Our nation and world need international education


I discovered my adviser in graduate school when he ran past me, late for the first class of the fall semester, clutching colored markers and a draft pre-print textbook, with a teaching assistant galloping behind him carrying a large whiteboard.

It was 1979 at the University of Illinois. I was hoping to work with another professor for my doctorate in electrical engineering. But I was so intrigued by this enthusiastic professor running down the hallway that I signed up for his class.

It was very different from my other classes because of Professor Jacob Abraham’s persistent enthusiasm for his research and his students. He became my adviser, and that enthusiasm helped me get past the inevitable setbacks of my graduate studies.

The U.S. Department of State and Department of Education have declared this week as International Education Week. The intention is to “promote programs that prepare Americans for a global environment and attract future leaders from abroad to study, learn and exchange experiences.”

My adviser, Professor Abraham, is a first-generation immigrant who came to the U.S. from the southern tip of India to study at Stanford University.  Without our nation’s practice of welcoming students from around the world to study and encouraging them to stay in the U.S., Professor Abraham would not have been a mentor to over 100 doctoral students and thousands of undergraduates and, likely, I today would not be UF’s president. 

Here at UF, internationalization is an explicit part of our plan to continuously enhance the undergraduate experience, and we have been recognized for those efforts.  UF is one of only five universities to receive a prestigious 2018 Senator Paul Simon Award for Campus Internationalization.

Yet, now is a difficult time for international educators – and for everyone who prizes international cooperation and collaboration.

The number of visas issued by the U.S. to international students nationwide has fallen by 40 percent since 2015. At UF, where our international students and scholars today represent 140 countries, new international students have declined 28 percent.

In the past, the U.S. has had great leaders that have championed and enabled internationalization – leaders such as J. William Fulbright, the U.S. senator from Arkansas and namesake for the Fulbright Program that helps so many students and scholars study in other countries and the U.S.

I believe universities today must be champions of internationalization as essential to our nation’s prosperity and security.

How can we do this?

Education and scholarship are our strengths, and so they must also be our solutions.  This includes doing more to promote international education for all U.S. students and to promote universities as oases for students from abroad.

At UF, we must infuse an even greater global perspective into our curriculum and college experience. We also must welcome more international students and faculty to our campus.  Currently, only 2.5 percent of our undergraduates are international students, compared with 8.5 percent for our aspirational top-five ranked public research universities.

On the occasion of International Education Week, I thank UF educators for all the ways in which they bring the world into their teaching and scholarship, and I am particularly grateful for all the international students, staff and faculty studying and working on our campus.

With the holidays and final exams rapidly approaching, very best wishes to all members of the university community for a productive, successful and safe completion of the fall semester.