This too shall pass – reflections on international education crises

“At some point during each crisis, we worry about the long-term impact on international education”

I remember the feeling, writes Kerry Geffert, product evangelist for Terra Dotta. Restless, hard to focus, antsy, anxious, neither depressed nor positive. It was right after 9/11. Our world had turned upside down and, when we got past the immediate personal implications, those of us in international education wondered what the future held for the work that was near and dear to our hearts.

At that time I was also Conference Chair for the 2002 NAFSA Annual Conference. When we held our first meeting of the planning committee following 9/11, I started by admitting that I had had trouble focusing on our tasks. There was an immediate collective sigh of relief. Turns out I was not alone.

Two lessons from that experience: We are not alone in our feelings of uncertainty. And our professional/industry peers and colleagues are an important part of self-care and mutual support.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues its spread, international educators are in month three of the crisis. First, dealing with the impacts in China, then fear and impacts as the virus spread abroad and now, here at home.

International education has faced crises before – 9/11, the Japanese Tsunami, the Gulf War, Lockerbie, terror attacks, even pandemics like H1N1 and SARS. The days following these events were tough, and in many ways pale to what my colleagues are going through right now.

Social media didn’t exist or was in its infancy then. It has been a great asset in this crisis, but also a complicating factor when incomplete or inaccurate information is easily disseminated. We may not be able to control the latter, but social media does afford us the opportunity to support one another – we are not alone.

At some point during each crisis, we worry about the long-term impact on international education. Will students keep coming? Will anyone study abroad? I’ve been in this industry for 30+ years, and, from my experience with crises at all levels, the short answer is “yes.” Even now, I’m hearing reports from colleagues that applications are coming in, whether from international or study abroad students.

Though borders will be closed for a time, mobility will eventually return and perhaps increase over recent levels. This is not a U.S. problem; this is a global problem so we’re all in this together. But the desire and will to travel will continue.

“This is a global problem so we’re all in this together”

With each crisis, we learn and adapt. Here are some techniques I’ve used during days of uncertainty:

      • Keep in close contact with your colleagues, peers and mentors. Don’t hesitate to reach out to commiserate, communicate, collaborate and innovate together.
      • Keep notes of ideas for doing things better or differently. Don’t rely on your memory!
      • Keep notes of interactions with students, sponsors, parents, agencies, etc. and track them in your related software solutions. This is to protect you, your institution and your stakeholders.
      • Keep an open mind. Flexibility and creativity will be needed. Just because something has always been done one way does not mean it needs to be done that way now. Despite all our preparations and procedures, we are all in uncharted territory.
      • Honesty is important but know who is authorized to speak on behalf of your institution or your office. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. And sometimes it’s OK to say you don’t yet know. I used to have a sign on my door that said, “sometimes you have to leap and build your wings on the way down”.

Our community is passionate about international education and we are all grieving students’ and our own lost experiences. But the time will come to look forward; what was learned in this period? How can we help turn that learning into future opportunities? We may need to be creative but we will get through this, and we will be stronger and smarter for it.

About the author: Kerry Geffert is product evangelist for Terra Dotta.