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Fanta Aw, incoming CEO, NAFSA

The PIE’s Maureen Manning sits down with the new executive director and CEO of NAFSA, Fanta Aw, to discuss her top goals and vision for the future of international education.


With over 10,000 members, NAFSA celebrates its 75th anniversary this year

“In this field, in order for us to do the comprehensive work that is needed, we have to work together. That’s number one,” says incoming CEO of NAFSA, Fanta Aw.

Current vice president for Undergraduate Enrolment, Campus Life, and Inclusive Excellence at American University in Washington DC and with over three decades of experience in higher education administration, Aw will be joining NAFSA in March.

She is also a subject matter expert in immigration, exchange programs, and DEI in higher education.

In her interview with The PIE, Aw touched upon all of these aspects of IE, and underscored collaboration as critical to moving the needle in those areas. Moreover, it is the cornerstone of her mission at NAFSA’s helm.

“There are many organisations that are doing important, timely, and relevant work,” she states. In her new role, Aw says she aims to “intentionally and strategically build alliances across the sector”, believing, “we’re stronger together than in individual organisations”.

“We’re going to have to figure out how to work much more in comprehensive partnerships and alliances”

“Given the major challenges that we’re seeing in the sector and what the future outlook seems to indicate, we’re going to have to figure out how to work much more in comprehensive partnerships and alliances,” proffers Aw.

“Part of the answer is we have to figure out what our shared common goals are and how we ensure that, in working with others, it’s not a zero-sum game, and be able to convince that actually, it’s a win-win for all. We’re truly stronger together when we’re able to work in partnership because shared values can transcend borders.”

In considering the future of the profession, Aw notes, “The intergenerational piece is incredibly important.

“Who’s coming into the profession and how are they thinking about the future of international education? How do we engage them in this work in ways that are meaningful?” she asks. Aw argues we have to be willing to be bold and “harness that brainpower and passion”.

Further, she claims advocacy efforts have to be intentional, systemic, and sustained. Aw is a champion for diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in higher education.

Another one of her central goals for her new role at NAFSA is advancing this work across the sector.

“It will be really important for us to look at the intersection of the work of IE along with diversity, equity, and inclusion. I often say that the centre of gravity around this work is shifting along with the demographic shift that’s happening globally. We really need to be thinking about how we open up opportunities for areas of the world that have never been as engaged.”

Aw adds she is deeply committed to doing more in this space, particularly in the global south. Part of the inclusive nature of the field Aw calls, “The Big Tent.”

She affirms, “We need to be thinking about this tent, this kind of notion that there is room for so much and so many: government, non-profit, non-governmental organisations, corporations, the education sector, etc.

“And the multiplier effect of this work is one of those opportunities that we have.”

Aw states specifically for NAFSA, as a US-based organisation, the ability to engage with colleagues and others across the globe is incredibly important.

“And it has to be done in a way that it is respectful to our colleagues and to the areas we want to engage with. That requires reciprocity, mutual understanding, humility and the acceptance that we don’t have all the answers.”

Challenges that Aw anticipates will continue to plague the sector are the geopolitical landscape, threats to democracy and how economic conditions impact equity.

“But sometimes challenges really forces us to think about new opportunities,” she advises. “And we saw that with the challenges that Covid-19 brought us.

“Are we willing to shift paradigms? We have to be thinking for the long haul”

“We learned some new ways of doing things and new ways of being.” As such, Aw asks stakeholders to consider how to turn challenges into opportunities. “Are we willing to shift paradigms? We have to be thinking for the long haul. Not just today, but also, how we plan for tomorrow and the day after.”

With over 10,000 members, NAFSA celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. In planning for the future in her new role that commences this March, Aw is reflective about the history, trajectory, and impact of the association.

“This is really a time of renewal”

“What a journey it has been for the organisation over this period of time,” she comments. Aw believes this is a prime opportunity not only to reflect on the past, but also to build upon it to help ensure a bright future for the sector.

“The field has gone through so much. We have changed; organisations and associations have changed; the world has changed. But for us, this is really a time of renewal.”

As a result, Aw says she approaches the role “with an eye for new beginnings. Working with others, asking questions, listening, and seeking the answers together; embracing change. And knowing that, yes, we have challenges ahead, certainly, but so many opportunities as well.”

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