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International Education: A Catalyst for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

By Dale LaFleur, PhD posted 10-06-2022 03:10 PM


International Education: A Catalyst for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

By Kate Hellmann, PhD, Coordinator, Programs and Resources, NAFSA Teaching, Learning and Scholarship Knowledge Community, and
Director, International Student and Scholar Services, Washington State University

As the field of international education adapts to innovate at institutions of higher education across the world, the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) continue to emerge as interconnected to campus internationalization; diversity, equity and inclusion efforts; education abroad; teaching; learning; scholarship; and everything in between. As a result, NAFSA’s Teaching, Learning and Scholarship Knowledge Community has collaborated with two of NAFSA’s Special Interest Groups (SIGs), The United Nations SIG and the Sustainability SIG, to consider how the UN SDGs apply to the various domains of international education and how that work can be assessed, evaluated, and shared. This coursework provides mechanisms in which international education practitioners can map curriculum and work with faculty on research. This is evidenced by work already occurring at Washington State University through the Endowment for Sustainable Development.

As Kelly Roberts, a leader of the UN SIG noted, “this collaboration between TLS, the United Nations SIG and the Sustainability SIG resulted in the reorganization of one course for students that was created last year and launched this Spring and the development of another version resulting in two open access courses, one that supports Youth Engagement with the UN and another that empowers international education professionals to consider how the UN SDGs relate to their work and how that can be assessed, evaluated and communicated.” As a part of that course focused on international education professionals and their work through the lens of the UN SDGs, there are exercises to help practitioners in different international education domains map existing curriculum to the UN SDGs, to consider the role of public-private partnerships, research and assessment and evaluation in public relations work as to the impact of work done on-campus towards the UN SDGs.

For example, at Washington State University, the Endowment for Sustainable Development in the School of Economic Sciences supports scholarship on sustainability, which encompasses any dimension of inquiry relating to the sustainability of human well-being and equity in a global context. To date, scholars have studied the impact of buying and selling annual water rights on farmers in India, the effects of ozone on crops in India and the U.S., the environmental benefits of solar energy in Texas, and the influence of high environmental risks on migration. Their findings on these common issues will inform environmental discussions that lead to mitigating actions worldwide.

That is, the UN SDGs enable international education practitioners to forge closer ties with academic faculty and international research, including funding for SDG work from public-private partnerships, grants, and other sources of funding. When global student mobility compels conversations about widening access to higher education for underserved students, international educators can leverage their networks to raise the following questions:

  • How do the UN SDGs relate to our internationalization strategy?
  • What are the curricular strengths of the university and/or related public-private partnerships that enable the university to coordinate among one or several of the SDGs?
  • What kind of sustained funding is needed and where can such funding be found?

Providing international education experiences at home and abroad has a return on investment, especially if evaluated and assessed so that the impact on the international experience can be clearly articulated for future use.

As summer fades into fall, a slow return of education abroad and a topsy-turvy rebound of international enrollment led to questions about the value of the field. It’s empowering to note that the Sustainable Development Goals demonstrate international education is a force that flows through all academic disciplines and into the work we do as professionals and practitioners in international higher education. We have the capacity to change the lives of the in-bound and out-bound students and scholars we serve through research, innovation and problem-solving practices nurtured by the UN SDGs.

In particular, the collaboration between TLS, the UN SIG And the Sustainability SIG to create and refresh these courses is emblematic of where the field of international education is headed. Truthfully, finding new ways to transform and engage will help ensure the field of international education not only remains relevant but helps drive solutions to real-world problems presented by the UN SDGs.