Markos Kounalakis

Foreign graduates of U.S. colleges become agents of change abroad

This round of nuclear talks with Iran was conducted in American English under the guidance of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, a Yale graduate, and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, second from left, who graduated from San Francisco State and the University of Denver.
This round of nuclear talks with Iran was conducted in American English under the guidance of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, a Yale graduate, and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, second from left, who graduated from San Francisco State and the University of Denver. Keystone

College acceptance letters landed in mailboxes across the country these last few weeks. Proud families now need to figure out the finances of higher education while managing household teenage exuberance.

Americans entering the Class of 2019 will be joined by a record-breaking number of impressive and competitive foreign students. They bring cultural diversity and will yield future dividends as many foreign students later join elite business and political leadership ranks in their home countries.

Good American higher education for these future foreign leaders is not only good for them, it is great for America.

Money is clearly a part of the immediate benefit: Each class of foreign students brings more than $30 billion in tuition and spending, as reported in a recent Brookings Institution study. Rising tuition costs and increasing numbers of foreigners deliver even more money from abroad, with California being the primary beneficiary of this foreign cash.

While some of those who graduate will eventually stay and help grow the American economy, most will return home with new skills, training, values and networks. It may seem like America’s loss in the short run – all that knowledge and potential productivity leaving on a jet plane – but their business and cultural ties to America become an ongoing and profitable benefit, according to the “Open Doors” study by the Institute of International Education.

Beyond the dollars and cents that foreign students generate for the United States, however, is the immeasurable value they bring to the social and political sphere in their home countries and globally. There are so many U.S.-conversant – if not downright friendly – foreign officials that the State Department once compiled and published a list of them titled “Foreign Students Yesterday, World Leaders Today.”

A contemporary list would start with Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, who got his Ph.D. at Columbia University and later taught at UC Berkeley and Johns Hopkins. Two professors, presidents Barack Obama and Ghani, have an easier working relationship than was ever possible with previous Afghan President Hamid Karzai (two U.S. honorary degrees, no American schooling).

Real American graduates hold the potential for becoming agents of change at home. A study in the journal Foreign Policy Analysis showed that these students “play an important role” in bringing home “liberal values and practices across the borders of authoritarian states.” Beer busts and homecoming bonfires take on new meanings when they contribute to loosening up societies and liberating people around the world.

One such graduate is trying his best to bring about greater transparency and freedom to his home country: Leopoldo López, founder of Venezuela’s opposition Voluntad Popular party, did his undergraduate studies at Kenyon College and has a Harvard graduate degree. He is outspoken on human rights and his popularity outstrips Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro. Unfortunately, Maduro’s authoritarian government threw López in prison last year to keep him from pursuing Harvard’s motto of “Veritas” – truth in Latin.

For the United States, the graduates who engage in future political and business dealings with America do so with a common language of understanding, if not exactly common solutions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the current Iran nuclear talks. On the one hand, MIT alum and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has gone to lengths to articulate clearly to the American people why the Obama administration should walk away from an Iran deal.

On the other hand, two MIT grads, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz and Iran’s head of atomic energy, Ali Akbar Salehi, are busily hammering out the technical details of an agreement that is working its way to a June 30 final accord. MIT has trained the key policymakers and politicians on the multiple sides of this issue.

All the comings and goings for this deal are conducted in American English under the guidance of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (Yale) and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (San Francisco State and University of Denver). If the talks were not as serious as the survival of the planet, it would seem like alumni weekend in Lausanne, Switzerland.

A few months ago, Tehran-born UC Riverside professor Reza Aslan posted a Twitter photo of Iranian leaders superimposed with their related U.S. colleges’ logos. Aslan wrote, “Iran currently has the highest number of US college alums serving in any foreign cabinet in the world,” a team including Communications Minister Mahmoud Vaezi, Sacramento State Class of 1975.

Does alma mater matter? With the Iran nuclear talks heading to a final agreement this June, it will be important to see if Vaezi and the rest of the American-educated Iranian cabinet can implement CSU Sacramento’s self-declared challenge to “redefine the possible” without redefining the deal. The great fear being, of course, that an American sheepskin can still hide an Iranian wolf.

Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at markos@stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.

  Comments