Where Multicultural Ed and Internationalization Meet [Inside Higher Ed]

By Elizabeth Redden, Inside Higher Ed

“Elitist, frivolous, escapist.”

“Divisive, political, provincial.”

Such are some common perceptions of college officials involved in internationalization (see the former colorful set of adjectives) and multicultural education (see the latter) — perceptions that are among the challenges to cooperation between the two fields, as outlined during an American Council on Education-led session at the 60th annual and largest-ever NAFSA: Association of International Educators Conference in Washington, which kicked off Tuesday afternoon with more than 9,200 registrants.

“It really boils down to the last point, that we’ve had limited interactions and knowledge of each other’s work,” Christa Olson, associate director of ACE’s Center for International Initiatives, said of the gap between internationalization and multicultural education at American colleges.

ACE is leading an initiative, still in its early stages, to “bridge” that gap, and explore the intersection between work on diversity and difference done through domestic and international lenses, respectively. In their presentations Tuesday, Olson and Jarred A. Butto, a program associate at ACE, described the challenges to collaboration between those involved with multicultural education and internationalization, ranging from the theoretical (divergent historical and intellectual roots of the two fields) to the practical (different offices charged with the two endeavors, and different budgets), as well as potential common ground (including a shared student learning outcome of intercultural competence).

ACE chose 26 colleges to participate in an upcoming June symposium — each college’s team including, at a minimum, the chief academic officer, chief diversity officer and chief international education officer — to further discuss the intersection between what ACE believes are two distinct yet overlapping areas, and to develop action plans on the issue(s).

As of now, however, Olson conceded Tuesday that this intersection between internationalization and multicultural education is an emerging area of interest and that the organization does not yet have a collection of concrete examples of successful practices to share — at least not beyond general education program requirements at two different institutions described in Tuesday’s session.

Since the mid-90s, the State University of New York at Binghamton, for instance, has had an eight-credit “Creating a Global Vision” general education requirement subdivided into two four-credit components. Each student at Binghamton must take one class tagged under the “U.S. Pluralism” category and another under “Global Interdependencies,” said H. Stephen Straight, vice provost for undergraduate education and international affairs. “What we are endeavoring to convey,” Straight said, “is that domestic and ethnic diversity in the U.S. is not a unique phenomenon, is not unique to the U.S., that virtually all cultures have become pluralistic.” In turn, he said, domestic pluralism has global roots, in immigration and diaspora.

And for three years now, Baldwin-Wallace College, in Ohio, has required that all students take a course designed to address how different cultural perspectives – both domestically and internationally – influence “enduring questions” like “What is human nature?” explained Judy B. Krutky, associate academic dean for intercultural education. One challenge, however, Krutky said, is convincing students, very focused on their majors, of the course’s worth. “Students aren’t really sure they need this information,” she said.

Also on Tuesday, Mexico’s former president, Vicente Fox, gave an opening plenary speech focused on Latin America’s pending rise — with education as its catalyst — and, more generally, accountability and the need to ensure equal access to quality education. He thanked the audience for a warm welcome that “more than compensates” for one he’d received navigating U.S. Customs upon his arrival in Washington (“Take off your boots!… Don’t you understand me — take off your coat!”)

No doubt further conversations on U.S. border control and immigration policy will ensue – as well as conversations on any number of issues related to international student mobility and policy, study abroad, and campus internationalization initiatives — as NAFSA’s annual conference continues throughout this week.