Internationalization and the Search for Otherness

Internationalization and the Search for Otherness

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. The term 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.

The German philosopher Hegel (1977) once wrote that “each consciousness pursues the death of the other” (p. 113). Hegel believed that how an individual views him/herself was very much dependent on how that person saw his/her relationship with the “other” person. Personal transformation and growth would come when a person wrestled with the “otherness” or differences with the others and attempted to reconcile those differences.

College campuses often provide opportunities for students to experience “otherness” and the resulting personal growth that occurs. College is often a time when students, regardless of their background, meet and interact with those who are different from them. These interactions, according to Hegel, are important, as they help the individual construct or reconstruct their own personal identity. Colleges and universities offer a wide range of “others” that many—whether a recent high school graduate or a returning veteran—have not encountered previously. The more diverse the campus, the more “others” there are likely to be. Conversely, the more homogenous the campus, the fewer “others” and, thus, fewer opportunities for growth there are likely to be. Of course, ultimately, it is up to the student (or individual) to decide whether the interaction with the “other” will lead to personal growth or merely reinforce his or her existing self-identify or, in the words of Hegel, “consciousness.”

While campuses can provide opportunities for personal transformation and growth, there are often larger social, economic, and political forces that influence how one views himself or herself. These forces transcend the college campus and make it difficult for individuals to see themselves as anything other than a set of social identify labels, as these forces tend to reinforce differences rather than stress similarities. For example, it is often difficult for students to escape the roles assigned to them as “first-generation,” “southerner,” or “minority.” This can be particularly true when students attend a campus near home or within a region with the same shared world views as where they grew up; it can be difficult to evolve their view of themselves.

This concept of “otherness” drove the development of an innovative student exchange program, sponsored by the University of Kentucky (UK). The Discover Germany-Discover USA program, winner of the 2012 Heiskell Award for Campus Internationalization from the Institute for International Education, supports about two dozen students’ travel from UK to Germany each June and brings over about the same number of students from Germany each fall to study at the UK campus.

A student exchange is, in itself, not necessarily innovative. However, this exchange focuses on U.S. students from disadvantaged backgrounds, such as minorities, first-generation students, and those from Appalachia. The students from Germany also tend to be first-generation and immigrant students who represent the “new Germany that is experiencing a spike in immigration”, according to the award application. The application describes the focus on “otherness:”

As [German students] bond with each other and acknowledge their differences, they also affirm their German identity and compare their feelings of inner versus outer identity with the ways that they are perceived by U.S. students. Similarly, U.S. students on the Discover Germany programs are members of a racial, ethnic, or cultural minority or are first-generation college students. Whereas they see primarily their differences before the travel experience, once they are in Germany, they also grapple with the dissonance between how they see themselves and how others perceive them.

Too often, discussions about travel abroad focus on students gaining an appreciation for other cultures and other people; however, rarely do we talk about the personal transformations that occur in how students view themselves as a result of these experiences.

Beyond the personal transformations that are a focus of the program, it is also important to highlight that this program specifically targets students who are MOST likely to feel different from the majority and LEAST likely to study abroad. As the paragraph above suggests, those who participate in the exchange often identify themselves by their differences from others, rather than the similarities that they share. But, it is the exposure to very different cultures and foreign environments that allows them to see their shared characteristics, while still celebrating their differences.

To be certain, I believe this program should be emulated by other colleges and universities. However, as with similar programs, there is a problem with scalability. The program serves around four dozen students a year through the help of the German Fulbright Commission, the Hertie Foundation, and Germany’s European Recovery Program. Regardless, there are surely thousands of students from dozens of nations that could benefit from such an experience, and there is no way to scale this program to serve all those students who would be advantaged by it. Nevertheless, I would encourage all institutions to look to develop such programs, as I believe it’s better to serve a couple of dozen students than none at all.

While resources might not exist to replicate the exchange portion of the program, colleges and universities can, and should, consider how they can use their existing and developing international education activities to help students confront “otherness” in ways that might not be possible otherwise in their communities or on campus. In an era when it is too common to highlight our differences, it is even more important for colleges and universities to help our students appreciate their similarities.

Discussion Questions

  • From your own experience, how has international education shaped your view of yourself?
  • Can the work that you do incorporate the concept of “otherness” to help students with their own personal growth? If so, how? If not, why not?
  • How can your institution better use international education as a means for helping students understand their similarities, not just their differences?


Hegel, G. W. F. (1977). Phenomenology of spirit. (A.V. Miller, Trans.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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 inquiries to Jason E. Lane.


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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