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Brian Whalen Reports on White House Summit

Dear Colleagues,

White House Summit4
Forum President/CEO Brian Whalen at the White House

I am pleased to provide this short report on my attending the White House Travel Blogger Summit on Study Abroad and Global Citizenship last week.

Organized by The Global Engagement Directorate of the National Security Council at The White House, The White House Summit was a first of its kind event. The U.S. Department of State was asked to assist with the organization, and invited me to represent The Forum membership, and I thank them for this.

While the title of the Summit appears far-reaching, its main purpose was to bring together travel bloggers and media outlets to encourage more publicity about the importance and value of studying abroad. Judging from the amount of follow-up traffic on Twitter and online articles, I think it was an overall success.

I did tweet from the Summit in order to keep Forum members informed (you may read my tweets here: https://twitter.com/forumea). This was my first time tweeting, so it was a learning process for me. Looking back on my tweets, I realize that they are really akin to “field notes” that provide a small window onto a more expansive meaning. This report, I hope, will provide that more expansive meaning to you.

First and foremost, the fact that the Summit was convened at The White House was historic, and I was mindful of this during the entire day. The sense that “history was being made” was present, and I thought about the many, many colleagues who have made the education abroad field what it is today, and what they might be thinking about the fact that a meeting focused on study abroad was being held at The White House.

Along with this, I was aware that the meeting was not about education abroad per se, but rather about how to encourage travel bloggers and media outlets to support participation in education abroad by generating more positive stories about it. This approach seemed curious because it could have been designed to be much broader by focusing on a range of education abroad issues and topics. However, I learned that the planning timeline was very short, and professionals from the field of education abroad had not been involved. If we had participated in the planning, I think the event could have included a more in-depth analysis of a variety of education abroad issues that came up during the summit such as academic credit, financing, language learning, just to name a few.

This is sometimes the case with events planned ‘outside’ the field, and I was determined to make the best of The White House meeting in representing The Forum and the field. I was also mindful that the chief purpose of this event was to build support and momentum for education abroad, and I wanted to make certain that The Forum did everything that it could to cheerlead and support this effort, rather than cast too critical an eye on any of the proceedings.

I was impressed with the strong support of education abroad by the U.S. government officials who spoke. Many described the value of study abroad by drawing on both their personal experience and what is in the national and global interests. It was inspiring to observe that so many of our leading government officials have studied abroad, and to hear them articulate the value of that experience for them and for others. From the Assistant to the President to The White House Chief of Staff to State Department leaders to the Chief of Staff to the First Lady to the Secretary of Commerce, all had a strong and consistent message about the importance of education abroad for the future of our country and the world. Their comments will be useful for our effort to advocate for education abroad.

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From left: Brian Whalen; Meghann Curtis, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Academic Programs in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs; Dan Davidson, President of American Councils for International Education

Impressive also were the comments made by the travel writers and media professionals in attendance. While we should not mistake travel with being the same as education abroad (some at the meeting viewed them as being more or less the same), we should recognize that the education abroad field has something in common with the travel blogger community. They voiced their support of the value of education abroad, and if they can help to promote its value to the general public, students and their families, then that may assist with expanding participation.

To me the most valuable aspect of the Summit were the many opportunities to interact with the attendees beyond the formal presentations. At the receptions, during the White House tour, and while standing in line waiting to pass through security, I had substantive conversations with other attendees about how we might partner to mutual benefit while fulfilling the goals for education abroad that we all share.

While there was not really any new information presented at the Summit, existing information received greater emphasis or was put into a new context. For example, it had been announced a number of months ago that a new study abroad branch led by a director within the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the State Department was being created. But this was mentioned again by Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, Evan Ryan, and it received a lot of attention in social media. Similarly, some existing information about study abroad participation was presented in new ways that were useful to think about. It was positive for our field to have information presented in this high-level venue.

What will The Forum do to stay engaged? We are moving on several fronts to assist with keeping the momentum of the Summit going. Some examples include:

  • The Forum is identifying the best bloggers from the Summit to invite as guests to our Annual Conference and present in a session on education abroad and travel blogging. We also expect that the bloggers will provide valuable coverage of The Forum conference and help to continue to promote the value of education abroad.
  • I have been in conversation with several of the representatives from the media who attended the Summit about possible collaboration going forward. As most of our members are aware, The Forum is already collaborating with The New York Times to create a digital resource center that will support student learning abroad. I see other possibilities for partnerships with other media outlets that can help us not only to build student participation in education abroad, but also to advance learning outcomes. Of course, as any projects are considered, The Forum Council and Board will assess whether or not they should be pursued to benefit the membership.
  • The Summit also provided opportunities for The Forum to extend its working relationships with U.S. government leaders, which will help to advance our field. For example, in the near future I am hopeful that we will be able to announce that a high-ranking official will be attending and presenting at our Annual Conference in New Orleans. Maintaining this type of working relationships with the U.S. government is important to our work.

The President and the First Lady have been tremendously supportive of education abroad. They have consistently and effectively articulated its importance and encouraged more students to study abroad. Convening the Summit at The White House was yet another way that they continue to support the goal of having more students study abroad. However, The White House, travel bloggers, government officials, or education abroad professionals cannot by themselves realize this goal. In order to be successful, all of us who contribute to education abroad must work together not only to increase participation, but also to ensure quality.

You may view the proceedings of the Summit here: http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2014/12/15/white-house-hosts-travel-blogger-summit-study-abroad-and-global-citizenship

Brian Whalen
President/CEO