Joanna Al-Youssef, University of Nottingham
When I volunteered to contribute to this publication, it struck me that I would be positioning myself face to face with a part of me I do not usually explore in depth or even take much notice of. I suddenly realised that I would be exploring a layer of my identity that is so vague and feels almost artificial as it appears to be the creation of others’ perceptions outside of myself rather than a real part of me; an ‘international’ member of staff. I should admit I do struggle with this term. Emotions aside, the word ‘international’ means to me personally a national-Other, someone from a different ‘place’, a different nation. But that is not how I truly feel. If I want to be very honest with myself, my nationality is but a label stuck with me since birth (by birth!). There are aspects of that nationality which remain a label and nothing more, and there are other aspects that I can associate with and claim to own. It is that feeling of ownership of that nationality, which comes from pure familiarity with a certain culture and context, which determines the degree of attachment to that nationality. I have never been fully attached to mine. Having grown up in a rather mixed ‘international’ context, culturally as well as linguistically, I seem to have learned to let go of my nationality boundaries (or at least those aspects of my nationality that I cannot associate with) and replace them with another model of values from another nationality frame. I am not sure whether I lost anything in the process;it was more about linking or building new bridges rather than detaching or burning old ones.
As far as my work experience is concerned, I have always worked in an ‘international’ environment and within that professional context I have not made ‘judgements’ about my colleagues based on where they come from, nor have I felt I was being judged based on my nationality. I always had that curiosity about ‘other’ colleagues from different parts of the world – the desire to travel and see places and experience a new ‘place’ and ‘culture’ is the drive perhaps, and also the desire to learn what is out ‘there’, the mysterious, some of which was presented to me in school and picture books before that as a fantasy, a seductive fairy tale.
Throughout my academic studies, the idea of ‘differences’ and ‘similarities’ was enhanced by the presence of classmates from a wide variety of countries and cultural backgrounds that included not only national geographical boundaries, but also regional differences, The UK’s South and North are but examples. It was during my study years that my interest in internationalisation grew. It seemed a natural step to explore this concept further. The interest came from my own experiences mentioned above, but also from a wide-spreading buzz created by the term. Universities especially were emphasising the importance of internationalisation and international strategies, and as a student and also staff member labelled ‘international’, one of the important indicators of internationalisation, I felt I had an obligation to know more about it. In what follows, I will present a brief description of that rich, deep and very personal journey into internationalisation.
The internationalisation of higher education institutions was therefore at the core of my doctoral research. The first stages of reading the literature were somehow challenging and, to some degree, disappointing as the ambiguity around the term increased and seemed to go unresolved. Although the readings were relevant for my research per se, there was not much in the literature that I could relate my experiences to as the focus there was more on macro concepts and institutional strategies (which were eventually the core of my doctoral thesis). The part of the literature that provided most insights into areas I was personally interested in was that exploring voices of international students and staff (e.g. Jones, 2009;and Turner and Robson, 2008), and also that looking at internationalisation at an individual or ‘self’ level (e.g. Sanderson, 2004). Exploring these areas raised questions about the degree to which the divide between ‘international’ and ‘non-international’ had been widened within universities. It was becoming clear to me personally that this divide was worth investigating further.
My research into internationalisation included a great deal of reflection because the divide I mentioned above was also present within me. I was not sure which box to put myself in as far as international labels were concerned, and so I needed to have an internal dialogue to understand the relationships between all my inner selves represented by different identity layers. The reflections were part and parcel of my growth as a researcher, but also a very ‘revealing’ exercise through which I was attempting to observe the discursive construction of my identity (Ybama et al, 2009). The combination of internal reflections and external observations led me to places within myself that I had not previously known;corners of my soul that were so fluid and adaptable.
Internationalisation was being revealed to me as a very intimate and personal process. I could in the end quite easily describe myself as ‘internationalised’ rather than ‘international’. I could also see this description applying to many of my colleagues and research subjects. I have finally come to see that, at an individual level, to be or being internationalised includes a choice, whereas ‘international’ is about lack of it. The former is about consciously developing an understanding of the self and ‘Others’ that goes beyond inherited geographically-generated labels, whereas the latter is about being mentally and conceptually imprisoned within fixed terms. It might sound obvious, but to arrive at such an understanding through active reflection and observation was personally, to some extent, also draining.
Results of the EdD research, and reflections on practice
The aim of the EdD research was to investigate interpretations of internationalisation at a UK university while an international strategy was being? created (Al-Youssef, 2010). The distinction made between ‘international’ and ‘internationalised’ above appears to apply when views of the research participants are concerned in the sense that those views mostly refer to ‘international’ as fixed. The data, taken as a whole, present internationalisation as a quantifiable term that can be measured by numbers of international students, staff, links and so on, as well as an international ethos that is presumably created provided that the numbers exist. Perhaps understandably, when it comes to an institution’s international strategy, numbers do matter. However, between the lines in the interviewees’ responses, there was a general feeling of the superficiality of the term, not being able to bridge the gap between policy and practice. The responses also reiterated the above-mentioned divide between ‘international’ and ‘home’ students and staff with comments frequently referring to ‘us’ and ‘them’ – a language very widely used and taken for granted.
The results of the research also revealed a number of paradoxes in the way individuals position themselves in relation to international students and members of staff. While many emphasised the mutual learning environment created by the presence of international and home students, for example, most revealed a view of those students as somehow inferior in terms of their knowledge of the UK education system and their ability to ‘adapt’. Holders of that view were more concerned with providing assistance and a support system for international students to aid their adjustment to the new system rather than looking into ways of developing the existing university system for the benefit of all involved. One might argue that a combined approach would perhaps be most constructive, but evidence from the EdD study did not point to such an approach as an option.
One area that is covered by the literature in relation to the idea of mutual learning mentioned above is that which covers the concept of co-creation of such learning environment and the shared understanding of what it actually means (Turner and Robson, 2008). The research results, however, raise questions about how or whether understanding can be shared in the first place.
As a member of staff at a UK university, I am in direct contact with the students, and staff, labelled ‘international’. In the beginning of my career, the differences were more pronounced as my involvement with international members of universities was a rather new experience. Groups of students from a single country would stick together, with the odd student breaking the group norms and joining the ‘Others’. Some characteristics, whether social or academic, were showing through students’ work and their behaviour in the classroom, but just like in the group formations, there were always some exceptions. Later on, as I became more familiar with my working context, the boundaries began to fade, and so did my own image of myself. It became difficult for me to identify with any of the groups or nationalities. I seemed to lose sight of that ‘point of origin’ where I came from. I also lost confidence in my ability to stereotype as there was no space left for that. I began to see how, in different contexts, we could all be international in one way or another.
In my present job as a teacher of English for Academic Purposes, I find myself confronted by students’ different educational systems and traditions, many of which I still need to learn more about. I am still unable to place myself on the ‘international’ grid, but I am confident that I can move between nationalities without the undue pressure of the fear of the unknown. For me personally, this is exactly what it means to be internationalised;to get over the barriers of fear, to learn how to make the strange familiar and apply this skill in every encounter without allowing labels to interfere.
Lessons learned: what the ‘Other’ can offer
While I talked about ‘self’ and the ‘Other’ in the previous sections, I see both as one and the same. I have explored my understanding of my identity as an international staff member during my academic studies and working career, but I now see myself as ‘Other’ as well. What I have learned throughout the journey does not belong to me alone, for it is in my interactions with ‘others’ – in which I will be ‘Other’ to them – that the lessons learned are put to the test. There is some overwhelming continuity about internationalisation of the self, something that resembles an on-going regeneration of the self into a more ripened all-encompassing self.
Looking back at my journey towards internationalisation, I can see that despite the importance of the issues discussed and presented, over-emphasizing them, especially at the macro level of universities, can only lead to the re-production of stereotypes and the focus on differences and boundaries rather than on crossing them which comes as a result of the active engagement with the ‘Other’ and also the ‘Self’.
As an international academic, ‘self’ and ‘Other’, and looking back at the journey so far, I feel privileged, and very lucky, to have been there and done that. I now feel that what I have gained from the experiences and encounters is more than simply memories. I feel that I have embarked on an on-going mission to unfold the mysteries of who I am and that I have the tools to raise others’ awareness of the diversity lying behind international labelling for a better academic environment that brings success to all.
Dr Joanna Al-Youssef is an EAP (English for Academic Purposes) Tutor and a Course Leader of the Postgraduate Certificate in International Student Advice and Support at Nottingham University. Joanna has an MA in English Language Teaching from Nottingham University (2002) and an EdD from the University of Bath (2009) and a 15-year EAP/ESP teaching experience. Joanna’s research interest is in the areas of internationalisation of higher education, international policy and International Students’ experience. firstname.lastname@example.org
Al-Youssef, J. (2010) The Internationalisation of Higher Education Institutions: Meanings, Policy and Practice. VDM.
Jones, E. (ed.) (2009) Internationalisation and the Student Voice. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Sanderson, G. (2004) Existentialism, Globalisation and the Cultural Other. International Education Journal 4(4) 1-20.
Turner, Y. and Robson, S. (2008) Internationalising the University. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.
Ybema, S., Keenoy, T., Oswick, C., Beverungen, A., Ellis, N. &Sabelis, I. (2009) Articulating identities. Human Relations 62(3), 299–322.