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Internationalization and community development: an oxymoron?

How do higher education institutions internationalize while contributing to the local communities they serve?


International activities have long been part of higher education. These activities include student and faculty exchange, study abroad, global research collaborations and transnational programming. Recent efforts to internationalize Canadian campuses have brought these activities into sharp focus. With this focus comes an increasing tension between attaining a global reputation and meeting the educational needs of a nation or community. How do higher education institutions internationalize while contributing to the local communities they serve?

Recruiting international students is often a priority in an institution’s internationalization strategy and community support is immediately needed to offer housing, transportation and other settlement services. In addition to offering these services, the community’s culture also needs to become inclusive of newcomers and, in many cases, supportive of students’ journeys to become Canadian citizens. Higher education has an important role to play in ensuring international students are well integrated into the economic, social and cultural fabric of the communities. One way that institutions can fulfil this role is to develop an internationalization strategy that explicitly links to community development. For example, fostering community connections for international students and local employers features prominently in St. Lawrence College’s new Global Engagement Strategy. The college works with governments, industries and various organizations to achieve in-migration objectives in eastern Ontario, developing a skilled workforce and enriching the social and cultural lives of all residents. A series of video interviews with recent international students and graduates of the college highlighted the positive contributions of these community connections.

To further strengthen the internationalization strategy and community development, St. Lawrence launched the Global Engagement Community Development Program (GECD) in 2021. The goal of the program is to welcome international students into the communities and support their transition into the workforce in the three cities that host St. Lawrence campuses – Kingston, Brockville and Cornwall. By helping this transition, the college is also proactively addressing the economic challenges in the region, namely retaining and attracting businesses that create new jobs and ensuring the labour supply meets employer demands.

We want international students to feel at home from the beginning of their journey, thus increasing the likelihood of them making Kingston, Cornwall or Brockville their home after they graduate. Therefore, the GECD program includes initiatives such as a job fair for prospective international students, information sessions for employers about immigration pathways and mentorship and outreach programs to promote the practices of diversity and inclusion. In addition, the GECD will liaise with community organizations to run events such as a summer barbecue, a cabane à sucre, cultural festivals and field tips. It is crucial that the college helps foster connections and build positive intercultural relationships and exchanges between international students and local residents.

Internationalization, however, is more than welcoming international students. Higher education provided by universities and colleges must equally encompass skills that are shaped by rapidly changing technologies around the world and that enable cross-cultural teamwork to innovate and solve complex problems.

Internationalized higher education requires a more intentional infusion of international and intercultural learning outcomes. Educational tenets related to global citizenship and intercultural competencies are considered as ethical ways to internationalize higher education, and they provide the rich ground for exploration and articulation into relevant skills in all subjects. This is a contribution that higher education institutions can make to community development through its educational mandate. We do not just educate our students; we educate the employers and all community members about the importance of becoming globally minded and globally competitive.

So, is internationalization and community development an oxymoron? The answer is an unequivocal “no.”   Internationalization must also include a strategy to involve local community partners and proactively contribute to the growth and prosperity of the communities they serve. This work beckons us to look outwards for global connections, as well as inwards for local collaborations.

This column is coordinated through the Internationalization of Student Affairs Community of Practice of the Canadian Association of College & University Student Services (CACUSS). For comments or questions please contact [email protected].

Ining Tracy Chao, associate dean of global learning and partnerships, leads St. Lawrence College’s efforts to support intercultural learning for all faculty and students. Shelley Aylesworth-Spink is a higher education leader, focusing on intercultural learning and internationalization, and currently serves as the vice-president, international at St. Lawrence College.
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