Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore

Cattolica International

Meet the experts. Internationalisation in their eyes: Mary Anne Grant

MARY ANNE GRANT led ISEP through its growth and development for more than 34 years. Starting in 1981 as Deputy Director for programmes and then as Executive Director, she led ISEP through its incorporation as an independent self-funded nonprofit in 1997 after being based at Georgetown University and partially funded by the U.S. government. Under her leadership ISEP grew to become an international membership organisation of more than 300 colleges and universities in the United States and 50 other countries in Africa, the Asia-Pacific region, North America, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. More than 54,000 students had participated in ISEP exchanges when Mary Anne retired in January 2016. She also served as President of NAFSA: Association of International Educators in 2003 and Chair of the Board of the Forum on Education Abroad in 2017-18. Since her retirement, Mary Anne has written a history of ISEP and guided two U.S. based nonprofit organisations in strategic planning and development. She particularly enjoys guiding organisations in defining their vision and mission, developing multi-year implementation plans and bringing diverse interests and perspectives together around a shared vision and goals. In her spare time, she is an avid gardener and hiker in the Shenandoah National Park.

ISEP has facilitated global student mobility for over 40 years. What are the main trends, issues and challenges of international student mobility that have changed and remained the same?

The International Student Exchange Programme (ISEP) was created in an environment where engagement with the world was deemed increasingly important as part of higher education due to globalisation. ISEP responded to a desire to infuse US undergraduate education with an international perspective by expanding access to study abroad. ISEP was also responding to the demand for access to US higher education by international students. Deep engagement with the rest of the world was a driving force which led to ISEP’s signature programme – direct enrolment in universities outside one’s home country for a culturally immersive academic and personal experience. Another significant factor for ISEP had to do with financing those experiences. ISEP was a pioneer in levelling the playing field by basing programme costs on what students paid at their home institution and utilizing the resources of higher education institutions to provide international study opportunities for students from other countries. Finally, diversity of destinations and openness to all fields of study were important motivators to the creators of ISEP.

These elements – access, diversity and affordability – continue to be key aspects of international student mobility today. When it was created, ISEP was responding to the desire for greater engagement with the world and increased access to international education opportunities at an affordable price. This trend continues. Over the years, ISEP expanded its offerings to include new types of programmes, such as fee-paid study abroad, exchanges for the entire ISEP global network (not just two-way exchanges between the United States and other countries), shorter-term programmes, internships, service learning and volunteer opportunities. ISEP’s flexibility and resiliency in facing challenges have sustained the network for more than 40 years.

How to provide international experiences continues to be a challenge just as it was when ISEP was founded. It is difficult to manage a large number of relationships and programmes, particularly with regard to quality, advising and support, academic and personal learning, safety, security, and health. ISEP has addressed these important aspects of student mobility, not by insisting on a one-size-fits all approach, but by building mechanisms that allow institutions to participate in keeping with their own resources and institutional approaches.

When ISEP began, a daunting challenge was the collection and dissemination of information about academic courses and logistical support available to students. There was no internet, email, fax messaging, or other technologies. Communications were cumbersome and slow. Of course, this has changed dramatically since the early 1980s when ISEP was getting launched. Today, technology makes the rapid dissemination of information possible and new applications help students to find a wealth of opportunities for an international experience. The complexity of managing a worldwide student mobility organisation cannot be overstated. It took years for ISEP to develop stable and systematic mechanisms to address all the various components of an education abroad. Like so many others, ISEP has utilized technology and its online presence to manage programmes and access to information, key elements for any successful student mobility operation. Since its founding, over 60,000 students across more than 350 universities in 50+ countries have participated in ISEP exchanges and other programmes. While such numbers are impressive, they are small in relation to growing demand, even in the aftermath of the coronavirus. ISEP has been consistent and committed in its mission of access, diversity and affordability. These characteristics – commitment, consistency, and change – are key for the future international student mobility.

What is the added value that a university such as Università Cattolica can bring to the ISEP network?

Higher education institutions, like Università Cattolica, are the heart of ISEP. By coming together in a worldwide network of universities, ISEP tapped into a rich resource of nearly unlimited possibilities for students. As a membership organisation, ISEP is dependent on its member institutions to serve students. ISEP does not create programmes. Rather, participating institutions provide incoming students access to their existing academic offerings and name a local coordinator to manage student mobility programmes. Also, universities often develop programmes that facilitate the integration of incoming international students, such as offering courses in English as well as the local language. As a global exchange network, ISEP has refined its ability to draw on the resources of the network to serve the common good. No institution is favoured over another and trust and recognition are key drivers, demonstrating that when higher education institutions work together, they can do far more for their students than any can do alone.

ISEP member universities help their own students through the application process for ISEP programmes, support students throughout their international experience and help them reintegrate on returning home, especially in securing credit toward their home degree. Member universities also provide all support services for incoming students, helping them to get off to a good start quickly as they seek to take advantage of educational and personal growth opportunities while on programme. It is the member institutions, rather than the ISEP central office, that provide services directly to students. ISEP’s member institutions are deeply committed to the success of their own students and those of other members. International education staff, university administrators and faculty recognise that they share responsibility for supporting all students on the programme, and take an approach that signals, ‘I will take care of your students just as you take care of mine.’ Trust and shared values among ISEP’s member institutions are hallmarks of an ISEP experience.

Università Cattolica has been one of ISEP’s most active members with no limit on what the university could do to support student mobility. This has meant offering access to its regular university programmes, creating new study opportunities, providing access to study in English, offering comprehensive student advising services for both outgoing and incoming students, and ensuring every student could have an international experience. In short, Università Cattolica has set a high standard for the academic and personal success of every student and serves as a model for other institutions. The most successful ISEP members are those that incorporate participation in ISEP programmes in a comprehensive internationalisation plan and leverage the network to advance its own agenda for students, faculty and the university as a whole. Università Cattolica has shown how to utilise the ISEP network to its best advantage, welcome and support students from around the world, and build a strong profile of partnerships as a leader on the global stage of international education.

Article featured on Worldbound, edition n.7-2022.