From a Global Village to a Local World

Posted By: Francisco Marmolejo|Dated: February 4, 2013

Like most people in the field, I became involved in international education mostly by accident. Born and raised in Ojuelos de Jalisco, a small rural town in central Mexico (also known among friends as “the capital of the world” in an attempt to boost our self-esteem), I never imagined that someday I would be spending most of my time traveling the world to learn about the similarities and peculiarities of higher education from a policy and operational perspective.

My first formal introduction to international higher education occurred back in Mexico more than 20 years ago when I was working as Vice President at the University of the Americas, a private higher education institution located in Mexico City. There I met a professor, Todd Fletcher, and a top administrator, Celestino Fernandez, from the University of Arizona who were visiting our institution. They made me aware of the great opportunities to participate in international exchanges that could be made available to our students. I bought into the concept of international exchanges as they presented it very easily since I personally experienced the positive impact of leaving my own  “comfort zone” when, as a 12-year-old,  I traveled from my hometown to another city in order to attend middle school. It was clear to me that providing an international experience to students would make a great difference in their lives and, in the long run, in the communities in which they would live and work.

As it turned out, I myself was one of the first individuals to “go on exchange” to the University of Arizona.  After that first encounter with the UA visitors, I began organizing a reciprocal visit for the President of the Universidad de las Américas to Tucson. To my surprise, she asked me to join her for the visit even though she knew that my English was very rudimentary. It would be my first visit to the United States and I was really excited, but much more nervous. Fortunately, Tucson is a very bilingual community, as is the University of Arizona, which made me feel at home. Nevertheless, I made the usual mistakes such as asking for “soap” at a restaurant or assuming that the abbreviation “Dr.” in the name of a street was in honor of a Doctor rather than referring to a “drive.” In the event it would be needed, I had memorized a short speech in English about the Universidad de las Américas. As it turned out, during the visit, I vividly remember a meeting at which the President of my university was discussing something with a group of UA faculty members (which, of course I could barely understand due to my limited English). Suddenly she turned to me to ask for an explanation. Totally confused, I reacted by repeating my short speech about the University. My President later told me that the question wasn’t about the subject of my speech but that in any case the information was useful.

Anyway, after this painful but exciting experience, I became captivated by the world of international education and realized how important it was to learn a second language. At the same time, I learned to recognize that when seeing higher education from an international perspective, we must properly value the important differences that exist among higher education systems rather than make simplistic assumptions about them from pre-conceived notions based on our own framework. It became very evident to me that the international dimension in higher education is not merely a luxury but a necessity in today’s world.  If a key role of higher education institutions is to prepare future graduates with adequate skills to work in an increasingly interconnected and furiously competitive world, while developing their sense of social responsibility to the local community in which they live, international education must be seen as central rather than marginal to the functions of our colleges and universities. Why doesn’t this happen?

The current state of affairs in international education is far from perfect. There are many issues to be addressed and challenges to be confronted, which I hope readers will be interested in discussing in this blog.

Let’s take this journey together.

Francisco Marmolejo is the Executive Director of the Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration (CONAHEC), a network of more than 130 colleges and universities primarily from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. Francisco also serves as Assistant Vice President for Western Hemispheric Programs at the University of Arizona and has taught at several universities and has published extensively on administration and internationalization. Marmolejo has consulted for universities and governments in different parts of the world, and has been part of OECD and World Bank peer review teams conducting evaluations of higher education in Europe, Latin America and Asia.

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