Integrating Internationalization Strategies and DEI Initiatives at US Universities: What’s to be Gained?

International students studying


Until recently at many US universities, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and internationalization programs were considered to be separate undertakings responding to different university goals. Today collaboration between the two is still the exception to the rule. This article makes a case for more and stronger collaboration between DEI and internationalization by considering what can be gained by bringing them closer together. It provides examples of such initiatives drawn from the experiences of Michigan State University.

There are compelling reasons to explore the nexus between these two efforts. As state governments have withdrawn significant funding from institutions of higher education over the past decades, universities have become much more dependent on international and out-of-state tuition. Prior to COVID-19, which brought about large drops in enrollment of international and in some places, domestic out-of-state students, the US was already falling behind in its recruitment and retention of international students and faculty. There is reason to be optimistic that this trend can be reversed, but for this to occur new DEI-inspired strategies aimed at creating a more welcoming, equitable and inclusive climate will be required.


Traditionally, DEI initiatives responded to urgent domestic needs to address racism and sexism on campus and in broader society. Internationalization focused on intercultural communication, language and culture, and study abroad programming to prepare students to function in an integrated and complex global world. While these remain central concerns of each initiative today, recruitment and retention of international students and faculty and university research partnerships have assumed greater importance in internationalization strategies. DEI has also extended its focus beyond race and gender to include a more complex set of identities.

Despite the more inclusive focus of today’s DEI initiatives, however, national origin in particular has received scant attention in its programming. Scholars have pointed out that most DEI initiatives continue to lack a global focus that embraces institutional internationalization as a core value of inclusive excellence. To remedy this, institutions must develop DEI strategies that focus more intentionally on addressing xenophobia and enhancing the climate for international students and faculty.

One step in the right direction is to understand the complex set of reasons why the US higher education climate has become increasingly difficult for international students and faculty in recent years. The following factors have all contributed to this dynamic and have led many international students and faculty to seek more hospitable environments in Canada, Australia and elsewhere:

  • Well-publicized incidences of gun violence in the United States
  • Violent protest movements associated with the rise of right-wing extremist groups
  • The continued fight against racial injustice in the face of systemic racism
  • Sexual harassment and rape culture in our society
  • Restrictive visa regulations enacted by the Trump administration
  • COVID-era prejudice, stigma and violence against the Chinese and other Asian cultures, fueled by the use of the derogatory term “the Chinese virus.”

If institutions do not pay more deliberate attention to campus climate for international students and faculty, US higher education risks even further declines in enrollment and retention for these populations. This would be a tragedy given the enormous value international students and faculty add to campus communities in financial and non-financial ways. Some of the lesser-known non-financial contributions of international faculty and students include:

  • Maintaining US competitiveness internationally and contributing diverse perspectives to research and teaching endeavors. Academic scientists and engineers born outside the US are reportedly often as productive or more so than their U.S. born peers. They thus contribute significantly to US competitiveness and productivity and boost university rankings. These faculty also aid in internationalization by lending new and diverse perspectives to classrooms, laboratories, and research endeavors.
  • Enriching the educational experiences of domestic students. International students can broaden domestic students’ awareness of diverse cultures and languages inside and outside the classroom. This dynamic also works in the other direction: international students can learn much about the US and its complexities by interacting with domestic students. These relationships and connections effectively begin to address any xenophobic attitudes that may exist on both sides.

In short, considerably more can be done to create an inclusive and equitable climate for international faculty and students. A focus on numbers and financial considerations, although undoubtedly necessary, is incomplete if too singular and undervalues the contribution international populations make to campus globalization. Taking this population into account in DEI programming can help attract and retain them while also broadening knowledge of the world among domestic faculty and students.

The next logical question is HOW can a university do this effectively? In the following section, we turn our focus to the Michigan State University context and outline examples of how MSU has begun to take strides to this end.

The MSU Context: DEI and Internationalization

As is the case at other universities, DEI initiatives and internationalization efforts at MSU are located in separate parts of the university. DEI initiatives are headquartered centrally in the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives and the Office for Civil Rights and Title IX Education and Compliance. Some programming also occurs within individual academic units. MSU recently hired an inaugural Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer who is responsible for working across stakeholder groups to implement a comprehensive diversity, equity and inclusion plan. DEI also features prominently in the university’s new strategic planning process: a DEI Steering Committee has been charged with taking inventory of existing campus DEI initiatives, identifying potential synergies and gaps, and establishing a framework to enhance efforts.

Historically, centralized DEI initiatives at MSU have included relatively little programming focused specifically on the needs and experiences of international students and faculty. Much of this global focus takes place instead in International Studies and Programs (ISP) which is headed by an Associate Provost and Dean. ISP includes the Office of International Students and Scholars, the Office for Education Abroad, an array of Area and Thematic Studies Centers, strategic research initiatives with partner universities abroad, and other internationally focused programs.

To further a climate of inclusive excellence, DEI programming at MSU can play a more central role in internationalization. One of the defining features of the university is its focus on global engagement. As the nation’s first land grant university, our goal has long been to conduct research that transforms lives and institutions both here and abroad in conjunction with international and domestic partners. A welcoming climate imbued with the values of diversity, equity and inclusivity for international students, faculty and visitors is fundamental in bringing this about. Below are some examples of existing initiatives that a) speak to the mutual goals of DEI and internationalization and b) create further linkages between the two areas.

  1. Enhancing the Climate and DEI Programming
    At MSU, International Studies and Programs (ISP) leads in advancing programming and training related to inter- and cross-cultural initiatives, thus augmenting the scope of DEI. ISP centers and programs offer DEI related seminars, conferences, workshops and safe space conversations. Working in tandem with academic colleges, these units develop diverse education abroad programming and other forms of student exchange that create global citizen-students by increasing cross-cultural understanding. ISP works across the university to provide resources that underscore our core values of collegiality, civility, and inclusivity. ISP also offers best practices and tips for hosting conversations that are controversial and/or culturally sensitive to help faculty, staff, and students create safe spaces that embrace differences in open discussion.Through collaboration with various campus partners, services, initiatives, and events are designed and delivered to address health and well-being, international-specific career advising, community outreach, and funding opportunities. The counseling center, for example, provides free, culturally responsive mental health services for international students, staff, and faculty. The Work Life Office facilitates international networking events, an international newcomer mentoring program, and an international listserv for personal connection. Career Services offers resources to help international students learn about internship and job search basics in the US and the implications of visa authorizations and immigration law.

    Recognizing the financial hardships some international students face, MSU provides emergency funding assistance in addition to competitive writing competitions and scholarships. Each of these efforts contributes to a more inclusive, welcoming, and supportive climate for international populations.

  2. Diversifying and supporting the faculty, staff, and students
    As universities diversify their campuses, the same energy needs to be directed toward increasing equity and inclusion. ISP collaborates with various campus partners to design and deliver support services for new international faculty and their families such as mentoring programs, resource pages, international listservs, and podcasts. The Office for International Students and Scholars (OISS) holds orientation events for new international students that begin with virtual programming prior to their arrival. OISS also works with several campus partners to provide support to students and scholars in many forms such as leadership opportunities, targeted career development, advocacy, and assistance with academic and health issues. OISS regularly provides guidance on immigration regulations, visa compliance, travel bans or instances of extra scrutiny on travelers from certain parts of the world to promote accountability and institutional compliance. OISS staff advocate for international students and scholars at the local, state, and national level who are being treated unfairly.In an effort to create more flexible global learning models, MSU has expanded the ways it can work with international students unable to travel to the US because of visa issues, health concerns related to the pandemic, or other challenges. Similarly, the Office for Education Abroad recently developed “Study Away at Home” options and various opportunities for “MSU in China” in collaboration with existing partners.

    Study Away at Home allows continuing MSU international students to “study abroad” while in their home countries through a MSU partner institution. MSU degree-seeking international students enroll in an approved MSU education abroad program offered in their home country, using MSU’s regular education abroad systems. Students do not matriculate at the host institution but do engage in a semester-long learning experience with the intention of transferring credit back to MSU. Curriculum is delivered by the host institution or the education abroad provider organization. Students may simultaneously enroll in MSU online courses with the intent to complete their degrees at MSU following the internationally-based study away semester. This learning opportunity is enabled through a temporary exception to the MSU Office for Education Abroad policy, which ordinarily prohibits international students from participating in education abroad programs based in their home countries.

    MSU in China, officially called “The China-based Semester” (CBS), was developed in 2020 for new and continuing MSU degree-seeking Chinese students living in China who did not or cound not come to campus. The program enables new Chinese students to remain home in-country and also have an experience and connection with MSU prior to their physical move to East Lansing. CBS provides an alternative for students who were not interested in taking a semester of MSU online courses. It also furthers student success goals and deepens student engagement/commitment to MSU.

    Both this and the Study Abroad at Home pilot models can be transferred to other geographical areas of strategic enrollment focus as well. Other innovative options provide more flexibility for international students (e.g., variations of 2+2 programs) where students take some course requirements in their home country and the other half of their courses at MSU for a dual degree. All of these options provide a diverse array of opportunities for international students to engage at decreased costs and in spite of any travel issues they may face coming to the U.S. They help us maintain and strengthen our diversity and serve to deepen our international partnerships with host countries and institutions. Overall, these innovative models provide access and alternatives that further promote both inclusivity and international engagement.

  3. Cross and inter-cultural and international communications
    Communication in a global context is crucial to becoming a more inclusive and equitable community. MSU works to positively influence the perception of and enhance language and communication related to international students, faculty, immigrants, and others. This requires use of positive language and images that reflect our values and combat harmful stereotypes and misinformation. Included are efforts to avoid outdated or disrespectful language like “third-world,” “foreign,” and “alien” as well as other phrases that treat American as the default and international as an afterthought.Likewise, images also matter. We avoid using images that reinforce negative stereotypes and attempt instead to use photos that accurately showcase the vibrant diversity of our community. Recently, ISP Communications collaborated with the Provost’s office and the Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer to distribute a campus memo emphasizing these points. The memo will be followed by a series of workshops and other educational guidelines and materials to help campus constituents communicate in a more inclusive manner.

    Currently, OISS provides intercultural communication workshops for campus departments, community organizations, student groups, and local businesses. The workshops provide tools on communicating appropriately and effectively with people across cultures and explain the impact of culture on communication.

  4. International research and scholarship
    At MSU, some core infrastructure exists to support the integration of DEI principles in international research. To facilitate this, a number of academic colleges have both international and DEI units. In addition, area and thematic studies centers act as hubs for cross-country/region DEI research, outreach, and programming. For example, the Center for Gender in Global Context (GenCen) was established to serve as MSU’s hub for gender and sexuality research, teaching, and engagement globally. The Muslim Studies Program (MSP) provides a unique interdisciplinary view of Islam across the globe by sponsoring research, conferences, dialogues, and resources. Area studies centers create cross-disciplinary communities of scholars by hosting initiatives that promote intercultural and cross disciplinary collaboration and learning through speaker series, film festivals, funding for international research, internships, and scholarships for students. They are hubs that bring domestic and international researchers together to address global challenges.
    Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives enhance knowledge generation and problem solving both globally and locally. The four international strategic research platforms headquartered in ISP – the Alliance for African Partnership (AAP), Asia Nexus, Global Youth Advancement Network, and the Global Center Food Systems Innovation – build bridges among domestic and international researchers across disciplines, institutions, and sectors. These platforms represent an innovative approach to research by purposefully emphasizing equity, transparency, accountability, sustainability, diversity, and inclusivity in their work. For example, the AAP is a consortium of 11 universities with a management office in both Malawi and MSU. Leadership of research projects is determined by institutional expertise across the consortium. Budgets are developed collaboratively and transparently, and all programs promote diversity and inclusion. Recognizing that in many African countries there are few women scientists, the AAP sponsors a postdoctoral program that brings African women academics to MSU for a year to work with scientists in their field and who then return home to university positions.

Pulling it all Together (DEI + Internationalization)

With these foci in mind, it is clear that to be truly inclusive universities must better integrate efforts to create an inclusive and welcoming climate for international faculty and students with DEI. No two universities are exactly alike in organizational structure and function, but there are several points that can be drawn from MSU’s experiences:

  • Decentralization can be a strength. Like MSU, many universities have separate units for DEI and internationalization. In addition, there is often a high degree of decentralization of related programming: much also occurs at the individual colleges and unit levels. This decentralization can be a strength provided that a mechanism for conversation and best practice sharing is in place. To allow for this, MSU has recently created a cross-university task force focused on global DEI initiatives. It is comprised of faculty, staff, and administrators from various levels and parts of the institution. It also includes international faculty and student representatives. It is designed to further develop resources, trainings, and other educational materials to reinforce inclusive communication and a welcoming climate in a global context. Because the task force spans across campus, many perspectives are included and multidisciplinary collaboration can more readily occur.
  • DEI and internationalization need not be in competition with one another. Efforts are needed to broaden the focus of what is traditionally domestic DEI to include international dimensions. Expanding DEI to include climate for international students and faculty should in no way diminish or overshadow initiatives addressing the critical domestic concerns of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. In fact, it is quite the opposite: these issues must be addressed to create a welcoming and inclusive campus for everyone, and international faculty and students are inherently part and parcel of that same conversation.
  • A strong focus on retention is essential. An integrated and comprehensive approach to DEI + internationalization requires a focus that extends beyond recruitment to include retention of minoritized and international students and faculty. This ultimately includes both curricular innovations and co-curricular or extramural programming and personal support as well. Institutions should develop their goals for creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for international students in parallel with the development of their goals for domestic students when it comes to curricular, co-curricular, and faculty development.
  • Key university leaders need to be on the front lines of DEI + international. It is important for top administration to be visibly supportive of infusing international into DEI. The CDO and the Dean of International Studies and Programs at MSU co-write communication statements as well as co-host and co-sponsor key conversations and trainings. The collaboration between the two leaders, along wit support and advocacy from the President and Provost, signals a joint coordinated effort and focus. The Provost’s support has also garnered the attention of many faculty members who now participate to further this work.
  • Additional inclusive practices. Other ideas to further integrate internationalization into DEI practices include:
    • Adding international representation to various DEI committees
    • Building questions about the international experience into campus climate surveys
    • Including international faculty and students in campus affinity group
    • Ensuring that international is represented in campus communications and imagery
    • Hosting required modules on international/global perspectives for all new students during orientation week.

    Lastly—and perhaps most importantly—as MSU and other universities and colleges work towards internationalizing and infusing global perspectives into DEI discussions, we need to consider our individual behavior as we interact with each other. This means making an effort to learn about different domestic and international cultures, engaging in cross-cultural trainings and dialogues, and ultimately treating all with respect. We all need to be willing to step outside our own individual experiences, confront our own biases, and challenge assumptions not just on a national level, but on a global scale as well.


    See for example: Dongbin Kim, Lisa Wolf-Wendel, Susan Twombly. International faculty: experiences of academic life and productivity in US universities. Journal of Higher Education, Vol 82, No.6, 2011, pp. 720-747.

    Similar references can be found in Yudkevich, Maria, Phillip Altbach and Laura Rumbley, eds. 2017. International Faculty in Higher Education: Comparative Perspectives on Recruitment, Integration, and Impact. Routledge.

    Also contributing:

    Dr. Anne Ferguson is the Senior Advisor to the Associate Provost and Dean for International Studies and Programs. She recently retired as the Senior Associate Dean for Strategic Engagement where she was instrumental in facilitating and catalyzing equitable strategic partnerships. She also served as the Co-Director of the Center for Gender in a Global Context (GenCen) and Professor of Anthropology. Her research and teaching focused on development studies, gender, agricultural and environmental change, and medical anthropology.