International students and public diplomacy

International students and student exchanges are topics that I personally feel close to. Coincidentally, I was exposed to the studiy of public diplomacy (and nation branding) when I was (not knowingly) part of the Foreign Fulbright Program – the flagship exchange project of the US. Thus, I feel almost upset if I don’t get to write about the 2014 Open Doors report of the Institute of International Education.

I basically want to talk about on two points: (i) What do these new numbers mean? (ii) Can we international students as an agent/actor in public diplomacy.

Places of Origin for International Students Studying in the States

Places of Origin for International Students Studying in the States

What do these numbers mean?

(If you haven’t seen the Open Doors report, you can access the press release here. the presentation here, and everything else – including the option to buy the report – here.)

ScienceMag had a great interview with Peggy Blumenthal of IIE. She highlighted the recent increase in the number of undergraduates students coming in from China and India. As everybody who has spent any time in the American higher education system can attest, it is virtually impossible to find a graduate program without a Chinese or an Indian (let alone a foreign) student in the States. Yet, the undergraduate population tended to be smaller. As Blumenthal also mentions, the reason for the change is partially the fact that Chinese education system managed to provide a similar graduate level experience to the students, whereas the liberal arts-oriented undergraduate degrees still have their competitive advantage. Relatively speaking, an American undergraduate degree keeps becoming more attractive whereas the same cannot be said for a graduate degree. (I am quite curious to see the results separately for Ph.D.s)

Blumenthal’s explanation is strengthened by the fact that European students, for instance, are not necessarily interested in pursuing degrees in the States (whereas American students are quite interested in going there).

Leaving the actual campus dynamics and pedagogical issues to others, it is important to underline that an undergraduate experience is more likely to provide a better intercultural experience than a graduate study. The former (more often than) requires an on-campus life and a ‘heavier’ course load over four years, whereas a graduate degree can be practically completed without visiting any place but your classrooms and library.

Is this public diplomacy?

Yet, can we consider this intense cultural integration/exposure public diplomacy? I find it difficult to do so due to two main reasons. First, the students are solely attracted to the quality of American education system (an American soft power asset). Yet, they are not invited. In other words, the initiative to study in the States comes from the students and is not necessarily in line with American foreign policy. I would argue that a good public diplomacy project should be planned, should have a strategy to contribute to the achievement of a foreign policy goal. In the case of foreign students (excluding established public diplomacy program participants, such as Fulbrighter), public diplomacy impact is solely ‘circumstantial’. Students, themselves, choose the host country and the programs include nothing but an exposure to the foreign culture.

Second, students tend to hang to their ties with their own countries and cultures during their studies. More often than not, students see American degrees as a way to a better job. Though, through anecdotal evidence, I argue that students are expected to keep strong ties with the home country and cultures in order to ensure that their degrees will successfully transform into a good job. Such ties hinder their abilities to fully expose themselves to the host country culture, therefore mitigating the limited public diplomacy impact potential of studying abroad.

I should note that I am not arguing against the benefits of studying abroad. As a participant of the Erasmus program, and the Fulbright program, I am well aware of the positive impacts of these experiences. However, I argue that we cannot necessarily call all foreign students as participants of public diplomacy.

Long story short, it is good to see a larger number of foreign undergraduate students. Though the lack of political strategy and the expectation of strong ties with the home countries make it difficult to call the phenomenon public diplomacy.




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