this? That’s one aspect of it. But another is capitalising on opportunities, not just with your own international partnerships, but through organisations like Fulbright, where you could enhance your own internationalisation.