As the Director of Study Abroad and Outreach at Duke Kunshan University in China, I am now responsible for launching, building, and developing study abroad opportunities for our students at Duke University and elsewhere around the world. We are now close to entering our second year of running the new undergraduate degree program at Duke Kunshan. This coming academic year we will be preparing our students for their inaugural flight across the world to Duke and elsewhere for their junior year study abroad experiences.
I could not imagine a better place to help me prepare for this great adventure of facilitating our students’ global mobility than the NAFSA conference on international education in Washington DC’s Convention Center, where I spent six days last week absorbing best practices along with around 12,000 other conference attendees from 100 different countries. I spent much of that time listening to and speaking with some of the leading practitioners of international education, workshopping, attending sessions, meeting with colleagues and listening to plenary sessions by inspiring speakers.
I will resist a detailed blow-by-blow breakdown of my experiences, as I have done before with other journal entries on conferences I’ve attended in the past. Instead I offer here a brief recap of some of the highlights as I experienced them:
Day 1, May 26: I signed up for two pre-conference workshops. The first was a full-day workshop on Managing a Study Abroad Office. What better topic with which to begin the conference, since I’m still fairly new to outbound study abroad. I’ve been a study abroad site director and educational administrator over the years for many organizations and universities based in China, but I had not been responsible for sending students abroad until now. Key takeaway: Work with stakeholders to develop and implement both a short-term and long-term strategic plan for the office—a no brainer of course, but they gave us some detailed instructions and good advice on how to do so.
Day 2, May 27: Half-day pre-conference workshop on Risk and Crisis Management for study abroad programs. Key takeaway: have an emergency crisis action plan in place, be well-prepared and well-trained for worst-case scenarios, stay calm, have checklists, be careful in communications, and follow protocols.
Days 3-6, May 28-31: The conference began on May 28. 12,000 people arrived from all over the world. Had meetings with colleagues and potential partners, visited the Expo frequently to meet people and obtain info about different study abroad programs around the world, went to multiple sessions on study abroad and international education to learn and share best practices. Strategic planning kept emerging as a major takeaway, a thread running through almost all sessions I attended.
Conference highlights included the plenary sessions which took place in the third floor ballroom with thousands of conferees in attendance. There were four plenary sessions over the conference, starting with a talk with former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and General Colin Powell. That was quite entertaining and also very telling about American power and its projection abroad. Nuff said. The second plenary was with humanitarian chef Jose Andres, who shared inspiring stories about feeding people in emergency and crisis zones around the world. Third plenary was with author Doris Kearns Goodwin who gave a very well-prepared speech focusing on leadership, based on her research and writing on four US presidents of the past and how they arrived at their positions of power. Fourth and final plenary was with journalist-podcaster Shankar Vedantam, who gave an excellent, academically informed and data-driven talk on the importance of diversity for creative endeavors. Over the four plenaries I learned that it’s best to arrive a half-hour earlier, so that by the final plenary I was in a near front-row seat with full view of the speaker.
The conference ended on May 31 with a lunch that filled the cavernous Convention Center with the music of a rollicking local blues band, which I enjoyed from up close. What a great way to end my six-day marathon!
Throughout the conference, the biggest challenge for me was getting over jet lag. I arrived from China the previous weekend, wasn’t sleeping that well, and was usually exhausted by 3-4 pm each day. Also I had a lot of trouble getting used to American food and the lack of good healthy food options at the conference location. Plus the usual set of other reverse-culture-shock experiences of being an American who has spent a healthy chunk of my adult life living and working abroad. Big takeaway: arrive in country earlier to get over jet lag and make the cultural adjustment so as to maximize my conference time in future. Although I attended the main events and plenty of sessions, meetings, etc., I missed out on some of the evening fun where people cement their relationships over food and drinks.
I did make it to the opening event at the African American History Museum, where we were hosted for a night of fine music and conference dinner food by local singers and jazz musicians. That was fun, but I felt I could have put in a lot more effort socializing were I not suffering from jet lag over the entire event. Such is the lot for those of us who make a life and a career of study and working abroad.
One more caveat worth noting: While the conference was very well run and the sessions and workshops were on the whole informative, inspiring and valuable, by and large they were from the US perspective. For those of us developing and running study abroad programs from abroad, it would be nice to see more sessions and more discussions about the ins and outs of bringing students into the US from abroad rather than sending them outward from the US. Still, I understand that I am in the minority here, and I look forward to attending other international conferences elsewhere in the world to gain and share different global perspectives and insights in future.
All in all, I give the NAFSA 2019 experience a B+. Great conference, inspiring, insightful, uplifting, well-organized and educational throughout, but very, very American.