NAFSA 2011: A Parallel Universe by Sharon Joy Bell

(With nearly 10,000 members, NAFSA is the world's largest nonprofit professional association dedicated to international education.)


Many academic colleagues may be unaware but Vancouver, Canada, has just played host (May 29-June 3) to the largest gathering of higher education practitioners in the world, with 8,700 delegates converging on a stunningly beautiful city – a city at this time of year willing summer to take hold. The huge NAFSA delegate presence in downtown Vancouver was only briefly overshadowed by the thousands of fans who converged mid-week for the Vancouver Canucks/Boston Bruins ice hockey match – the first of seven which will determine who wins the coveted Stanley Cup. Fortunately our host city team won the first match with a single goal in the last seconds of the game, so spirits remained high.

With nearly 10,000 members, NAFSA is the world's largest not-for-profit professional association dedicated to international education. NAFSA’s members share high ideals: ‘that international education advances learning and scholarship, builds understanding and respect among different peoples, and enhances constructive leadership in the global community…that international education by its nature is fundamental to fostering peace, security, and well-being’.

The NAFSA annual conference is a place to strengthen global institutional ties. The majority of NAFSA conference delegates are administrative and professional staff with responsibility for international students – from admissions, to study abroad, to internships and migration. These are part of Whitchurch’s (2006) growing ‘third stream’ of professional staff with strategically important roles in our sector. Some delegates are the sales representatives of the service industries that support student mobility, such as insurance companies. Some are government agency officials, such as Austrade representatives. There is a minority of academics.

At times during the week I felt I was travelling over time and space in Dr Who’s Tardis, never knowing where I would next land nor what surprising past-encounters and unlikely academic relationships would be revealed. But when my head stopped spinning from daily back-to-back meetings and a string of wine drenched evening receptions with colleagues from Florida to Stockholm I realised that the highlights of my week sat outside the formal Expo agenda. Foremost, the post-conference visit to the downtown (Woodward) campus of Simon Fraser University, where the courtyard entrance is dominated by a huge, multi-screen, illuminated Stan Douglas image of a violent clash between protesters and police in the 1970s. The image is a centrepiece of the campus and extraordinarily evocative of the 70s student experience in the West – a global phenomenon played out locally over a range of issues from local urban development to the Vietnam War. Douglas’s image entitled Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971, is a representation of a little known but crucial moment in Vancouver's history. On that date, Vancouver police violently broke up a Smoke-In, a peaceful marijuana protest. This event was apparently ‘the climax to heightened tensions between local government, hippies squatting in empty industrial buildings and the predominately blue-collar families that had populated the neighbourhood for over a century’. The striking image has all the qualities of documentary veracity but in fact was created through an elaborate dramatic re-enactment of the scene, echoing Vancouver’s current status as a city of image-makers.

Yet the image is even more astonishing in terms of its place within this contemporary university setting – the downtown campus often reserved for our most conservative of activities – the interface with the business and corporate worlds, but in this rather funky city that prides itself on its creativity, also the site of the SFU School for the Contemporary Arts. I sat for some time in the SFU courtyard contemplating which Australian Vice Chancellor would take such a bold step to pose, in a very public and radical way, the enduring questions ‘What is the purpose of the university? How does it engage with its community? How do we reflect our place and history?’

At the beginning of the week I had discovered that the well-endowed University of British Columbia does it differently through a lush, open to the public golf course and an extra-ordinary Museum of Anthropology. The museum is an Arthur Erickson architectural and design triumph which offers a beautiful and respectful setting for the display of Indigenous material culture, the most astonishing of which are the monumental totems traditionally associated with Northwest Indian potlatch ceremonies – ceremonies that involved feasting, dancing and giving gifts to all in attendance, until such ceremonies were banned in 1885 by colonial powers.

The museum’s annotation of the potlatch again evoked my own student past – of Franz Boas and an American pre-occupation with material culture.  The ‘potlatch’ was firmly planted as an iconic ceremony in my anthropological discipline base, even though the retained detail was sketchy: recollection of conspicuous consumption, display, status and prestige, and, most important of all, the redistribution of wealth. Without intending disrespect for Indigenous colleagues or in any way underestimating the layers of symbolic and religious significance the ‘potlatch’ has amongst its cultural custodians, by NAFSA’s week end ‘the potlatch’ surfaced as the most obvious analogy for what must be the most extra-ordinary annual higher education event in the calendar.

I was a NAFSA conference ‘first-timer’, although through a fortuitous bureaucratic oversight my nametag was missing the purple satin, gold-embossed ribbon (akin to those one sees at rural shows for winning entries) that should have announced the same.  I did not know quite what to expect as, despite the multitude of emails that swamped me pre-conference, the program seemed to be rather content free unless you were a newbie seeking to build your international education operational skills and leadership base with a clear north-American focus.  I did not anticipate the scale, or the staggering market orientation of the event. If you ever wonder whether higher education has become a global commodity, land your Tardis in the NAFSA Conference Expo Hall – a hanger of a convention space with hundreds of booths in the style of a furniture fair or perhaps most accurately a travel fair. This is education as a commodity par excellence but, with the notable exception of the service industries and the ‘for-profits’ represented, the products for sale are not material goods, or even, as at other educational fairs, academic programs and student places.

At this commodity fair what is being sold is first and foremost the educational destination and student experience. Country exhibits dominate, populated by those who make up their sector – the Canadians showing an atypical degree of sectoral collaboration (or more likely funding) by showcasing their provinces. Most others, including the Study in Australia stand, showcase individual institutions. At the institutional level it is status and reputation that is being sold, and location of course helps.  At the individual level what is being reinforced and interrogated is the robustness of relationships and exchanges.  Students are the currency and they, as ‘incomings’ and ‘outgoings’, are counted, their quality of experience measured, and counted again. Balanced reciprocity is the aim – a particular challenge for those institutions whose student populations are mature age, part-time, and/or low SES.

Between individuals from far-flung institutions there is often a high degree of affection through experience that spans many years underpinned by an evangelical zeal for global student mobility. I do not know if NAFSA has the data but ‘the chat’ tells me that many who work in this field were exchange students themselves and many found their overseas experience life changing.  They are now close witnesses to their students’ life changing experiences: the development of fluency in a new language; the opportunity to study and work in parts of the globe less travelled; and inevitably, the cross-country marriages. What individual exchange students have gone on to achieve is a large part of ‘the chat.’

So, like the ‘potlatch’, this annual ritual revolves around conspicuous consumption (the investment in travel alone for 8,700 delegates is mind-numbing), sometimes quite elaborate display of relationship, status and prestige, and to a degree the redistribution of wealth, if we equate educational experience with wealth.  Also like the potlatch NAFSA is not strictly aligned with the sector’s economic imperatives. Exchange relationships do not necessarily translate into student load, although many hope it will, and research collaboration is more likely to be a precursor to student exchange than an outcome of student mobility.  It should also be noted that NAFSA is, by and large, a ritual of the West – the Americas (including South America) courting Europe and vice versa. Australia is apparently a perennial favourite with north-American students. There is limited engagement by the Middle East and Asia, although this may be changing.

On a ‘green’ planet do the costs (and carbon footprint) justify the benefits? It is hard to say.  It is certainly interesting to see how much colleagues value face-to-face contact and how apparent it is that there are conversations we simply not want to have using technology. Relationships do matter. Does NAFSA change the way we conduct our business in the international sphere? We undoubtedly pick-up examples of best practice but in student recruitment more broadly our ‘value proposition’, which drives the most successful of our exchange partnerships, is yet to dominate the equation. Was NAFSA a learning experience?  Most certainly, but through observation and lots of listening, not through the formal conference program. Is NAFSA 2012 Houston, Texas in my diary? Probably not but I would encourage every Vice Chancellor who has never attended to do so to gain a sense of the ritual hybrid to which our sector has given birth, and to gain a fascinating window into the context in which our international offices work.

The potlatch was banned in the 19th century partly because the scale of the events being staged grew exponentially and questions were asked by colonial powers about the economic impact – the elaborate preparation necessary, the time expended attending the rituals, and the concomitant spread of contagious disease. This year part of ‘the chat’ was around whether NAFSA become too big and outgrown its purpose? We should at least be asking the question, even if the only disease symptoms being spread seemed to be those associated with jet lag and the occasional case of the common cold.

Sharon Joy Bell is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research and International at Charles Darwin University in Australia