The Power of Advocacy: Mobilizing the Study Abroad Community

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Hernando Sevilla-Garcia
April 17, 2018

After being awarded a 2018 NAFSA Advocacy Day Grant from the International Educators of Illinois, I had the privilege to spend March 19-20 on Capitol Hill raising awareness for two critical components of higher education: study abroad programs and international students.

While discussing with lawmakers The Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act and the countless contributions that international students add to campuses throughout the country, something became clear to me. The only way to garner bipartisan support was for our field to coalesce around one simple idea: a more welcoming and globally engaging United States for the future generations.

As such, the time is now to demand change, not only in the halls of Congress, but also at our respective institutions and organizations. As a colleague in Washington D.C. put it best, “There has perhaps never been a more critical time in our careers as international educators to lend our voices to the policy conversations that stand to directly impact the communities we serve.”

In this context, the change we must strive for is to reimagine study abroad not as a privilege, but as a basic universal right for all U.S. college students. The fact that less than 2% of college students study abroad each year and less than 10% are able to study abroad before they graduate is a problematic indicator that far too many miss out on these opportunities.

To begin reversing this trend, the Simon Bill has three key goals:




Framing study abroad as an inclusive space where a diverse set of individuals – from first-generation to veterans, from rural students to those from Hispanic-serving institutions - create a learning community is a starting point for receiving widespread support. Next, creating a unified front, whether on campus or as part of a study abroad cohort, is a prerequisite to truly placing study abroad at the forefront of the college experience. As the saying goes, together we are stronger. Engaging leadership and various stakeholders at colleges and universities, at non-profits and NGOs, is more effective when we act as one. Ultimately, pressure must be exerted on Congress to pass The Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Act. As lawmakers discuss the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the future of study abroad has reached a critical juncture.

While we have our transformative personal stories to affirm our experiences/share with others, the data is on our side, as well, to help make our case to Congress. Study abroad has been shown to increase a student’s GPA and increase four-year graduation rates. We also know that businesses value international experiences and global perspectives, helping our students who studied abroad thrive in today’s competitive and global workforce.

So often we hear the cliché, yet powerful, story: study abroad literally changed my life. It certainly changed me. As a first-generation, Colombian immigrant, I faced difficulties in adapting to the higher education system. Six study abroad trips later, I can confidently say it was these international academic experiences that allowed me to carve my journey in the formative space of tertiary education. Whether it was seeing with my own eyes the vibrant community of Cidade de Deus in Rio De Janeiro or fomenting Cuba-U.S. relations through my studies at the Centro de Estudios Martianos, I’m a living example that study abroad is, indeed, a revolutionary moment in life.

Thus, it is precisely due to the transformational nature of an international academic experience why we must make it accessible to all. Whether it’s through alumni-led workshops, a phone call to your senator/representative, private/public partnerships, or a presentation to a college dean, our study abroad community has the unique occasion to join voices and advocate for this life-changing opportunity.

In short, the Simon Bill will authorize new institutional grants to incentivize higher education institutions to break down barriers to study abroad and ensure that a greater number of students have the opportunity to study abroad. With existing, successful models to serve as a framework (such as the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund), the time is right for Congress to take action. It is our responsibility, as dedicated and passionate international educators to continue advocating for this to become a reality.

In the spirit of calling for change and due to her relentless struggle to achieve it, this piece is dedicated in memory of Brazilian politician and human rights activist Marielle Franco.

NAFSA Advocacy Day

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Hernando Sevilla-Garcia

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