5 AIEA 2023 Conference Takeaways

by Robin J. Lerner, Dr. William Smith, and Antoine L. Battle

The 2023 Conference of the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA) just wrapped up in Washington, DC. This is the only association dedicated exclusively to senior leaders in the field of international education. Each year, this conference brings together international education leaders into dialogue with each other, their counterparts around the world, organizations that promote international education, and organizations concerned with the shaping and management of international higher education. Throughout the conference, we shared institutional strategies and provided an effective and unified voice on matters of public policy. Will, Antoine, and Robin divided and conquered, and they came back with a lot of new knowledge and observations. Please read on for each of their five takeaways and feel free to reach out directly to discuss further.

Robin Lerner, President and CEO
Refugee Access and the Responsibility to Educate

The conference agenda included four separate sessions on refugees in higher ed. The discussions were rich because so many U.S. universities answered the call to provide some haven for newly arrived Afghan and Ukrainian evacuees over the past 18 months. During AIEA, we shared ideas about what this recent practice means to long-term refugee integration and educational opportunity:

1. Be Refugee Ready
While many universities answered the call to make space on their campuses for evacuees and refugees from Ukraine and Afghanistan over the past 18 months, it was extremely challenging and fraught. The lessons learned must inform – and encourage – ongoing efforts to serve an even wider population of displaced persons. The role of a public university is to serve the people of that state, new neighbors included, and refugee students contribute to campus diversity and cross-cultural competencies. Understanding that, universities should take this moment and work together to create toolkits, best practices, and communities of practice to normalize the process of hosting refugees now and into the future.

2. Digital Document Storage
Everyone – everywhere – should have access to their education documents when they need them. What happens when you flee your country with only the clothes on your back, your institution burns down, or your government closes it down? The prevailing model is that individuals must keep and carry their own credentials and that it is their responsibility to get them. We know from the Afghanistan evacuation that individuals – especially women – risked their lives if they were caught with their documents. Thus, many left them behind or destroyed them. Imagine a world in which every student’s credentials were safely and securely housed in a digital wallet where they could access them on need. That is the idea behind the student-led initiative, Article 26 Backpack. We hope you will learn more about it.

3. Serve Refugees Without Stigma
As HEIs make deliberate efforts to identify and place refugees into programs on their campuses, those efforts must be carefully executed to avoid stigmatizing students in a way they are uncomfortable with. As a refugee student normalizes their status, institutions could consider mainstreaming their support by transferring them from the international office over to Student Services. Our institutions should consider providing special training for Student Services to build their capacity to serve the unique needs of refugees.

4. Educating Refugees Where They Are
Less than 1% of refugees worldwide are resettled. Experts anticipate millions more people will become climate refugees in the years to come. What is the role of higher education institutions to educate refugee populations where they are? This is a concept worth considering. Some HEIs, non-profits, and educational companies are working with UNHCR to provide accredited and quality education for people in camps. And other models provide free online education to extremely vulnerable populations, including women and girls in Afghanistan. We hope you will get to know a few examples of this: Duolingo University Counseling Program offered through a partnership with UNHCR; Jesuit Refugee Services’ International Education Initiative; and University of the People’s scholarship for Afghan women for fully online courses. While this does not advocate against serving individuals on our campuses, it recognizes the scale and scope of the educational needs globally. Let’s answer the call.

5. Private Refugee Sponsorship
The newly launched Welcome Corps allows private citizens to sponsor refugees. It’s anticipated that the next step of Welcome Corps will be university sponsorship. Watch for news on this soon-to-launch option.  This is a long-standing practice in Canada and other countries.

William Smith, PhD, Director of Global Education and Impact
Exploring and Defining Our “Why”

Throughout the conference, there were sessions that centered on our purpose and exploring our “why” in the field. While there was plenty of meaningful discourse throughout the conference, here my top 5 takeaways from AIEA 2023:

1. Reciprocal Collaboration Requires Intentional Dialogue
Reciprocal and mutual collaboration requires intentional dialogue and reflection. As we engage across the globe, we must create space for structured, mindful communication about difficult issues. Our role as leaders within the field is to be mindful of how we engage and honest about what we desire. Before we sign that MOU, agree to that research partnership, or engage in that exchange program, we must be certain about our goals and intent. If not, we run the risk of establishing a relationship that is undefined, unhinged, and unproductive.

2. There is Sustainability in Purpose
Higher education institutions across the nation were impacted by the great resignation, and the international education field was not spared. During this reshuffle, offices that were able to retain their employees were rooted in their purpose, rather than in their benefits. Most professionals that enter the field of international education have a passion for student engagement and a desire to make a positive impact in the world. In times of discomfort or burnout, these professionals rely on their purpose to push them through challenges. As leaders within the field, we must ensure that our offices and organizations are nurturing the passion and desire of our staff daily. This starts with creating a culture grounded by a meaningful mission that goes beyond the “numbers.” Sustainability in the workplace starts with establishing a purpose that people can turn back to when the times are tough.

3. Best Fit vs Any Fit
There are times in the institutional internationalization process when we must decide whether to pursue “any fit” or the “best fit” to meet our goals. This decision is usually based on our institutions’ economic and academic positioning. If international education leaders decide to wait for the best fit opportunity, they might find themselves stagnant and waning. If leaders always pursue the first opportunity that comes across their table, they might find themselves at capacity and not nimble enough to pursue prospects that are a better match to their goals. Thus, leaders in this field must be conscious of where they are in their internationalization process and make tough choices on which opportunities to pursue.

4. Institutional Internationalization as a Balancing Act Institutional internationalization has economic, academic, and social advantages. At the institutional level, one of these advantages sometimes outweighs the others. To be oblivious to this reality is to miss out on an opportunity to have open dialogue on shifting your operational focus to meet the needs of the university. As international educators, we understand that there are times our mission as an office could contrast with the mission of the university. We must be creative in our approach both to meet the needs of the university and fulfill the mission of the office.

5. Defining our Why Author Simon Sinek once wrote that “leading with the ‘why’ allows you to evoke a higher purpose and calling that speaks to people’s emotional core, which brain research has shown is key to change efforts.” As international education leaders, we must clearly define the “why” for our efforts. This definition must be compelling, mission driven, and able to be trumpeted from the top down administratively. Once invested in the call and mobilized around a clear imperative, you will find colleagues much more willing to learn and grow, even when the going gets uncomfortable. Furthermore, building our “why” on a strong theoretical foundation provides a point of reference when we lose sight of the mission or are at a crossroads with an opportunity.  

Antoine Battle, Membership Coordinator
Identifying Opportunities

As a first-time AIEA conference attendee, I was thrilled to represent the Texas International Education Consortium (TIEC) in my hometown of Washington, DC. While being mindful of building educational partnerships, I carefully balanced networking to identify collaborative opportunities for TIEC’s Texas and international affiliate members; participated in sessions that could enhance the consortium’s membership, events, and programs; and connected with TIEC members and partners who traveled from Texas and other parts of the world. Here are my top five takeaways from the AIEA Conference 2023:

1. Virtual Exchange (VE) /Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) Utilizing VE and COIL can offer greater access to international education and ensure wider participation of underrepresented participants in international programming. It’s important to consider the financial, technological, and geographical (e.g., time zone) barriers when designing virtual programs. When scaling VE/COIL programs, institutions would benefit from a successful pilot project to highlight a model of success that can be scaled, as well as other success stories and VE/COIL resources.

2. United Nations Sustainable Development Goals An interdisciplinary approach can be leveraged to embed the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into in-person and virtual international programs, collaborating across offices and departments to combat issues such as climate action, gender equity, and life below the water. As an example, last year TIEC collaborated with the Texas A&M University Energy Institute, Greentown labs, and five Egyptian universities for a “Climate and Energy Impact Showcase” in Egypt.

3. Justice, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (JEDI) It is imperative that the international education community collectively take immediate action to address justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Representing a consortium in which more than half of the Texas members are Hispanic Serving Institutions, two members are Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), international members are located throughout Africa and the Arabian peninsula, and two members are women’s universities (one in Texas, the other in Saudi Arabia), we understand that study abroad and partnership destinations must be diverse, representation in international programs must be increased, and diverse perspectives must be incorporated. It was good to hear this reiterated.

4. International Partnerships Building effective, longstanding international partnerships requires multi-stakeholder collaboration, careful research, and detailed processes. I was able to learn various types of partnerships and agreements, as well as how to initiate and get buy-in from institutional leaders. It was also helpful to think about institutional and country priorities, and building a system to monitor the status of partnerships.

5. Relationships are Key While representing the consortium, I made it a priority to establish new contacts to build additional relationships throughout the world. It was also critical to greet senior international officers and presidents from Texas and international member universities. With the consortium’s focus on building educational partnerships between Texas and the world, the importance of local and global relationships cannot be overstated.