Wednesday, July 14, 2010

International Education: More than an Occupation—a Lifeline

[A] man’s work is one of the more important parts of his
social identity, of his self; of his fate in the one life he has
  to live, for there is something almost as irrevocable about
    choice of occupation as there is about choice of mate.

While there has been a significant technological and demographic shift in the workplace since Everett C. Hughes wrote those words in 1951, one cannot dispute the accuracy of the above statement.  With the passing of the years we have become more imbedded in our work and it is often difficult to separate ourselves from our professional responsibilities.

International Education is a profession that is noble in its aspirations and practical in its applicability to an increasingly globalized society. More importantly, and less recognized, is that it contributes substantially to how we as international educators view ourselves. Sociologist Robin Leidner describes work as “…an arena for self-development, a source of social ties, a determinant of status, and a shaper of consciousness. For all these reasons, people’s relation to work contributes to their sense of self and the sense that others have of them.” 

What happens then when an international educator loses his/her job? There are feelings of shock, despair, anger, frustration, etc., which are normal, of course. But the longer the period of unemployment, the more profound the effects are on the displaced individual. Feelings of worthlessness, bitterness, isolation and anger contend with and sometimes overwhelm the individual’s self-esteem. (Note: while I am focusing on international education, the observations and effects extend to displaced individuals from other professions as well). After a certain point of unemployment, the person becomes withdrawn and resigned to the fact that he/she will not find a job, at least not in international education.  

In their book Coping with Job Loss, Carrie Leana and Daniel Feldman list three factors that influence reactions to job loss: 1) financial circumstances; 2) perceptions of labor market conditions; and 3) job attachment. In the case of displaced international educators, job attachment may be the most prominent contributor to their anxiety. When asked what kind of an impact a layoff would have on her, Fabienne van den Bor, Education Advisor at the Fulbright Center in the Netherlands, replied that, “I would miss the excitement of working with people from all over the globe who share the same passion, who understand the value of
international education, for the individual and our societies.” The longer an international educator is unemployed the more likely he/she will dispense with that aforementioned sentiment and assume the thinking that their field has abandoned them; that there is no possibility for them to return.

It is difficult to assess the implications of any significant migration of international educators to other professions (there currently is no mechanism to track international programs that are shut down or international educators who are laid off), but any such movement would not help how international educators and their profession are seen by many senior level higher education administrators. As blogger Anthony Grafton writes, “If you don’t see the point of their work, why not eliminate them? Then you have room for things that pay off immediately.” This, sadly, will be the thinking of many key decision makers during this recession. Money talks and if universities can run an office of international programs on the cheap, then they will do so. Some even consider it fiscally logical to hire an inexperienced individual over a seasoned international educator with the thinking that they can learn on the job. Here they are operating under the assumption that anyone can run an office of international programs; that anyone can learn on the job. But this simply is not true and organizations like NAFSA: Association of International Educators and the Forum on Education Abroad need to do more to show our displaced colleagues that they have not been forgotten and to extend to them a symbolic lifeline demonstrating that they are still valued colleagues with much to contribute to the field. Outcome assessments and cultural competencies are important, to be sure, but NAFSA and the Forum must not forget about the people who make those things happen. It is my hope that both organizations will take the lead in reminding us all that international educators are integral parts  of higher education and their displacement is a tragedy not only to their former places of employment but to the profession of international education itself.

I want to thank Tom Millington, Director of Study Abroad and Global Learning at Western Kentucky University for his excellent guest post today!  Tom also started and manages the International Educator Circle group on LinkedIn and Facebook.  If you are an international educator out of work (or if you know someone in the field out of work) I recommend joining this LinkedIn and Facebook group!  

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