Global connections: International education for workforce development and a civil society


International education at community colleges is increasingly recognized as essential for building a more inclusive civil society and ensuring a strong U.S. economy.

As the country focuses on issues of equity and workforce development in the post-pandemic recovery, attention has turned to the community college sector. This is because community colleges are the largest sector of U.S. higher education. According to the 2021 AACC Fast Facts, community colleges enroll 41% of all undergraduates in the United States. The sector is also the most diverse, enrolling 43% of all Black undergraduates in the U.S. and more than half of all Hispanic undergraduates. In addition, community colleges have long been noted for enrolling the largest percentage of adult learners, non-U.S. citizens (9% of all community college students), single parents (15%), and students who are the first generation in their families to attend college (29%).

Community colleges are also noteworthy because of their historic role in preparing a competitive U.S. workforce, providing access to higher education for millions of Americans, and establishing the American middle class. In addition to plumbers and electricians, emergency and healthcare workers, community college alumni include astronauts, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, prize-winning authors, foreign heads of state, and notable captains of business and industry. Because of their broad and deep reach into America’s citizenry, community colleges are vital to ensuring that, as we emerge from the global pandemic, America has an inclusive civil society and a globally competitive workforce.

A tool to reach goals

International education at community colleges is an extremely effective tool toward reaching these goals.

International education teaches tolerance, respect and fosters curiosity about other customs and cultures. As the 2021 updates to the AACC International Education Toolkit (IET) highlight, international education at community colleges is powerful tool for teaching civility in an increasingly diverse nation.

In 2019, The Brookings Institute identified the first minority-white generation in the U.S. and an overall white population decline. The 2020 U.S. Census corroborated those findings. Meanwhile, new immigrants continue to arrive in the U.S. from more diverse places around the globe, as our world effectively becomes smaller and more interconnected.

The Importance of Global Education portion of the AACC IET indicates that immigrants are already an important part of every facet of American life today — whether as customers, employers, contractors or employees. 2021 data indicates that more than 27 million immigrants, 16 years and older, are employed in the U.S. workforce. It is not difficult to imagine that a typical American worker is likely to encounter an immigrant as a supervisor (35% of immigrants are in management and professional jobs), a contractor (23% are in service jobs) or a link in their business supply chain (15% are in office and sales jobs). Millions more (15%) produce and transport goods vital to the U.S. consumer economy.

International education at community colleges necessarily envisions a diverse American population living and working peacefully together to ensure a strong and prosperous nation. In 2010, the AACC-ACCT Joint Statement on the Role of Community Colleges in International Education described a prosperous and civil society as one in which its citizens have the ability to understand, appreciate and communicate effectively with one another — recognizing and respecting each other’s national and cultural differences — in order to free the forces of economic development and allow ideas, capital and innovation to move unimpeded. Accordingly, many community colleges have not only embraced international education but also engaged their communities to understand its importance.

A strong workforce component

International education at community colleges also provides students with many of the soft skills that are increasingly in high demand among employers. The AACC IET provides a strong case for the importance of international education at community colleges for workforce development. For example, a 2021 report from AAC&U concluded that employers highly value “well-rounded” employees — those who can communicate and work with people from different cultures and possess self-awareness and empathy when interacting with others from different backgrounds. A 2021 study about apprenticeships from the Urban Institute found that apprentices who lack foreign language skills may find it more difficult to get into an apprenticeship program or to be successful in an ongoing apprenticeship program. In 2018, The Boston Consulting Group found that companies with diverse workforces, of interculturally and globally competent employees, were more innovative and produced up to 19% more in revenues.

The AACC IET also highlights the many innovative ways in which CCs are using international education to enhance their workforce and economic development programs and initiatives.

Profiles of programs

Atlanta Technical College (Georgia) has a longstanding relationship with the Felix-Fechenbach Berufskolleg Vocational College in Germany that is focused on workforce development around the theme of “learning, living, and working together.” The two institutions run an annual short-term exchange program that provides students with technical and soft skills that are a prerequisite for upward mobility in the 21st century job market. Students in the program complete an internship in each other’s country, visit companies of special interest and engage in joint projects.

As part of the international exchange, students also experience each other’s life and culture. They are challenged to develop free and critical thinking skills and engage in personal reflection to look beyond the social and cultural environment with which they are familiar.

Madison Area Technical College (Wisconsin) leads a national network of community colleges from Maine to Hawaii that focuses on providing underrepresented students in STEM-related fields with sustainable and cost-effective study abroad and service-learning abroad opportunities. The network provides access scholarships and recruits students from its members’ TRIO programs and other campus mentoring programs. Students have a variety of international opportunities to develop practical critical-thinking and other employable soft skills by applying the technical knowledge they learn in college to service-learning projects they work on in the developing world.

Pima Community College (Arizona) has leveraged its clout within the local business community in Arizona and its proximity along the U.S. southern border to Mexico in order to promote the every-day importance of international education and the acquisition of global competence and other employable soft skills that are needed to live and thrive in an interconnected global economy. Pima’s “Global Learning and Inclusion Without Borders” initiative includes international workforce development projects, faculty training programs abroad, cross-border conversation partners, peer mentoring, study abroad, international student recruitment and other forms of global engagement.

Hudson Valley Community College (New York) has promoted its expertise in workforce development internationally — delivering customized programs abroad in traditional trades as well as immerging green and hi-tech industries, health sciences and English. It has trained women in Ghana to be photovoltaic installers. In Costa Rica, it provided courses in irrigation and solar energy systems to small crop producers in remote areas. The college’s international outreach has provided international professional development opportunities for its faculty and administrators and facilitated global competence in its domestic students and the local community.

Kapi’olani Community College (Hawaii) has infused workforce and economic development into its international outreach and recruitment activities. Through its Culinary Aloha Project (CAP), Kapi’olani has provided customized contract training abroad, engaged in collaborative cross-border projects, established dual-degree and study abroad programs, and attracted international students to attend its Culinary Institute of the Pacific. All CAP activities are strategically designed to facilitate global competence among its faculty and students and to provide students with the technical and soft skills they need to be successful in the current and future job market.

Whatever their location, size or student demographics, community colleges are nimble at meeting the needs of their local communities and the nation. International education at community colleges is the key to ensure a more inclusive civil society and a prosperous future. It is one of our most important tools for ensuring a successful post pandemic recovery.

About the Author

Wayne Wheeler
is director of international programs and services at the American Association of Community Colleges.
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