Deconstructing International

Mar 23, 2021 10:33:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.


In this month's column, Dr. Mike Woolf wades through the ambiguity of how students attain knowledge through empathy, imagination, and education abroad, as well as the counter ideologies of internationalization. Through this discourse, he sheds light on the treatment of language that describes students from abroad and their contribution on campus.

An Inland Soul

“International” is at the heart of what we do and believe. Education abroad is based upon the assumption that there is potentially added value in taking students from one nation or country to another nation or country. Encountering new ideas in unfamiliar environments creates conditions in which students have an opportunity to enrich their perceptions of the world, to define for themselves a path towards what we sometimes think of as enlightenment.

You can, of course, become wise without traveling abroad. Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) never wandered far from home and, certainly, never left North America.

A portrait of Henry ThoreauHenry Thoreau

Brian Whalen argues that:

Thoreau was that provincial yet wonderfully expansive soul who rarely ventured beyond his beloved Concord and his cabin at Walden Pond. Yet his immersion in the local landscape excited his imagination about distant places and the roles that he might play in various locations around the world (76).


Thoreau’s essays demonstrate that mind can transcend the restraints of place. A journey may also be into the self.

Similarly, the poet Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) spent almost all of her short life in Amherst, Massachusetts. Within that small provincial town, she developed a unique voice that has had a major impact across the literary world. Her startling originality is expressed in innovative deviation from poetic conventions, and radical imagery that creates unexpected emotional landscapes and potent associations. Here, for example, the movement of a boat into the ocean is compared to the journey of the soul after death. The emotional environment evoked is not of solemn mourning; the poem begins with the word “exultation”:

Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses—past the headlands –
Into deep Eternity –

Emily DickinsonEmily Dickinson

The idea of “an inland soul” resonates with Thoreau’s traveling imagination. But this concept does not remain only at the level of metaphor; it transforms into empathy for the dispossessed:

Those strangers, in a foreign World,
Protection asked of me –
Befriend them, lest Yourself in Heaven
Be found a Refugee –

The wisdom of Thoreau and Dickinson demonstrate that the borders that divide us can be crossed by the mind.

These are, of course, exceptional people, but their insights should teach us a little humility. Wisdom and empathy is not dependent on going to other places. The claim that education abroad is some kind of imperative fails to recognize the critical importance of the mobile imagination, the introspection without which education, at home or abroad, is impoverished. The claim that education abroad is essential also creates a division between the privileged, who are able to participate, from those in the world who have no possible access to such opportunities.

We have no monopoly on wisdom and need to recognize that inter-national, or inter-country, learning is a demonstrable value available to what is, in essence, a global elite. No rhetoric should obscure this uncomfortable reality.

None of this compromises the significance of education abroad. This is no place in which to reiterate all the potential (not inevitable) benefits. At the ideological heart of international education is the proposition that we are part of a human family with connections that transcend the boundaries of politics, religion, nation, and language. We also need to understand the counter ideologies that feed schisms across the world.

At an individual level, an active learner in education abroad may translate theoretical knowledge into personal experience; may come to own their learning in a critically important way. You can certainly learn a great deal about Europe in Ohio, can become an expert on Chinese politics in Chicago, can gain considerable insights into Greek society and history in Minneapolis. That knowledge, however significant, remains theoretical. Education abroad, in contrast, empowers students to inhabit the spaces they have studied, to translate the words they have read into felt life experience.

This points to one of the limitations of online learning. There is without doubt value in this form of engagement and, beyond the pandemic, it is likely to continue as a way in which technology can bring a mediated version of other worlds into domestic environments. That said, technology is a medium of transmission, a filter through which students may expand perception. The distinction between studying about abroad and studying abroad remains significant.

International, Internationalism, Internationalization

Critical to these discourses are three words that, while, they have the same root, are different in significance and, in some contexts, carry unwelcome ambiguities.

International is largely neutral. The meaning derives from the noun it qualifies: student, education, travel, terrorism, crime, for example, alter the implications behind the adjective.

Internationalism is not neutral. It most commonly relates to a field of ideas (somewhat connected to cosmopolitanism) that are part of, even the heart of, the rationale for our profession. These are not however universally welcome. Parochialism and militant nationalism, ideologies that have increasing currency, are at the opposite end of a spectrum of belief from internationalism. If the bridge is a metaphor for connection, the wall is its opposite. This is far from being a vision unique to former President Trump; Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán constructed, with more success, a barrier designed to keep the border with Serbia and Croatia closed.

The Hungarian border with Serbia and CroatiaThe Hungarian border with Serbia and Croatia.

Internationalization is a process. It implies transition from local or national preoccupations to active engagement with others. The process of inter-nationalization is still based upon nation but, in the case of universities, relates to creative and mutually beneficial partnerships across borders. It is a strategic choice consciously made.

Internationalization is not the same as globalization. Globalization is altogether more problematic in that, on one level, it may describe outcomes beyond the control of individuals, communities, and nations. It is a dynamic about which we have no choice. On the one hand, we might welcome the impact of globalization in terms of the movement of trade, ideas, and people, but also fear a loss of control and, for example, an erosion of identity, viruses, and pollution that no borders can contain.

However, “international” may also have shifting and slippery significances, hidden meanings beneath the unexamined surface.

The Language of Education Abroad.

Comprehensive internationalization and international student are indicative of terms that have unintended and unanticipated implications.

The idea of comprehensive internationalization has been around, in one form or another, for over 20 years. According to NAFSA: “Comprehensive internationalization is a commitment…to infuse international and comparative perspectives throughout the teaching, research, and service missions of higher education… an institutional imperative, not just a desirable possibility.” [2] The American Council on Education agrees that it is “a central feature of a quality education.” [3]

NAFSA and ACE have something else in common. Depending on traffic, they are within a 10-minute drive of each other in Washington DC. Comprehensive internationalization is, therefore, an aspiration founded in American higher education, a system with international influence, wealth, and soft power. It is also a measure of global excellence. Priorities of universities, for example in the Global South, which do not necessarily align with comprehensive internationalization, are, through that perspective, second class. However, a university may have a national or sub-national mission: to provide continuing education for local industry and local organizations, to create employment, to improve facilities; in short to support and improve the immediate community: objectives that were, by the way, behind the establishment of Land Grant institutions in the USA. Through the lens of comprehensive internationalization, those aspirations are indicative of lower status; good intentions and credible ideals mask neo-colonial or neo-imperial implications; Distinction and quality are measured against standards defined elsewhere and that, furthermore, require resources not necessarily available outside of wealthier systems.

It takes serious cash to define your community as international. Education abroad is expensive. Attending conferences abroad may be difficult and costly. Recruiting international faculty may be beyond institutional budgets. If “systematic institutional attention to internationalization” is the critical measure of quality we are, perhaps unconsciously, creating a hierarchy based upon wealth. Institutional quality is, in these circumstances, measured against standards made in America, endorsed widely in the Global North, and enforced through international university ranking systems.

Of course, we are not opposed to efforts to internationalize. Comprehensive internationalization only becomes problematic when translated into a gold standard against which all universities, regardless of location or mission, are measured. As an aspirational imperative, it has neo-colonial resonances. It relies on a developmental narrative; universities will move along stages towards the ultimate goal – achieving parity with more “advanced” institutions who have reached Nirvana aka comprehensive internationalization.

International student raises further issues that deserve attention. The term has replaced the idea of the foreign student perhaps because of a liberal sensitivity that “foreign” is somehow derogatory. There is something odd about resistance to the use of a term that is used in other contexts without a ripple of concern. The journal Foreign Affairs continues to be published without notable objections. Ministries of Foreign Affairs go about their work in a relatively untroubled manner. Harvard University has a Foreign Language Advisory Group; “teaching and learning of foreign languages” is part of the mission of the Princeton Center for Language Study.

The word “foreign” is used in those contexts without much furor and for good reasons. There is, for example, no universal “international” language. You might make a claim for English in academic contexts (though that would be contested for sure). L. L. Zamenhof invented Esperanto in 1887 as an attempt to create a second language that would have universal applicability. It has hardly had influence beyond a clique of enthusiasts. Nobody speaks something called international. There are also few, if any “international” students unless they are stateless, deprived of legal nationality.

Foreign in contrast has a useful specificity. When applied to students it draws attention to the fact that the individual comes from somewhere else and, where that somewhere else is, may be of significance. There is a spectrum of terminological precision: the commonly used and approved notion of “international” is the least specific. Nobody comes from a place called international. No education abroad student studies there either. Foreign has greater utility in that it signifies “not American” which, at least, indicates that this student may have different needs and may contribute to campus life in positive ways.

The most specific terminology would be to use countries of origin: The idea that Chinese, Indian, French, and Spanish students are a single category is insensitive. But, university staff may well protest, we think of our Pierre as an international student from France. Arguments based on oxymorons are not, I think, entirely convincing.

Resistance to “foreign” and a preference for “international” may be well meaning but it is also misguided. It may be that foreign has become mentally connected to “alien” and both have been deemed pejorative. The origins of liberal distaste may have something to do with this kind of usage. In the USA “the Department of Homeland Security is required to …match records… of aliens entering and departing the United States.” [4] At US airports us arriving foreigners used to be directed towards the “alien entry” line, now replaced by a gentler visitor sign.

Foreign and alien have distinctive resonances. Foreign says, from somewhere else; alien says, so different that they are almost another species. Fancifully, there is a future usage in which alien might be neutral. When intra-planetary education becomes a reality, roommates might be Gerda from Germany, and Istrabu, the alien from Mars. The term would become problematic when students from Jupiter and Saturn flock to UCLA and NYU. The needs of Martians and Saturnians may differ radically. Alien students will almost certainly be required to pay higher fees.

Interplanetery student graduationIstrabu’s graduation!

Moving from fantasy to something closer to reality, the term international student is not based upon human distinction but administrative and visa categories, frequently defined by differential fee structures and residency rights. In many systems the “international” student is a commercial asset who supplements the income of under-funded institutions.

There are numerous conference presentations, articles, research projects, and dedicated departments that seek to analyze, describe, and engage with “issues” related to international students. A common thread assumes something of a deficit narrative: these students have study skill problems, require specialized welfare provision, do not integrate with American students (as if responsibility for isolation is solely theirs), cannot speak English sufficiently, etc. etc.

Frequent characterization of these students as necessarily distinct from domestic students is demeaning; it denies students their individuality and invites potentially damaging generalizations. The transition from international to foreign is an improvement in terms of specificity. But these alterations cannot address all the consequences of our tendency to imagine collective identities. Categorization by country of origin may also draw upon stereotypical inventions.

The category “international student” reveals a paradox: good intentions may have unanticipated and unwelcome implications.

Words Matter

We are administrators and educators. As educators our responsibility is to use language in ways that reflect our beliefs. The words we us are, however, not neutral. Comprehensive internationalization creates a hierarchy that ultimately ranks institutions according to quality criteria that derive from unequal power relationships, a form of neo-colonialism. International students is a category that undermines individual identities, and generates assumptions by which students may be marginalized.

We should avoid the assumption that what we comprehensively believe is universally valid. We should also resist the temptation to allow linguistic fashion to pass into orthodoxy without a consideration of consequences. There is no simple conclusion here other than to point to the need for introspection, a nuanced examination of how we speak to each other and, more critically of how we speak to, and about, others.

Words matter.


[1] Brian Whalen and Michael Woolf, “Cosmopolitanism: Rethinking the Agenda of Education Abroad,” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, November 2020: 72-98. 

[2] “NAFSA’s Comprehensive Internationalization from Concept to Action,” 2011 online, available at: 

[3] American Council on Education, “Comprehensive Internationalization,” 2019 online, available at: 

[4] Federal Register, Vol 85, No. 224, Thursday, November 19, 2020


Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Michael Woolf is Deputy President for Strategic Development of CAPA: The Global Education Network. Mike has had much of his career in an international context. Prior to working in mainstream international education, he completed a PhD in American Studies and taught literature at the universities of Hull, Middlesex, Padova, and Venice. For four years he worked as a researcher-writer for BBC radio. He has held leadership roles in international education for many years and has written widely on international education and cultural studies. Much of his work has focused on areas of strategic development with particular focus on the status and credibility of education abroad within the wider academic community. He serves on a number of boards and was a member of the Board of Directors of The Forum on Education Abroad from 2006 to 2012. He was the recipient of the Peter A. Wollitzer Advocacy Award (2020) from the Forum on Education Abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: International Education