100,000 Strong in the Americas Partnership Changes the Future of Exchange

I landed in Accra, Ghana in early January 1992 amidst the dusty harmattan to start the spring semester of my junior year. A dynamic and opinionated advisor from the now-defunct United States Information Agency received me at the airport and I soon found myself at the University of Ghana administrative offices, standing in line for my student ID photo and my dormitory room assignment. I decided to study abroad early during a challenging sophomore year at Swarthmore College, but because I had waited until late fall to make my decision to apply for this spring program, I needed to wait until spring of my Junior year to actually travel. I could barely contain my excitement that the moment had finally arrived.

Over the course of the semester, I found myself repeatedly readying payment for my semester abroad, only to find that nobody seemed to want my tuition money. Swarthmore didn’t charge me for this semester abroad and, as it would turn out five months later, neither did the University of Ghana.

The daughter of the Chancellor of the University of Ghana had recently studied at Swarthmore. This personal connection gave birth to an informal arrangement only two years young between the two schools to provide study abroad exchange for American and Ghanaian students between the universities. This was a very informal arrangement.

The Bureaucratic Legacy of Education Partnerships

Do institutional partnerships always start so informally? Actually, they often start—and end—too formally. Mounds of memoranda of understanding ceremoniously signed and carefully archived gather dust at schools across the globe. As one university president recently told me at a conference, “An MOU is so often like getting engaged without getting married. People keep hoping and hoping that something will happen, but going beyond is expensive.”

This is especially true in the Americas. According to the most recent Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, 526,000 students from Asia studied in the United States annually, compared with 67,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). There were more students from South Korea studying in the United States (71,000) than from the entire LAC region combined, and  more students from Vietnam studying in the United States (16,000) than from Mexico (14,000), the third-largest U.S. trading partner and the anchor of the now $1 trillion NAFTA trade pact.

These figures represent strong and commendable integration of higher educational efforts between the U.S. and Asia, but a poor base upon which to build increasingly integrated economies in the Americas. The LAC region, with 275 million people, recently welcomed more than 50 million into the middle class; these Western Hemispheric neighbors receive 40 percent of U.S. trade, and the region is on track to become the world’s energy hub. Yet, despite these statistics, of the few U.S. students who study abroad, only one in six do so within Latin America.

Lessons from the Global Classroom

Unlike approximately 99 percent of US four-year degree students, I was fortunate enough to have and to take the opportunity to study abroad in a non-traditional country. Currently, nearly one-third of U.S. students who study abroad do so in the United Kingdom, Italy, or Spain. I chose Ghana because there was a casual, inadvertent relationship between two higher educational institutions and because my school encouraged students to study abroad; to this day, about 40 percent of Swarthmore students choose to do so.

I learned more valuable life skills in one semester in Ghana than in all of my college years up to that point. Yet, jumping into a trimester system with little context for the learning environment, I learned much more outside the classroom than I did in it. I distributed surveys to Ghanaian students about their views of the United States and the Gulf War. I took drumming classes. I wrote profusely—and not that well—about each. Later, I had to fight for my credits in order to graduate because the credits from my study abroad courses didn’t automatically transfer to my home institution, though I ultimately received the credits I needed to graduate on time.

In the long term, although I didn’t know it at the time, my study abroad experience would set the foundation for my career in international engagement.

“Educational exchange is increasingly a gateway for more than cultural understanding—it also helps open doorways to new opportunities for employment and economic growth,” notes Ben Rhodes, Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting at the White House.

One study even correlates students’ multicultural engagement with the number of job offers they received following their program and recent analysis by the Institute of International Education reveals a promising trend that the greatest increase in field of study for U.S. students studying abroad is in engineering, agriculture and health among others, fields in which students are likely to more easily find greater job prospects.

What prevents more long-term partnerships between colleges and universities in the United States and their neighbors in the Western Hemisphere? Why do students and faculty so willingly travel the well-worn paths between Western Europe and the U.S. and venture so slowly, if at all, into other regions?

Cracking the Education Partnership Code

NAFSA: Association of International Educators, has been researching and wrestling with the challenges of intra-hemisphere exchange for years. Partners of the Americas has been quietly building long-term partnerships for 50 years—a great number of which are between colleges and universities—sometimes without realizing the incredible durability of these alliances. Foreign governments such as Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador and many others in the region have been investing heavily in recent years in scholarship programs.

In 2011, President Obama announced the 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative. Two years later, and following more than a year of partnership dialogue, Partners of the Americas, NAFSA, and the U.S. Department of State—implementing the initiative at the request of the White House—signed a partnership agreement to promote the initiative and to create the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund. The Innovation Fund seeks to invest up to $10 million annually to deepen the relationship between educational institutions across the Western Hemisphere over the course of this decade. The three institutions aim to work together to build and rebuild the engines of connectivity by inviting and rewarding institutional innovation. This new synergy will fuel and accelerate student flow by re-wiring partnerships, reducing barriers, and accelerating what works.  Additional programs and institutions will complement the three-way partnership through a strategic combination of scholarships and other multi-sector approaches.

The Innovation Fund doesn’t make large grants—most are between $20,000 and $60,000—but the incentive it has provided for institutions to articulate innovations to increase study abroad in the Americas has dramatically exceeded expectations, and thus far every $1 invested has leveraged $1.70 of additional investment from colleges and universities and their partners across the Western Hemisphere.

Thus far, more than 875 institutions have registered for the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Network. Contributions from Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold Foundation and Santander Universities, a division of Santander Bank, together with initial capacity-building resources from the U.S. Department of State, have drawn 257 applications for only 22 available innovation grants. Two more competitions are scheduled for 2014—one supported by the Exxon Mobil Corporation, and one by the Coca-Cola Foundation.

Innovation Through Education in Action

For most schools, a modest outside investment, strong institutional support—and an innovative leader inside the school—can build a program in an impactful way. A great example that has been funded by the partnership is Northampton Community College’s practical learning initiative in Peru, which positions students to use their skills for global community impact, which also makes them more employable upon their return.

“Implementing Sustainable Energy Systems in Developing Communities,” was the brainchild of Northampton Community College (NCC) Associate Professor Christine Armstrong, NCC’s first overseas class project. As part of their project, a group of 10 students and faculty helped Peru’s Universidad Nacional de Trujillo (UNT) and an NGO, WindAid, build a wind turbine. Standing nearly 16,000 feet above sea level, it was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the “highest altitude wind turbine in the world.”

Long-term sustainability of the initiative is based on the strong inter-institutional partnership established with UNT. UNT faculty and administrators will be going to NCC in October to deepen the partnership leading to a two-way exchange. Seven students and two NCC faculty members left in May for the second year of the project. The students come from a broad background: nursing, HVAC, construction management, electromechanical technology and biological sciences.

“Our students come back with experience in project management, problem-solving, teamwork and specific skills in sustainable energy planning,” Manny Gonzalez, NCC’s associate dean and director of international studies. “Their weeks of study and work have a lasting impact not only on their employability but also empower in multiple ways a poor community high in the Peruvian Andes.”

Every student learns about welding, metal fabrication and carbon fiber blade construction from NGO partner WindAid and NCC’s own team. Beyond building and installing the wind turbine, the NCC students are helping wire the town, teaching residents how to maintain a small power plant.

“We have a decent international program as a community college but we see this grant as a way to bring sustainability to our Peru program,” said Nathan Carpenter, the project’s coordinator. “It appears as a model that works in all our grant applications and we will be running it again next year without 100,000 Strong in the Americas funds but with the strong support of NCC’s own educational foundation.”

The NCC model will now become an example for other community colleges, which now serve about half of the higher education students in the United States. In order to expand the number of those studying abroad in the Americas—or anywhere—the United States must support initiatives that are accessible to community college students.

Education Seeds Productivity and Economic Growth

Long-term partnerships often have serendipitous and informal beginnings that should be celebrated on par with those that are developed through formal proposals. Innovative arrangements that show impactful results serve as shareable models with others, increasing the likelihood of institutional tipping points in which student mobility increases exponentially because the question changes from “why would we?” to “why wouldn’t we?” Students themselves will then be the best ambassadors of change and integration, and with more students studying abroad and more effectively entering the workforce because of it, more will want to follow.

A relatively modest, yet extraordinarily strategic, private-sector investment serves as a positive, disruptive force that allows innovative partnerships to emerge and scale, increasing educational collaboration in the Americas. Through innovation, investment, and a little bit of good luck, 100,000 Strong in the Americas is preparing a more engaged and competitive workforce across the Western Hemisphere.

Matt Clausen

Matt Clausen (@matthewclausen) is Vice President for Partnerships and Leadership Programs and Senior Director of President Obama’s 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund at Partners of the Americas. Matt leads exchange and fellowship programs, including youth leadership, professional government, business, educational and cultural, and climate change fellowship programs. Matt is Chairman of the Building Bridges Coalition, the organization that emerged from the Brookings Initiative on International Voluntary Service.

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