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Global Now

The future of internationalization at community colleges

By Ralph Angeles

January 5, 2023

While the internationalization of higher education, a key part of global learning and defined by education scholar Jane Knight as “the process of integrating an international, intercultural, or global dimension into the purpose, functions, or delivery of postsecondary education,” has accelerated in recent decades, community colleges have lagged behind four-year institutions in this endeavor. For example, in 2019–20, only 0.8 percent of students studying abroad were earning an associate’s degree, while 69.7 percent of students studying abroad were juniors or seniors at four-year undergraduate institutions, according to the 2021 Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange.

But community colleges, like four-year colleges and universities, must continue to enhance their students’ intercultural competencies to adapt to a globalizing world. International education is essential to global learning because it offers a wider perspective that assesses how our interrelated social and cultural systems affect the cooperation needed for tackling global concerns. Interculturally competent individuals tend to maintain relationships with people from different backgrounds, communicate with an intercultural mindset, adapt to and accept ambiguity, and collaborate more productively. These are all skills and abilities that today’s employers are seeking and that are key to solving global challenges, such as climate change.

Looking at past internationalization efforts on community college campuses can be useful when considering how to advance such efforts now and into the future. Before the 1950s, community colleges predominantly focused on serving students from their local communities. In the 1950s and 1960s, however, community colleges began to also attract international students as a revenue source. The international consortium of the American Association of Junior Colleges (now the American Association of Community Colleges) was created during this time. The American Councils for Intercultural Exchange was founded in the 1970s.

In the 1980s and 1990s, with rapidly growing connections between countries politically, socially, and economically, government officials and higher education administrators increasingly recognized the value of international education. As a result, community colleges began establishing offices to develop and facilitate international education programs. In 1992, an American Council on Education survey found that most community colleges had developed international contacts, had internationalized their courses (incorporating non-Western perspectives, for example), or offered study abroad programs. Community colleges also continued to actively recruit international students.

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, community colleges realized that they had to increase efforts to provide opportunities for their students to experience intercultural interactions. As a result, community college mission statements began to include international education, defined by NAFSA: Association of International Educators as “advanc[ing] learning and scholarship; build[ing] understanding and respect among different peoples; and enhanc[ing] constructive leadership in the global community.”

In the mid- to late 2000s, community colleges began introducing global and international studies certificates and degrees that offered students credentials to demonstrate their ability to work across cultures and develop a global perspective. Today, with community colleges enrolling nearly half of all college students in the United States, the continuing growth and expansion of these programs can ensure the nation remains connected to the rest of the world.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has hampered study abroad programs, on-campus international education, and local events such as cultural festivals, higher education institutions have continued to look for new ways to help students develop international, intercultural, and global competencies, even as in-person travel and events begin again. For instance, the use of online and virtual technology to allow students to experience international educational opportunities is not new, but the ability of such programs to address pandemic-related concerns has revolutionized how campuses, including community college campuses, offer inclusive global education. One example is the International Research and Exchanges Board’s Global Solutions Sustainability Challenge, which allows US university and college students, including community college students, to virtually partner with students in Jordan and Iraq to create solutions to sustainability issues inspired by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. These goals include eliminating poverty and hunger and providing people with quality education, clean water and sanitation, and affordable and clean energy.

Other virtual international programs in which community college students can participate include the State University of New York’s Collaborative Online International Learning program and Gazelle International’s Collaborative Learning for International Capabilities and Knowledge system, which allow US students to enroll in a course or participate in curricular experiences with students from other countries. Students can even receive course credits from their home college and their international partner university.

In a similar vein, online study abroad programs allow students to “travel” without leaving their homes or institutions. Virtual study abroad programs have many of the same features as traditional ones, such as course enrollment, cultural and language immersion, and exploration of locations that match students’ interests. For example, students take digital tours of buildings and art installations. Additional benefits include affordability and the opportunity to visit multiple locations virtually. Organizations such as the Institute for the International Education of Students and International Student Exchange Programs offer both in-person and virtual study abroad programs.

In addition, virtual international service-learning allows students to contribute to a community or organization in need by providing language assistance, teaching online, or creating media and other projects. Students can develop mini-documentaries or visual presentations about the organization or the people they help. Organizations that offer virtual service-learning opportunities include EF Education First.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and other obstacles, community colleges recognize the importance of expanding their international education programs. Community colleges can broaden and deepen their international programs by collaborating with other institutions and organizations. The American Association of Colleges and Universities offers resources and programming through its Office of Global Citizenship for Campus, Community, and Careers. By continuing the internationalization efforts, community colleges can connect their students to the globe more closely than ever before.


  • Ralph Angeles

    Ralph Angeles

    Ralph Angeles is a professor of political science and the chair of the Department of Social Sciences at Lone Star College–North Harris.