Answering Eisenhower’s Call

International education programs and cultural understanding are as critical today as any time since Ike’s challenge to American higher education.

As we approach the 60th anniversary of the drafting of the National Defense Education Bill, when the Cold War was most intense, we are reminded of and inspired by the leadership and efforts of U.S. President (and former Columbia University president) Dwight D. Eisenhower.

President Eisenhower was keenly aware that the United States needed to prepare for a time when the U.S.-Soviet rivalry no longer dominated foreign policy and the world could focus on enhancing human dignity and inclusiveness. With this in mind, he called together thirteen university presidents to encourage more face-to-face, internationally focused education across their campuses. It was Eisenhower, the same man who had organized the successful D-Day invasion against Nazi-occupied France in World War II, who was passionate about bridging the divides between people of different nations, cultures, religions and ideologies.

While answering this call and recognizing the strategic importance of an education that embraces more than one culture, schools, programs, and curricula have grown and changed dramatically over the last 60 years. We must remain true to the ideals inspired by President Eisenhower, as this model of international and cultural understanding is critical to solving the world’s complex challenges.

In recent years, technology has democratized the global exchange of information and friendships, allowing anyone with an internet connection to be a citizen of the world. Yet, virtual exchanges of information and ideas cannot fully replace the transformational power of travel, immersive experiences and face-to-face relationships. And it is no coincidence that during this complex geopolitical time, students are participating in international exchange and degree programs at historic rates.

The recently released Institute of International Education Open Doors Report found that the number of international students enrolled in U.S. higher education increased by 7.1 percent last year, topping 1 million students for the first time. And it is not just an inflow of international students—the number of American students studying overseas has tripled since the 1990s.

International education programs offer tangible benefits to the students who participate in them. The Erasmus Impact Study found that 64% of employers consider an international experience important for recruitment and 92% are looking for transversal skills commonly developed through international education experiences.

The American higher education system is not only the best in the world, it is also one of our country’s great service exports. It is a source of tremendous American pride that students from all over the world aspire to study in our universities each year. Those, like myself, who are in the business of building successful first year experiences with our partner universities, share a responsibility to do everything in our power to enable each student’s success. When our students succeed, we all reap the benefits.

Yet there is also a growing sense of unease today that the steady march of progress may be faltering. Terrorism is a daily threat; Islamophobia is on the rise; and while technology has brought the world closer together in many ways, it has also sparked fear and alienation among those who feel left behind by the emerging digital world.

How do we push back against these fears and make the world, as President Eisenhower called it, “a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect?” We must recommit to fostering dialogue and meaningful relationships between people across geographic, economic, social and political divides. And this must continue to happen on university campuses.

We know that when international students study on U.S. campuses, the entire community benefits. Domestic students benefit through the unique perspectives of their international peers. Universities benefit through the contributions of diverse students from across the globe in their classrooms. The local economies also benefit ― the U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that international students contributed $35 billion to the U.S. economy in 2015. And, of course, international students benefit ― receiving a transformative U.S. college education, and returning home after their experience abroad as ambassadors for strong, positive bonds with the United States and our ideals.

The companies that enable universities to internationalize, including my own, have naturally grown as interest in studying abroad has increased. This has been a positive development, as the growth of the industry has opened up new opportunities for students to thrive in diverse educational environments.

However, when evaluating students across an enormous number of countries, transcripts, course rigor, pedagogy and other factors can vary greatly. The complex process of considering each individual application takes time, and ensuring that international students succeed on campus requires an extremely sophisticated team with substantial on-the-ground experience and training in each individual country. Universities who take short cuts on recruitment and admissions are certain to have a higher percentage of students who can’t keep up with their course work or report negative experiences on campuses.

Equally important, once a student is admitted to a university program, our job is just beginning. Think about the difficulty of making the adjustment from high school to the freshman year of college. Living independently, making new friends, eating different food, and making a host of independent choices for the first time. Now imagine doing that in a foreign country with a completely new culture and likely a new language. A foreign study program simply cannot succeed without a comprehensive, culturally sensitive support program on campus.

More than ever, we must devote the time, talent and capital it takes to ensure that our universities build academic programs and support structures that deliver real rigor and lasting value. When we observe young people succeeding academically and socially, establishing new perspectives, relationships and ways of thinking about the world, we can see with our own eyes that we are able “…to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.”

We must answer Eisenhower’s call. Now, more than ever.

Tom Dretler is Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of Shorelight Education. 

CONVERSATIONS