NAFSA-Association of International Educators is the world’s largest non-profit professional association dedicated to international education. NAFSA believes that international education and exchange is fundamental to building mutual understanding among nations and creating the conditions for a more peaceful world. They held their 64th Annual Conference and Expo in Houston, Texas between May 29 and June 1. More than 8,500 education professionals from all over the world attended the conference which was filled with enlightening seminars, thought-provoking sessions and informed speeches by the plenary speakers. While the conference explored various education related topics, two questions were given prominence. One was ‘how to internationalise your curriculum’ and the other being ‘how to use social media to recruit international students’.
The plenary speakers at the event were former Secretary of Defense and Head of CIA, Robert Gates, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Leymah Gbowee, deputy secretary-general to the United Nations and Jan Eliasson who has authored more than 50 travel books.
All the speakers inspired the audience with their innovative approaches to confronting modern day issues. One of the most impactful speeches was made by Robert Gates, who served as a defense secretary for Presidents Obama and Bush. Gates made a very important statement during his speech, by saying that it is critical to educate foreign students if the United States wishes to build allies in the world. He supported this statement with the rationalization that an overseas education is an important way to develop future leaders as it provides them with a global experience and language skills. In addition to this, Gates had an interesting suggestion to offer colleges and universities in the United States. He said that learning a foreign language, along with the culture and history of those who speak the language, is an important part of an international education. Because the study of languages is on the decline, Gates said it was important to think of innovative ways to encourage the study of foreign languages. To illustrate his point, he cited the example of a pilot program started by the US Department of Defense. Participants of the program who took a foreign language or culture class were offered a ‘skill proficiency bonus’ up to $3,000, depending on the class they selected. Higher stipends were offered to students who took advance-level classes in languages like Chinese, Japanese, Swahili, Uzbek, Dari and Pashto.
Another notable speaker at the conference was Liberian activist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee, who appealed to the audience to participate in NAFSA’s campaign to write letters to President Obama to provide education opportunities for young children whose parents brought them into the United States without documentation. Gbowee’s powerful speech provided an insight on how distant the reality of a culturally tolerant and peaceful world is from where we are today. She mentioned an incident when she was approached by a young girl who said she must be impressed by the tall buildings in the United States since she was from Africa. Gbowee’s reply was witty and profound. She said that she wasn’t looking at the buildings; instead she was looking between them, into the dark alleys, where the truth of the nation’s problems lies.
As part of the conference, the 2012 Cassandra Pyle Award for Leadership and Collaboration in International Educational Exchange, which honours the contributions of a senior international educator, was awarded to Vivien Stewart, who is a senior adviser for education at the Asia Society. Stewart has made valuable contributions towards promoting the study of Asia and other world regions, cultures, languages and global issues in American schools. In addition, she has helped in building connections between American and Asian education leaders. Stewart has also recently published a book titled ‘A World-Class Education’, which describes what the United States can learn from high-performing education systems around the world.
The 64th Annual Conference and Expo in Houston was brimming with information, ideas and visions. We’re sure NAFSA’s 2013 annual conference in St. Louis, Missouri will attract many more leaders from the world of education and bring positive changes in its development.