By Tani Snyder, graduate student in international and intercultural education
“Why aren’t you more angry?” Jeffrey Sachs, professor of economics and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, asked us during his keynote speech on April 14 at the annual conference of the Comparative International Education Society’s (CIES) in San Francisco.
“You are too nice,” he poked his audience of academics, professionals and students. “The work of CIES members plays a critical role in advancing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the United Nations. But you need to make your voices heard in these times of much noise over less important issues, for example, at the upcoming UN Climate Action Summit this September.”
To be honest, I wasn’t truly aware of Sachs’ work except for the fact he had a pure economist background. However, while at the CIES conference, I learned he also serves as a commissioner of the UN Broadband Commission for Development and a Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) advocate for UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
While, at first, I couldn’t figure out why Sachs kept discussing finances in the domain of education to advance the main targets of SDG No. 4 (Quality Education Goal), one of his arguments struck me as a pivotal global issue revolving around education and changed my “student”-like perspective forever: if the world’s 2,200 billionaires offered up only 1 percent of their collective wealth, the gaping hole of education funding for more than 200 million young children and adolescents across the globe could be easily filled. Quite an utopian mindset, I’ll admit, but what a sad reality indeed.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with an epiphany: CIES’s President-elect David Post poignantly described his at the subsequent State of the [CIES] Society Business Meeting.
“Standing alone on the Herbst Theater stage of the San Francisco War Memorial, with only a hand-held mike between him and a nearly full house, Jeff Sachs delivered a wake-up call to the CIES,” he said.
“Speaking at the very spot where the UN Charter was signed in 1945, and speaking at length without notes, Sachs pleaded with the CIES to go beyond research about educational crises. He urged us all to get involved in dealing with the crisis by lobbying our governments – especially the U.S. government – to take the Sustainable Development Goals in education as seriously as health professions take goals to eliminate disease and malnutrition.”
Post added: “For me, this event confirmed my intention as president to multi-task and to support the CIES as BOTH a scholarly association AND a resource for change.”
Now installed as the society’s president—an association of more than 3,000 individual members representing more than 1,000 universities, research institutes, government departments, non-governmental organizations and multilateral agencies throughout 120 countries—I have no doubt that Post’s plan can fructify in the foreseeable future.
CIES is like no other academic society or conference. When I first began my master’s degree and my research at FIU, I was quite skeptical in believing that higher education can actually better our world, which is my ultimate purpose as a student in international and intercultural education. However, being at FIU and learning from professors to whom I will forever be grateful, showed me how research in higher education can be a powerful tool to improve quality education around the world. They taught me that it is possible to incorporate global social responsibility in curricula. Being introduced to CIES by FIU scholars and staff such as Dr. Hilary Landorf, executive director of CIES and executive director of FIU’s Office of Global Learning Initiatives; Dr. Fernanda Pineda, adjunct lecturer and founding board member of the CIES Latin American Committee; and Gitta Montoto, director of FIU’s Global Affairs, was a culminating point in my studies.
The CIES 2019 conference was not only the opportunity for me, and other young scholars, to listen and learn from brilliant minds from a broad spectrum of educational fields, I also had the chance of meeting other students who, like me, want to make a difference in this world through education.
Among the beautiful people I met, two of them [were kindred spirits]. Anahita Kumar from the University of Pennsylvania and Charlotte Caron from the London School of Economics traveled to the conference and volunteered at the registration desk with me. And, we all attended sessions on refugee education. We quickly realized we shared a common theoretical foundation in our research and spent days envisioning future collaborations and how our work could tackle real global problems.
This discussion with other graduate students whose work is focused on the same issue was tremendously invigorating. It gave me the reassurance that I am not alone in fighting for this critical cause and that we have each other as a resource to produce meaningful scholarship and practices. I am so looking forward to working with Anahita and Charlotte and presenting our collective findings and recommendations at next year’s annual CIES conference (to be held at the Hyatt Regency in Miami, March 18-22, 2020).
In other words, I am grateful. I am grateful to the FIU professors who, in a way, opened my eyes on so much more in the academic field. I am grateful to have met wonderful people who, too, believe Nelson Mandela’s wise words: “education is the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world.”
I am grateful to have attended sessions chaired by scholars I religiously read throughout my master’s studies and cited continuously in my research. I am grateful to have connected with non-profits and presented my work. Finally, I am grateful for Sachs’s wake up call that we are the scholars of tomorrow to pioneer change.
Much credit for the successful organizing of the CIES 2019 conference goes to a small team from the Office of Global Learning Initiatives at FIU. Landorf, also an associate professor of international and intercultural education, and seven dedicated full- and part-time staff at the OED carried out the vision of CIES by administering its day-to-day activities and all the logistics of the annual conference during which more than 3,800 international education scholars, practitioners and students engaged with each other throughout 700 sessions.
The plenaries included presentations and posters, roundtable discussions, workshops, book launches and a carefully curated film series organized by the Open Society Foundations.
In her remarks during the opening session of this year’s conference, Landorf anticipated Sachs’s call to action by challenging the society. “All of us are advocates of the Sustainable Development Goals, for the future of our planet, human beings and for each of us as individuals,” she said. “The larger question for CIES is, ‘What can we do together as a collective force for change?'”