Managing Internationalization: Strategic Initiatives or Reactionary Programming?

Managing Internationalization: Strategic Initiatives or Reactionary Programming?

Jason E. Lane
State University of New York, Albany

The purpose of the Global Affairs column is to discuss issues pertinent to the student affairs profession that arise out of the growing interconnectedness in the world. This column will provide readers with information and insights about the changing nature of the profession and some of the factors contributing to those changes. The use of the term “globalization” is meant to describe the growing interconnection of nations, people, economies, politics, and education and is not meant to reflect a particular ideology or belief structure. The column will explore both the potentially good and bad aspects of a real phenomenon.

Discussions regarding internationalization within higher education tend to focus on curriculum development, study abroad opportunities, research collaborations, and development of joint or dual degree programs. Rarely are the role and responsibilities of student affairs practitioners discussed in the global context; yet, many students are directly influenced by the work of such individuals.

In December 2011, I attended a conference about internationalization of higher education at the University of Lund in Sweden.  Co-hosted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Nordic University Association, the conference—The Strategic Management of Internationalization in Higher Education—was based on the premise that internationalization is an increasingly important aspect of many higher education institutions and that more attention needs to be given to how to effectively manage international engagements and internationalization processes.

While participating in the meeting, I wondered how, if at all, internationalization is managed within student affairs. The conference focused on institutional and governmental levels of strategy and there was no mention of student affairs (or related) activities. This was not altogether surprising, as the focus of the conference was mostly within the European context, where formalized divisions of students affairs, like those often found among colleges and universities in the United States, are still in the formative stages of development, if they exist at all.  However, I did begin to wonder the extent to which the traditional responsibilities of student affairs professionals are considered within the context of internationalization in higher education. Moreover, to what extent are student affairs leaders managing, or merely reacting to, the forces of globalization?

According to the International Association of Universities third Global Survey of Internationalization of Higher Education, the top reason institutional respondents provided for engaging in internationalization of activities was to “improve student preparedness for a globalized/internationalized world” (Egron-Polak & Hudson, 2010, p. 64). In implementing this goal, most respondents focused their internationalization strategies on study abroad experiences and internationalizing the curriculum. It seems that preparing students for a globalized/internationalize world should incorporate those in both academic and student affairs.  It is often through the co-curricular experience that students develop skills related to leadership, teamwork, and communication—all of which could benefit from the addition of international perspectives. In fact, given how few students actually study abroad, student affairs practitioners can play an important role in helping students who do have the interest or ability to study abroad to gain an international perspective or expand their intercultural understanding.

So, if institutional administrators are not actively engaging student affairs departments in internationalization strategies, then to what extent are student affairs divisions actively pursuing their own internationalization strategies? And, are the internationally-oriented aspects of student affairs part of a strategic vision, or merely reactions to specific events or external pressures?

Given the large number of demands that already exist on student affairs practitioners, many have likely not had the time or passion to think comprehensively about a divisional strategy for internationalization. In many colleges and universities, internationally-focused student affairs engagements are often isolated events that are spear-headed by a “champion” of the cause or sponsored by specific student clubs with a specific cultural or national focus.  Unfortunately, we have yet to see many student affairs division that embrace a global perspective on their work in the same way that many of embraced concepts such as diversity and social justice. In fact, in the September/October 2011 issue of About Campus, several authors described how study abroad experiences can enrich the student learning experience, and I commend the editors for taking a more global perspective in this issue; however, I was also interested in how leadership development programs, student activity offices, college unions, residence halls, and other more traditional student affairs units help students gain a more global perspective.

My purpose here is not to set forth a manifesto for internationalizing student affairs divisions—rather, I hope to raise awareness of this topic and suggest a general process that student affairs practitioners might use to internationalize their functions and help the institution prepare students for a globalized/internationalized world.  Despite the level of institutional commitment, the world in which our students will be working and living is increasingly “flattening,” as Friedman (2005) has often pointed out.  Those in student affairs can play an important role in preparing students to be successful in this flat world and also raise campus-wide awareness of the importance of internationalization.  However, it is important for those in student affairs divisions to have a general agreement about internationalization and how it can be integrated into their own activities. Too often, internationalization is viewed as a separate function to be handled by certain offices (e.g. study abroad), rather than broadly integrated across several divisions.

First, there needs to be a shared understanding of the intent and process of internationalization among student affairs professionals.  One of the more commonly accepted definitions of the term is “the process of integrating an international, intercultural, and/or global dimension into the purpose, functions (teaching, research, and service) and delivery of higher education” (Knight, 2006, p. 2).  Again, student affairs is largely ignored; however, for our purposes, we can easily amend the definition to be more relevant: the process of integrating an international, intercultural, and/or global dimension into the purpose and functions of student affairs. Such a definition provides a broad understanding of the process; however, each institution will likely embrace this concept in different ways, even though the administrative teams need to have a shared understanding of the concept.

Second, student affairs professionals should inventory what internationalization activities currently exist within their divisions. Before laying out a new agenda of internationalization, it is important to understand what internationally oriented programs currently exist. Such an inventory serves as a way to determine the current breadth of programs offered, identifies existing strengths and priorities, and can highlight weaknesses and holes in student programming. There are often several different international experiences available to students on a campus, but there is not always a central accounting of these activities. At some institutions, the international office may play a significant role in coordinating such information, but that is not always the case.

Third, practitioners should understand the institutional goals for internationalization. What strategies or priorities does the institution have in regard to internationalization? Do the goals include bringing more foreign students to campus or to send more domestic students abroad?  Perhaps the institution is seeking to develop “global citizens” or a “globally competitive workforce.” At other institutions, the priorities may be part of an institution-wide strategic plan or a related vision document.  Increasingly, institutions are thinking more comprehensively about internationalization, and student affairs divisions should be part of this process. But, even if students affairs does not have a seat at the table while strategic plans are being drafted, it does not mean that they cannot help the institution to achieve its goals.

Finally, student affairs practitioners should develop goals and action steps aligned with institutional goals that support a broad internationalization of the division’s functions and activities. In developing these goals, it is important to remember those students who do not have the interest or opportunity to study abroad.  How do divisions extend internationalize efforts to these students? How can student affairs divisions internationalize existing programs?  What new programs might be developed? What opportunities exist to partner with academic affairs as a means for enriching the overall learning experience of students?

These steps are meant to generate discussion and conversation about this topic, which, I hope, will eventually lead to strategic planning and goal setting.  Several student affairs units have already begun to think about such things and simple searches on the Internet reveal examples of how some student affairs divisions have attempted to deal with this topic. If you are part of a division that is already embracing internationalization, consider how you can help move the agenda forward. If your division is has yet to have these conversations, then I encourage you to initiate such conversations. The questions above, or in some of my previous columns, might help “break the ice.” If you are an aspiring student affairs professional, I would encourage you think about how you might incorporate an international perspective into your future work.

Discussion Questions
These discussion questions are drawn from the International Association of Universities questions posed above.

  • How can the internationalization efforts within student affairs support Knight’s (2006) definition of internationalization?
  • How could the definition of internationalization be broadened, if at all, to better reflect institutional efforts?
  • Does your student affairs division have a shared understanding of internationalization of higher education?
  • If you were a student affairs administrator, how would you seek to foster an international perspective among your staff?


Egron-Polak, E. & Hudson, R. (2010).  Internationalization of Higher Education: Global Trends, Regional Perspectives. (IAU 3rd Global Survey Report). Paris: International  Association of Universities.

Friedman, T.L. (2005). The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Knight, J. (2006). Internationalization of Higher Education: New Directions, New Challenges. (IAU 2nd Global Survey Report). Paris: International Association of Universities.

About the Author

Jason E. Lane is Director of Education Studies at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, associate professor 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 is 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 and The Global Growth of Private Higher Education, both from Jossey-Bass.

More about the author and his research on cross-border education can be found here. Please e-mail inquires to Jason E. Lane. The opinions expressed by Developments author(s) are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members, Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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