Fanta Aw, President of NAFSA, Assistant Vice President of Campus Life and lecturer at American University, talks about the role which food plays when meeting new people; her own experience as an international student; advice for applicants when it comes to funding; and much, much more...
What do you remember of your first few days in the US as an international student? Do you remember them fondly?
‘I remember being in awe of how beautiful the campus was, and the welcome I felt when I first got on to campus both from students and staff who were here. I remember attending the international student orientation programme and it reinforced for me that I had made the right choice.
I was living in the residence hall, so far away from home and sharing a room with a stranger I didn’t know...I was quite apprehensive with what this transition was going to be like.
But what I also remember fondly was this: I met a student from Singapore on one floor and a student from Japan on another; and we decided, as international students on our first time away from home, that we were going to have a cooking night. Each of us decided to come up with a recipe from our parts of the world; we went food shopping together; and when we were in the kitchen [in the hall] we were sharing our cultural experiences and the history behind the food. We had a fantastic meal, and we invited our American friends to join us too. We turned this into an opportunity to come together as a community and have a cultural exchange, and I will never forget that.
It's amazing what food does to bring people together.’
What dish would you recommend?
‘Well I'm biased because I come from a culture where we eat rice. I say that if you want to get a cultural exchange going, you should ask people from around the world about the hundreds of different ways that they cook rice. Here you have a common staple, and yet there are hundreds of ways of making it.’
From which countries did your fellow international students come?
‘I often joke that it was like a mini United Nations. Throughout my time here, there were students from South America, the Middle East, Europe and Africa. It was really extraordinary, the diversity of students and nationalities. I remember specifically students from Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Venezuela, and Argentina; from all over the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman; and from Asia, like Singapore, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea.
I was fortunate enough to make really fantastic friends from multiple parts of the world.’
What changes have you seen develop in the way that American University treats incoming students from overseas?
‘I think now particular attention is paid to something which I call "high touch". Students need a range of services which are lined up to be interculturally-sensitive to needs.’
How do you think studying internationally has shaped you as an individual?
‘I think the fact I have firsthand experience of transitioning to a new environment, country and type of educational system, has helped my awareness of what institutions must pay attention to if they are to recruit, retain and graduate international students. I think because of my experience I come to this with a very different stance with where to place emphasis and how we must really work with students in ways that position them to be successful.
I think having had the privilege of being an international student, has really shaped the way I interact on a daily basis with others. For example, when I am reading the news or encountering issues that are happening in different parts of the world, [it has affected] the way I come to understand these issues. I understand that they are very complex; that they are nuanced; and that context really matters. So in that sense, it has profoundly shaped how I see the world.
To me, when I read a headline about something happening in a part of the world, it is not simply a headline. It's about people and cultures; and potentially those people I have come to know in the time I have been an international student. A country is not just a dot on a map. I see it in a way that is perhaps more "alive" than someone who has not had that same experience.’
You grew up and were educated across a number of countries and systems respectively. What advice would you give to students who are nervous about embarking on study in another country for the first time?
‘My experience is that of a typical global nomad in that I grew up in different parts of the world, going through the French education system before transitioning to the American education system. The advice I would give to students is that in this day and age, overseas education is not just a "nice thing to do", but a necessity today in this interdependent world. Communities around the world are being transformed by migration, common economic systems and issues of our time; and one way to understand these is to go abroad and be exposed to different world views. In doing so, we can begin to examine ourselves in fundamental ways that we can't when we are fully immersed in that one environment.’
You originally studied at American University; and now you are the Assistant Vice President of Campus and Director of International Student and Scholar Services, as well as a professor. How does it feel to see a university develop over time?
‘Universities are not immune to having cultures. For someone like me who had the tremendous benefit of an education at American University, and who was then able to come back and give back to the institution that has given me so much, has been a true joy. Here is a place I have known and where I have really grown as a person and a professional; and to now have the opportunity to give back to its students and community is something I am deeply grateful for.
As an institution, we have changed a lot. Our population of students over the years has changed. The emphasis on the curriculum has changed enormously. The environment, in which we operate both domestically and internationally, has changed radically during this time. I’ve been in a place that has experienced tremendous change and I’m always reminded of this notion; that with change comes opportunity, and with opportunity comes potential for innovation. I’ve had the privilege to be at an institution which has been open to change and has embraced that change. It has allowed someone like myself to actively participate in how we respond to this change from the perspective of innovation and new ways of thinking. As an international student, I bring another dimension to this innovation; and that is that I understand the student perspective fundamentally.’
Are there any nationalities who are currently prominently-represented in the international student community at American University now, who weren’t when you were a student?
‘When I was a student they had very few students from China because principally we are a university who is very strong in Social Sciences. Those who were here from China, were all graduate students.’
Have you ever come across a student and thought to yourself, ‘That’s me, when I was a student’?
‘I think I see myself in every student who comes to this university. I see the tremendous excitement they come in with and their ability to want to embrace change, while also initially exhibiting anxiety about change. When I meet a new student, I often ask them questions to try and normalize the experience for them, and to make it clear that they are not alone; that the contradictory feelings they have are more than normal during this transition, and that there are others in the community who feel this way. They come from different parts of the world, but a common bond comes from the fact that we made a decision to experience a different educational system and be a part of the vibrancy of international education.’
What advice would you give to universities and colleges that are new to international recruitment?
‘One is, I would say to institutions to think of recruitment in a holistic way, that their recruitment is not simply a marketing effort. Recruitment is branding and speaking to the strengths of what your institution provides. But more than anything, recruitment is about making sure that you can retain the students you bring in and that their experiences are going to be transformational. It’s also about lifelong relationship-forming. It has to be a holistic approach; from prospect to admission, retention to graduation, and then to alumni relations. It’s important to invest in the right resources and bring in the right people who can fully understand and appreciate the complexities of this work.’
Can you give some tips to prospective international applicants as to how they should choose an area/university to study in, in America?
‘Beyond the typical things like advising that a university has the academic programme that you’re looking for, is know what community you want to belong to. Do your homework; know whether that institution really fits those notions and values that you’re looking for in a community. You spend a sizeable amount of time in the classroom but you spend much more time outside of the classroom. Learning takes place in and outside of the classroom. It’s about what community speaks to you, both intellectually and socially.
These are lifelong professional networks. The people you interact with in the classroom and outside of the classroom become friends; but most of all, they become an extension of your professional network. They may know people, who know people. They may be in industries or sectors which you’re trying to have the doors opened to. And they may open their doors to you, not because they know you personally necessarily, but because you’ve had a shared experience [by attending the same university, being in the same class etc.]. That experience has tremendous value.’
What advice would you give to international students in regards to funding their studies abroad?
‘The funding issue is real because of the cost of education, particularly at private institutions. One thing I would say to students is that you have to be realistic about your resources, and plan beyond one year of funding. If you’re coming to study a Master’s that is a two or three year course, you really need to have in place mechanisms for funding beyond just a year; this is to ensure that you not only come in and make that investment, but that you actually graduate.
There are numerous funding sources. There are never enough, I’ll admit; there could always be many more. But institutions have funding sources and students need to leverage this in more ways than sometimes they do e.g. how they present their dossier [or personal statement, application, CV etc.]. Also, in the kind of homework they do ahead of applying to strategically position themselves. Depending on what country students are coming from, there is government funding (as competitive as it is). There may also be private, foundational funding available to them which they may not be aware of. In a day and age where technology affords us access to much more information, students have to do their research to see the range of funding possibilities.’
As President of NAFSA, what are your priorities for the organisation in the future?
‘Our main focus is helping US universities understand the scope and breadth of internationalisation. One priority is how to engage them more productively and to accelerate the pace of internationalisation in the curriculum.
My second priority with NAFSA is that we want to see more American students go overseas. In doing so, it really shows that America can continue to be a part of the international community in more ways than being isolated from the international community.
The third priority is ensuring that international education as a field is more vibrant than it has ever been. There are a lot of possibilities for the field to evolve. The more we can engage all different stakeholders towards common goals, while understanding the nuances of different fields the better. So getting more people to the table who can make a good addition to the public and private sector.
The fourth is understanding that as a field that has matured in many ways, it is a field that is attracting a whole new generation of “thought leaders” to the field; and also how the field might open itself to not only engaging these thought leaders but fully leveraging their skill sets and perspectives that they can bring. So identifying the next generation of thought leaders is one of my own personal priorities. I’m very encouraged for the future of this field as I teach this new generation of international educators.’
What advice would you give to an international applicant who is sitting down to write theirs?
‘The most important thing a student can do is to ensure there is “authenticity of voice”. Too often I think students feel they have to write “the perfect essay”. I don’t think there is any such thing as the “perfect essay”. You want to give the admissions counselor a really good sense of who you are, what you value and why you’ve made the choice you have.
The second thing is that this essay should reflect that this is a student who understands the institution and why it might be right for them (as well as what they can contribute and what the institution can give back to them). We want to be able to say that this is not just a student who is going to do well, but someone who can bring added value to the institution.’
If you could go back and give one piece of advice to the Fanta who arrived in America as an international student, what would it be?
‘Coming from a different educational system and being far away from home, I came in with a combination of excitement and apprehension. I think those feelings were more than normal. But what I would say to the Fanta of that time is this: “Don’t be afraid to try new and different things, and don't be afraid to say that you are afraid.”’