A Smarter Path Forward for Study Abroad in the Americas

Steve Vetter, President & CEO, Partners of the Americas

The atmosphere at the onset of the second 100,000 Strong in the Americas Capacity Building Workshop, supported by the U.S. Department of State, was contagious – the room swelled with hundreds of higher education experts eager to explore what works in student exchange. The turnout revealed the deep-seated interest in the hemisphere to improve educational opportunities – an interest that, as the past five years indicate, will only continue to grow.

What followed was an intensive, exciting day of exchanging “lessons learned” and “best practices” about how to increase the flow of students and how to enrich their exchanges. The day after the workshop, NAFSA began their annual convention with the Latin American Forum on the first day. The 200 seat room filled to capacity and we hosted informally the additional 150 participants in an adjoining room. It was yet another milestone event that demonstrates why President Obama’s initiative continues to grow in strategic relevance

I listened intently to representatives from 100K winning institutions like Tasha Y. Willis, Assistant Professor at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA) School of Social Work, who used the grant to develop an exciting and high-impact partnership between CSULA and La Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica’s Vicerrectoria de Extension. Tasha shares more on the program below:

At the request of our host partners at La UNA, our undergraduate students from CSULA and also graduate students from CSULA and CSULB (via the non-profit www.socialworkabroad.org) are beginning to research culturally responsive ideas and best practices that may be helpful in the development of one of the Centros Civicos por la Paz.

These “epicentros” represent a national youth development initiative to reduce violence and increase social inclusion and well-being in local communities. We have been matched with the one in a marginalized Nicaraguan immigrant community, Guarari (in Heredia). Local youth are sharing their voices in terms of what kinds of programming they want and thus far, technology, arts, and sports have been explored. Our two groups of students will be there for 2-6 weeks working on program development and outreach as the project is in the planning stages at this point.

It’s stories like these that remind me just how far we’ve come in the journey to advance educational opportunities throughout the hemisphere – and the potential we have to progress even further.

It was just five years ago that I was waiting on my commuter bus to Annapolis when I ran into an old friend, Alan Williams. As we caught up, I learned he was working for NAFSA: Association of

International Educators and I mentioned I had begun my work at Partners of the Americas. One of the biggest challenges facing NAFSA, he proceeded to tell me, was how to open up student exchanges between North American and Latin American university students. I was surprised there was a problem – our experience at Partners revealed a strong and growing hemispheric movement of faculty and students through the leadership of our various chapters.

I shared with Alan the story of the 1,500+ graduates from Paraguay who had studied in Kansas and the 1,400 from Bolivia who had studied in Arkansas. We agreed to meet with NAFSA staff, and soon after, we were hosting a pre-conference event at the NAFSA Houston Conference, exploring solutions to the barriers that were blocking the movement of students. We were joined by 25 university leaders from across the region, along with the State Department’s Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who had been assigned by President Obama to develop a strategy for implementing 100,000 Strong in the Americas.

We discussed the many problems that explain the low number of exchanges—visas, accreditation, dormitory space, travel advisory warnings—but ended on a very hopeful note grounded in trend lines that revealed the deeper strategic importance and direction of the Western Hemisphere. We agreed to form a working group of NAFSA, Partners and the Department of State.

Over the next two years, we saw the number of attendees at the pre-conference workshops on 100,000 Strong steadily increase from the initial 25 to 50 and then 250 at the 2014 San Diego Hemispheric Workshop. It was in 2013 that we introduced the idea of creating an Innovation Grant Fund financed by corporations and governments as an open competition for break-through ideas between southern and northern partnership universities. Skepticism greeted the idea but by 2014, we were already awarding our first grants financed by Santander Bank and announcing a $1 million ExonMobil grant. There was a fevered pitch and excitement to all of the meetings and a strong level of endorsement from the universities. The approach to the Innovation Awards, we heard, was precisely what was needed to shift the spotlight to north/south exchanges and to build partnerships between universities.

Earlier this year, we celebrated the VII Summit of the Americas – a historic summit where, for the first time, all of the nations of the hemisphere were represented. President

Obama’s invitation to open diplomatic ties with Cuba was a highlight. Secretary of State Kerry’s presentation before the heads of universities that celebrated 100,000 Strong in the Americas as one of the pillars that tie our region together met with the active interest and support of business, university and political leaders. 

Now, this week in Boston at the 2015 Capacity Building Workshop preceding the NAFSA Conference, we’re observing the growing momentum around 100,000 Strong in the Americas. Nearly 1,300 higher education institutions have joined the Innovation Network, including a Cuban university that has won a grant with its North American partner. Community colleges are actively engaged and the government of Colombia is connecting their Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje (SENA) learning centers with U.S. community colleges. Puerto Rico has come forward with a highly innovative idea to create a consortium of 54 universities on the island to bring in students from both South and North America.

What’s truly amazing – we have completed just six out of the planned 18 rounds. Interest is growing. Information is being shared. $5 million in public and private sector contributions have been made to the Innovation Fund – and we’re seeing 1.6 times leverage for every $1 invested over 6 competitions. I can only imagine how many other corporate and government leaders will join this growing movement. A new direction is being set, and it is a reminder of why 100,000 Strong in the Americas has the potential to live up to President Obama’s vision of a much more dynamic future for our region.