NAFSA 2008

Hello, Friends of ATA!

It’s been a while since I last posted anything.  I received wise advice–don’t blog unless you have something to say.  Since my return from Harvard, I have been immersed in day to day management, while applying some strategic lessons learned from HBS to better lead the company toward a strong and bright future.  And while these steps may be exciting to me and my colleagues, I question their interest to others, so I have spared you any hum-drum blogging.

Then an event took place that inspired me.  I attended the annual NAFSA conference here in Washington, D.C.–and thought it was worthy of note. NAFSA (formerly the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors, and now simply an obsolete acronym) is the association that brings together those in the university setting who receive and counsel foreign students and those who are involved in sending American students abroad for study.  Here is their official mission statement:

NAFSA serves international educators and their institutions and organizations by setting standards of good practice, providing training and professional development opportunities, providing networking opportunities, and advocating for international education.

I attended NAFSA as part of ATA’s CET Academic Programs ( team.  CET Academic Programs is ATA’s study abroad division, which represents about 30% of ATA’s total business.  (We acquired CET in 1993 and have grown the program by 10 fold since then.) We (CET) had a booth and a larger than usual presence, as NAFSA is not usually in our hometown.

Sessions featured varied topics, ranging from Policymaking for International Education and Coming Out Across Borders (Outcomes of GLBT Study Abroad Experiences) to Helicopter Parents and an Author Series featuring well-known writers on international experiences. In all, the conference was to have over 9,000 in attendance from the U.S. and over 100 countries and took place in the D.C. Convention Center. The parade of booths rivaled World Travel Mart in London with Spain’s presence being the most impressive in size.

While most conference attendees might skip the plenary sessions, I decided that it might be worth checking out, given that Judy Woodruff, once of my favorite journalists, was moderating. I was right. It was one of the most worthwhile sessions of the day. In addition to Judy Woodruff, the following individuals participated, representing a broad array of perspectives, and explored the conduct and goals of public diplomacy, with an emphasis on the vital role of international education:

  • Hisham Melhem, Washington Bureau Chief, Al-Arabiya
  • Keith Reinhard, Business for Diplomatic Action
  • Patricia de Stacy Harrison, Corporation for Public Broadcasting
  • Shashi Tharoor, former Under-Secretary-General, UN
  • The panelists discussed topics such as the forms and outcomes of public diplomacy used by the United States in the last 60 years; the relationships between foreign policy and public diplomacy during that period; and the impact international businesses has had on cross-cultural understanding and the creation of the “flat world.”  Questions like “What role does international education play in building understanding across cultures and national boundaries?” and “What is the future of public diplomacy in the 21st century?” were asked.

    The debate was heated.  Shash Tharoor presented eloquently on his position, speaking on the image and brand of the U.S. abroad and how it needs to change.  Hisham Melhem objected strenuously to the term “brand” with regard to a country’s image, as it implied it was all about “spin.” (He admitted he was not a marketer or business person, but trained in philosophy).  He emphasized that, in order to change its image, the U.S. needed to take action and let its actions speak for themselves.  This was not a case where “re-branding” and “spin” would be effective, he contended.

    Keith Reinhard, a successful business man, has established a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to reversing the decline in America’s standing in the world and improving relations between Americans and people from other cultures ( Mr. Reinhardt cited the Pew Global Attitudes Project released in June 2006.  In this document, 15 nations were surveyed to gauge their attitude to the U.S.  Though anti-Americanism had abated somewhat in 2005 as a result of the aid offered up by Americans to Tsunami victims and elsewhere, our ranking dropped significantly in most of the countries surveyed.  For example, since 2000, Great Britain’s view of the U.S. went from an 83% favorable rating to 55%, while Indonesia (a largely Muslim country) went from a 75% to 30% favorable rating.  As Mr. Reinhard’s website states:

    While it is true that much resentment of our country currently centers on our foreign policy, much does not. Other root causes include the perception that we are arrogant and insensitive as a people, that our culture has become all-pervasive, and that the global business expansion on the part of U.S. companies has been exploitive.

    I think that one of the best lessons for those in attendance was provided by Shashi Tharoor, former Under-Secretary-General of the UN. He offered the following anecdote to illustrate the importance of cultural perspective.

    An American farmer visits a farmer in India. The American asks his Indian counterpart where the boundaries of his farm lie.  The Indian farmer proudly points to the river visible not too far in the distance–“that’s my western boundary, and that” he says pointing to the trees nearby, ” is my eastern boundary.” He completes the demarkation of the farm by indicating the farmhouse behind them and the shed out in the distance ahead of them.  When done, the Indian farmer asks the American, “And how big is your farm?”  The American says, “Well, I get on my tractor and I go two and a half hours east and I reach the eastern boundary. Then I turn right and drive another three hours to the south and hit my southern border, and I turn right again and ride my tractor another two and a half hours north to my northern boundary, and finally I turn right again and drive another 3 hours back to the farmhouse. Just in time for dinner!”

    The Indian farmer nods his head knowingly and says “I used to have a tractor like that.”

    With (very) warm regards from steamy Washington, D.C.,

    Kate Simpson

    President, Academic Travel Abroad

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