Keeping the Doors Open - Higher Education Today

By Robin M. Helms


The Chinese proverb that “a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step” has been a recurring theme in my career in international education. Even before I had heard the proverb itself, it would have been applicable to my life—the day in fifth grade when I walked into my first French class and discovered a love of language learning, after college when I got on the plane to teach English in China for the next year, and later when I interviewed for my first job with a study abroad provider. And while we certainly didn’t know it at the time, the day in March 2020 when I walked out of my office at One Dupont Circle was the start of a pandemic journey that at the moment is feeling like a lot more than 1,000 miles.

The step that started my nine-years-and-counting journey at ACE was when I was handed the data tables from the 2011 Mapping Internationalization on U.S. Campuses Survey to review, analyze, and write up as a narrative on my first day. It was both exciting and intimidating—this would be third iteration of the study, which was already unique and well known in the field of international education, and a basis for additional research.

Today, the study remains the only comprehensive sources of data on U.S. higher education internationalization. With its 30,000-foot view of the internationalization landscape, it has been a jumping-off point for countless other studies, dissertations, and class discussions. The creativity, additional insights, new interpretations, and in-depth research catalyzed by the Mapping survey continue to enrich the field and inform our practice.

Five years ago, the 2016 Mapping survey garnered our highest response rate ever—40 percent, somewhat remarkable in a time of survey fatigue and decreasing survey response rates overall. It was an intense yearlong journey that involved not only constant communication and efforts to get the word out however we could, but also what sometimes felt a bit like badgering potential respondents. But we got there. And with enhancements to the report and an online tool institutions can use to compare their data to peers, Mapping’s reach has continued to expand.

Now it is 2021, and the fifth iteration of the Mapping survey is underway. What a wild ride the past five years have been for international education, on so many fronts. In some ways, the Mapping survey could not be better timed to capture all that has transpired.

On the other hand, we had a dilemma—so many of the survey responses would be different for the year of the pandemic than for the preceding four years. How would we maintain our longitudinal consistency, but also separate out and document pandemic impacts? We came up with some creative solutions—you can learn about them in this video—and all told, we are proud of the survey and excited about our approach.

And now we need your help. We launched the survey in March, sending it to provosts. Next we’ll send it to senior international officers, then institutional researchers, and finally presidents. Our research team is hard at work updating our contact lists. We have a well-designed distribution plan and carefully timed survey reminders. But we need colleges and universities to complete the survey. All degree-granting U.S. institutions are eligible—and we need data from everyone, whether or not your institution is active in terms of international activity.

I won’t sugarcoat it: it’s pretty brutal out there when it comes to survey response rates. So far we have 215 completed Mapping surveys in (Thank you to those who have submitted them!). In 2016, we ultimately received 1,164 survey responses—understanding pandemic pressures and all the other variables at play, I’m hoping for 1,000 this time around. Triple digits was a milestone, but we have a long way to go.

Our journey to 1,000 surveys depends on your contributions. We are happy to work with you to get the survey to the right person on your campus, either electronically or in hard copy. In turn, we are committed to continuing to provide up-to-date data and information to the field.

We’ve started this blog post to keep you informed on our progress and to offer reflections on previous data and what we expect we might see in the 2021 iteration. And we’re going to be honest about where we are and the ups and downs of data collection.

What the Chinese proverb doesn’t say is that a journey of 1,000 miles is rarely completed alone. It’s all about your traveling companions and who you meet and connect with along the way. We hope you’ll join us in the 2021 Mapping Internationalization on U.S. Campuses journey!

Higher Education Today