Monday, May 7, 2007

International Education as an Agent of Democratization

Abstracted from a longer manuscript available on ERIC

Since the end of World War II the number of internationally mobile students continues to increase on a world wide annual basis. The flow of students between countries creates a learning opportunity like no other. International education creates an environment of cultural understanding that exposes participants to new and different approaches to life, ways of thinking, and governance. Only when we are able to develop an understanding of others and we can appreciate our differences will we be able to have civil dialogue and work together on the world problems of tomorrow. International education and exchange plays a significant role in bringing the world together. This paper is inspired by Aaron Benavot’s question, “what are the specific mechanisms and processes linking higher education and increasing levels of democracy in the recent period?” (1999, p. 79). Benavot recommends that one research approach to answering this question should concentrate on international students studying abroad in Western Europe and North American colleges and universities, where exposure to democratic practices is plentiful, in order to understand the effects these educational experiences have on the development of democratic governments and practices upon their return home.

Several current world dignitaries and leaders previously studied in or officially visited the United States and/or in the United Kingdom at some point during their careers where they were exposed to democratic processes. Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan earned a degree in Economics from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1961. Afghan President Hamid Karzai was one of nine participants on a U.S. Department of State International Visitors Program from Afghanistan in a 1987. And, King Abdullah Bin Al-Hussein of Jordan after completing his secondary education in both the United Kingdom and the United States went on to attend Oxford University in 1984 to study International Politics and World Affairs and then returned to the U.S. to attend the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University where he was a Mid-Career Fellow in Advanced Study and Research in International Affairs under the support of the Master of Science in Foreign Service Program (AIEF, 2004;, 2001; U.S. Department of State, 2002). More importantly, there have been thousands of educators, legislators, journalists and business leaders from around the world who have studied in the United States and other western countries and have taken away from these experiences a better understanding of democracy and the motivation for creating and maintaining a democratic society in their home countries. This was highlighted during a 2000 U.S. State Department dinner honoring international education where Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke to the importance of international education and stated:

Today, Fulbright alumni are building a democratic Bosnia, bridging the digital divide in West Africa, keeping Americans informed about developments in southern Europe, and fighting HIV/AIDS in Guatemala. Our Humphrey alumni are doing equally impressive things from managing immigration in Macedonia to advocating the rights of Filipino migrant workers, to serving on the Supreme Court of Brazil.

Earlier in the same year, during a speech given at the La Maison Fran├žaise in Washington, D.C., Secretary of Education Richard Riley, who is a staunch supporter of international educational exchange, discussed his Department’s efforts in promoting democracy through education and emphasized:

I strongly believe that the growth of democracy, economic prosperity and economic stability throughout the world is linked to the advance of education. This is one of the strongest reasons why the United States should have an active and strong international education agenda. Education and democracy go hand in hand…All throughout the world there are thousands of leaders in other nations-political, economic and social leaders-who got a taste of democracy in all of its complexity when they came to study here in the United States. (2000)

Secretary Riley delivered these remarks on the same day that President Clinton signed his executive memorandum for the heads of executive departments and agencies implementing a national international education policy. President Clinton’s memorandum implementing an international education policy for the United States was the first of its kind. Never before in the history of the United States had international education been highlighted and celebrated in such a manner. President Clinton proclaimed that “we are fortunate to count among our staunchest friends abroad those who have experienced our country and our values through in-depth exposure as students and scholars” (2000). This same message has been repeated in some manner by the President and Secretaries of Education and State each November since the inaugural International Education Week held November 13-17, 2000.

The tragic events of September 11, 2001 changed the world and our approach to international educational issues. The fear of terrorism and the decline of students studying abroad around the globe were real issues of concern to the international education community. On November 13, 2001, President George W. Bush released the first message of his presidency opening International Education Week which was the first such message after the terrorist attacks in Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C. and New York. In his message, President Bush declared that the United States must reaffirm its commitment to international education by promoting opportunities for U.S. students to study abroad and to encourage more international students to come to the U.S. to study. Although the United States is currently fighting a war on terrorism and U.S. troops are actively engaged in combat operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush Administration maintains its stance towards welcoming international students and scholars while ensuring secure borders. Secretary of State Colin Powell affirmed this position while speaking at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Reception for Humphrey Fellows and Foreign Diplomats in Washington, D.C. on November 15, 2004 on the importance of international exchange and scholarship stated:

This wonderful experience will put you in touch with America’s next generation of leaders. Together you will build the partnerships and lay the foundations for future collaboration and exchange. You will work together to apply the best knowledge we have to the biggest challenge we face as one international community: Promoting democratic principles, creating free and vibrant economies, curing HIV/AIDS. These are not simply American goals that we are trying to accomplish. They are universal goals, universal human aspirations…one of you may help your country chart it’s long awaited course to freedom and democracy.

The real task for the Bush Administration has been to convince the world that the United States is an open society by reaching out to prospective international students and scholars by reevaluating existing immigration regulations and refining procedures in order to create the most efficient and welcoming system possible.

The United States continues to allocate significant funds annually towards exchange programs such as its flagship Fulbright program and works hard to create new opportunities for foreign citizens to come to the U.S. to study and be exposed to democratic processes and principles. For example, the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs recently developed the Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program for students from predominately Muslim countries and the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program for students 15 to 17 years of age from countries of the former Soviet Union. Student participants spend a year living with host families and studying in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. On Election Day, November 2, 2004, these programs offered a unique opportunity for program participants to see democracy in action and learn about the U.S. political process first hand. Students attended a State Department briefing on the U.S. electoral process followed by a tour of a local polling place where they observed voting, discussed the political process and asked questions of local election officials (McIntosh, 2004). In addition, the U.S. government continues to evaluate existing funding and exchange opportunities in an effort to enhance current programs and create new exchange opportunities. For example, the YES program, saw 160 students from Nigeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan, West Bank/Gaza, Egypt, Kuwait, Malaysia, Syria, Yemen, Turkey, Pakistan and Indonesia participate in the first year. The YES program was an overall success and as a result, the State Department plans to increase the total number of participating students to 480 and include students from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, India, Morocco, Oman, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and the Arab community in Israel (Nash & Bullock, 2004).

After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the Bush Administration was faced with the enormous task of securing our borders and implementing various provisions of the Illegal Immigration Reform & Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 which was signed into law by President Clinton on September 30, 1996. One of the major provisions of the Act required U.S. colleges and universities to collect and report information to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) on nonimmigrant foreign students. The type of information that was required to be reported was the student’s identity and current address in the United States, the nonimmigrant classification of the student and the date the visa under such classification was approved, the current academic status of the student including whether the they are maintaining full-time status and any disciplinary action taken against a foreign student as a result of the student being convicted of a crime. By September 11, 2002, the U.S. Government put a temporary web based student data collection system known as the Interim Student and Exchange Authentication System (ISEAS) in place and by February 2003 SEVIS became operational and all international students studying in the United States were required to be entered into this database by August 1, 2003.

It is my conclusion that the United States government does support international education and values the contribution international students and scholars make to the United States while they are studying here and, more importantly, when they return home and apply democratic principles they learned in shaping the future of their countries. Current immigration regulations and procedures no doubt deter many international academics from applying to schools in the United States. The United States government is keenly aware of the difficulties international students and scholars have experienced in the past and has allocated significant resources towards making the process of coming to the U.S. as fair and seamless as possible.

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Benavot, A. (1999). Education and political democratization: Cross-national and longitudinal findings. In N.F. McGinn, & E.H. Epstein (Eds.), Comparative Perspectives on the Role of Education in Democratization (pp. 45-79). Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Peter Lang GmbH.

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Discover Jordan (2001). Monarchy. URL retrieved November 6, 2004 from the World Wide Web:

Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, Pub. L. 104-208, 110 Stat. 3009 (1996)

McIntosh, P. (2004). Mideast, European and Asian students observe American democracy. Embassy of the United States Japan.

Nash, S., & Bullock, T. (2004). Living with Americans alters Muslim students’ views of the U.S. Washington File. URL retrieved November 4, 2004 from the World Wide Web:

Powell, C.L. (2004, November 15). Speech by U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Reception for Humphrey Fellows and foreign diplomats in the Benjamin Franklin diplomatic Room, Washington, D.C. URL retrieved November 17, 2004 from the World Wide Web:

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