International mobility is becoming an essential part of every student’s curriculum. The Erasmus Impact Study (2015) has shown that 64% of European employers consider international experience an important element when recruiting new employees, a number that has grown from only 37% in 2006. This is not surprising when the same study concludes that when recruiting, 92% of employers are looking for transversal skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and confidence. Indeed, initiatives like the Fulbright Program have helped increasing the number of exchange students, making it an ever-growing trend.
There are many reasons for students to go abroad. Some aim at, precisely, increasing their competitiveness in the job market. Others, are simply looking for the social and cultural aspect of the international experience, allowing them to develop their intercultural competence and critical spirit. Some others look for the challenge of living alone in a new country. Regardless of the reason, all in all, international mobility makes students more attractive to the job market, more resilient citizens, and more aware of themselves as individuals. The positive aspects are also noticed by higher education institutions in Europe as according to the same Erasmus Impact Study (2015), 99% of them have seen a substantial improvement in their students’ confidence and adaptability.
The reality is that despite the growing numbers, international mobility is still just for some. Consecutive ESNsurvey reports have shown that there five main obstacles to international mobility: lack of financial means to cover the cost of mobility; administrative complications related to visa obtention and registration in the host country; lack of information about mobility opportunities and of their added value; incompatibility between university curricula and the abroad experience; and fear of losing touch with one’s personal circle. These can be broken down into many more but the essential message to retain is that international mobility is still not an experience for every single student.
For these students, and even for those who do not feel ready to go abroad now or are just returning from this experience, internationalization at home presents important solutions. Even though the definition of the term is not consensual, Jos Beelen and Elspeth Jones (2015) have defined internationalization at home as “the purposeful integration of international and intercultural dimensions into the formal and informal curriculum for all students within domestic learning environments”. Through different types of initiatives, local students can experience an international environment without leaving their campus, developing to some extent the same characteristics as their mobile peers. Local students that experience internationalization at home often integrate the circles of international and exchange students, feeling sometimes more comfortable within this multicultural environment than among their local colleagues. After their studies, these connections are potentially kept, providing them with an international network of contacts for life.
However, creating an environment conducive to internationalization at home is not an easy task for higher education institutions. Even though some of its characteristics are related to the internationalization of curricula and online classes, internationalization at home has a very important informal layer. It requires locals and internationals to create a common circle where they can exchange perceptions about life and their studies. This is also shown by the ESNsurvey 2016 where it was concluded that both exchange students (33%) and local students (35%) wish to have more opportunities to interact with each other. The challenge higher education institutions face is in the fact that the opportunities for such mingling are often easier to recreate outside of the classroom environment and after working hours.
Student organizations are key to tackle this challenge. In most of Europe, student-led organizations such as the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) provide opportunities for all students to connect with each other. The plan is rather simple: local students give part of their free time to organize activities to welcome and continuously integrate their international and exchange peers in their campus and society at large. By volunteering in this type of organizations, local students experience internalization at home, developing also project and event management competencies. As the experience for exchange students increases in quality and their social expectations are more easily met, these become ambassadors of their host university, further promoting it as a destination for other students and sometimes returning for a full degree. Hence, the inclusion of local student-led organizations is essential for future-oriented institutions who wish to provide a more internationalized environment for their local, international, and exchange students.
As an integral part of a wider institutional strategy, these organizations must get a proper institutional framing. This should translate into recognition of the competencies gotten through volunteer work, funding to organize activities, training opportunities, and space for the students to, in return, shape the next steps of the institution’s international strategy. It is a collaborative approach that ultimately creates a participatory and democratic environment in every institution.
Internationalization at home is essential to make the benefits of international mobility more accessible to all students. Since for different reasons not all students are able to internationalize their curriculum – and their minds – through a physical abroad experience, higher education institutions have the responsibility to provide them with the space to acquire part of these skills in their own campus. As connecting locals with international students is an important part of this strategy, local student organizations must be part of internationalization strategies, supporting the implementation of a peer-to-peer approach. As the importance of internationalization at home grows in institutional strategies, so must the role of student-led organizations in making it a reality for all students.