Are you ready for the “Pacific Century”?

Are you ready for the “Pacific Century”?

Jason E. Lane
State University of New York, Albany

Over the past decade, a rapidly changing global landscape has led many colleges and universities to shift their focus eastward across the Pacific Ocean. While maintaining their European engagements, new resources are often invested to support activities in Asia. With this change in mind, has student affairs evolved to meet this shift?

The latter part of the 20th century saw colleges and universities engage internationally more than ever before. Both scholars and practitioners grew increasingly interested in internationalization. Effort was poured into exploring ways of enhancing the mobility of students and scholars as well as how to transform the curriculum to better prepare students for a “flattening world” (see Friedman, 2007). For colleges and universities in the United States, most of those engagements were very Euro-focused, stemming from our long shared history, common language, and (relative) ease of access.

Yet, in the last few years, changing economic and political winds have led the United States and its higher education sector to adjust their sails. This repositioning has led the Obama Administration to call the 21st century “America’s Pacific Century.”

There are a number of reasons why such repositioning makes sense for the nation and its institutions of higher education. Two of the most significant reasons are demographics and economics. The largest and fastest growing populations in the world are located in Asia; and Asia already has more than 60% of the world population. China has emerged as the world’s second largest economy, recently eclipsing Japan. And, though the Chinese economic engine may be slowing a bit, it still has plenty of gas left in the tank. But, China is not the only economic reason to look westward. Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam are among the fastest growing economies in the world. In fact, the International Monetary Fund predicts that by 2030, Asia’s economic impact will be larger than that of the United States and Europe, combined.

More specific to higher education, Asia is the largest sender of international students to the United States. In 2012, nearly half of all international students in the United States came from China, India, or South Korea, according to the Open Doors report. And, as colleges and universities in the United States look to expand abroad, many new branch campuses and other foreign educational outposts are popping up in places such as China, Singapore, and Thailand. There is also increasing interest in India (though their restrictive regulations may stymie expansion of institutions in the United States into that country). But, it is not just the United States expanding into Asia. China has opened hundreds of Confucius Institutes on United States campuses as a means of expanding awareness of China’s culture and language. And, China has begun to export its own universities to other nations through the creation of foreign educational outposts in Africa, Malaysia, Laos, and Singapore;. This is likely just the beginning.

So, why is this important for student affairs professionals?

First, as I have noted previously, it is critical for student affairs professionals to recognize the changing (and often growing) demographics of their campus’ international student population. Many campuses have not fully recognized the different types of supports that students from different parts of the world need to be successful. For example, English is not as widely spoken in Asia as in Europe; and many Asian students often need support in acquiring English proficiency to acclimate successfully and to excel in their studies. And, research has shown that students from Asia can have a more difficult time developing friendships and integrating socially than their peers from Europe.

Second, there can be strong cultural and learning-style differences between Asia and the United States. One of the most extreme differences often comes in the form of student willingness to engage openly and freely in class discussions and academic arguments. Many countries in Asia continue to have much more stringent legal and cultural restrictions in regards to one’s freedom of speech. Questioning the policies of one’s country or challenging one’s elders (e.g. professors) is often discouraged or explicitly illegal. However, much of the educational experience in the United States is based on the premise of questioning ideas and debating various ideological or philosophical positions. While such questioning is important in classrooms, they may not be the most effective venue to help international students adapt to such behaviors. The co-curricular opportunities such as student leadership roles, debate clubs, and other opportunities may be a more effective way to demonstrate and model such behaviors. But, we have to make sure such experiences are open and available for all international students.

Third, student organizations, cultural events, and leadership activities can be a critical way to help domestic students prepare to engage in and assume leadership roles during “America’s Pacific Century.” Developing an understanding and appreciation of the many cultures, histories, and customs of Asia will be important for our future political and business leaders. Actual immersion in a culture via study abroad or similar experience can hardly be surpassed in providing this learning. Though, like point number two above, co-curricular experiences provide an opportunity to prepare students for such engagements as well as provide students who study abroad the opportunity to share with others. And, for those who do not have the opportunity to study abroad in Asia during their collegiate years, student organizations and other events can offer domestic students and students from non-Asian countries the occasion to develop relationships with colleagues from Asia and enhance their knowledge and appreciation of the region.

Fourth, as institutions grow their global footprints, student affairs professionals become more critical for ensuring the institutional ethos is embraced throughout the entirety of the institution, no matter where the physical presence might be. The student experience will vary across all of an institution’s foreign engagements. There is no way to replicate exactly the student experience on the Texas A&M campus in College Station, Texas. As students expand into Asia, they will have to learn to adapt to the local environments in a number of ways. But, there are key experiences, traditions, and values that can transcend the campuses; and student affairs professionals are often the keeper of such things and should play an important role in ensuring that an institution’s ethos is apparent in all of an institution’s campuses.

A critical component of preparing for “America’s Pacific Century” will be to find balance between existing interests and new areas of expansion. In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Is Europe Passé?, Beth McMurtie explored the tensions inherent in research and study abroad partnerships as institutions deploy new resources toward Asia and seemingly lessen their focus on Europe. The article argues that while Asia has emerged as strategically important, Europe remains an important partner – and I’d be remiss to not note that other regions from Africa to Latin America to the Middle East are also important to the nation, its higher education institutions, and students. At the same time, if the United States is going to be increasingly engaged across the Pacific, then it is important that higher education institutions do the same and student affairs professionals have a critical role to play in making that happen.

Discussion Questions

  1. How has your campus prepared for “America’s Pacific Century”?
  2. Other than those listed above, what opportunities exist for student affairs professionals to support students to learn about and gain an appreciation of Asia?
  3. How important is it for student affairs professionals to help international students adjust to campuses? To what extent does your campus adapt to meet the needs of different populations of international students?
  4. Which co-curricular programs would you advise students with an interest in Asia to participate in? How might you encourage other students to participate in these programs?
  5. What might be the downside of overly focusing on Asia, as opposed to or instead of other regions? How might a vice president of student affairs approach implementing a comprehensive focus on all regions of the world?


Friedman, T.L. (2007). The world is flat 3.0: A brief history of the 21st century. New York, NY: Picador.

About the Author

Jason E. Lane is Associate Vice Chancellor and Associate Provost for Academic Program and Planning for the State University of New York as well as Deputy Director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, associate professor (on leave) of educational administration and policy studies, and a senior researcher with the Institute for Global Education Policy Studies at the State University of New York, Albany. He has been a member of the governing boards of the Comparative and International Education Society and the Council for International Higher Education and is an Associate of the International Association of Universities. His most recent books include “Multi-National Colleges and Universities: Leading, Governing, and Managing International Branch Campuses” (2010, Jossey-Bass); “Universities and Colleges as Economic Drivers” (2012, SUNY Press) and “Academic Governance and Leadership in Higher Education” (2013, Stylus Press).

Please e-mail inquiries to Jason E. Lane.

Follow Jason Lane on Twitter @ProfJasonLane.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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