The 65th annual NAFSA Conference opened at the America’s Center in downtown St. Louis Tuesday and by the end of the day, the majority of the 8,000 attendees knew that Webster University was the center of international education in St. Louis.
Hints that Webster takes international education seriously greeted conference attendees immediately upon their arrival, with airport signage and and highway signs reading, “Welcome to St. Louis, NAFSA Conference.” Webster’s booth was prominently located near the entrance of the exhibit hall. Additionally, Webster pamphlets were placed on every chair inside the main speaker’s hall, where the stage had a Webster University logo on each side.
Outside the venue was a small fleet of pedicabs with Webster University logos on them, ready to take the conference attendees anywhere they wished in the downtown area.
If all those things still weren’t enough to let NAFSA conference attendees know that Webster takes international education seriously, there was a shout out to Webster University from NAFSA’s president, Fanta Aw, who then introduced Webster President Elizabeth (Beth) Stroble.
It was Stroble who drove the message home to the packed auditorium.
“The phrase ‘Gateway to the West’ signaled the significance of the westward expansion of the United States,” Stroble said to several thousand people in the hall. “Today, I expand the phrase and say welcome to St. Louis, the gateway to the world!”
Students from 146 countries come to the St. Louis region to attend a diverse community of 49 higher education institutions. The state of Missouri, she explained, has the 13th largest population of international students out of all 50 states and educated nearly 16,000 students in the past 12 months. That’s a 6.3 percent increase over the previous year’s international student population.
Stroble told the audience that Webster was established as a Catholic all-women’s college in a time when baccalaureate education west of the Mississippi focused on men. Webster would later embrace a broader identity by becoming co-educational and then secular in the 1960s, but would really take the lead when it would transform education by offering opportunities outside St. Louis and to those in the service to earn graduate degrees while they were still serving.
Taking education to students and to where the need was greatest, Webster opened its first international campus in Geneva in 1978. Today, Webster students can complete their degrees in 60 cities in eight countries on three continents – soon to be four when the Ghana campus is officially up and running.
“Why do we do it and why do we continue to do this?” Stroble asked the audience. “Because we know, just as Webster’s founders knew, that meeting students’ needs requires a pioneering spirit. Just as students need to experience worlds outside themselves, universities must embrace new ways of serving students and their communities.”
Echoing an observation made by Kofi Annan, Stroble said, “We, as leaders in international education, are a catalyst for progress in every community we serve.”
Her message was reflected in Annan’s speech just a few minutes later. Annan, who served as the secretary-general of the United Nations from 1997 to 2006 and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the international body, stressed that international education was more important now than ever before.
“We cannot resolve today’s social, economic, political or environmental challenges without cooperation,” Annan said. “The consensus lies in the promotion of dialogue, understanding and mutual respect among the people.”
He said that online education and other technologies that help students from around the globe connect may help break down the cultural barriers – many unintentional - that are often taught to us.
“We can not expect young people to rise to the challenges on their own. We need to help them on that road,” Annan said. “If we are going to be globally interdependent, we need to expose our young people to the world.”
International Educators Visit St. Louis, Tour Webster
Earlier in the day, about a dozen officials representing the Institute of International Education, as well as universities in South Korea, Taiwan, China, England and the United States were on Webster’s home campus Tuesday for a tour.
President Stroble and Provost Julian Schuster delivered welcoming remarks to the group, and a presentation on Webster’s unique niche in international higher education followed as the visitors talked with Webster staff in admissions and international programs.
Many of these special conference guests expressed interest in learning more about Webster’s global work and in establishing partnerships with the University.
The NAFSA conference, taking place in St. Louis May 28-31, has drawn some 8,000 international higher education officials from 120 countries worldwide. During the conference week, Webster will host visits to its Old Post Office campus location in downtown St. Louis, a VIP visit to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game, and several lectures from faculty and staff on issues surrounding international education.