Cindy Fan, professor of geography and vice provost for international studies and global engagement at UCLA, recently became a member of the National Academy of International Education, an honorary society and think tank. Members of the academy, which aims to shape international higher education, come from around the world. Fan is one of five education leaders from three countries inducted into the academy on Feb. 12.
We sat down with Fan to discuss her membership in NAIE and her work in international education at UCLA.
Can you identify the first crucial step that set you on a path toward international education?
My parents were farmers in rural China and never finished elementary school. I, on the other hand, was born in Hong Kong — a British colony at the time — because of their decision to migrate. That decision changed my life. It also gave me the opportunity to go to college, where I majored in geography. My undergraduate education included study abroad stints in Japan and the Philippines that opened my eyes. From that point on, the pursuit of international education has motivated everything that I do, including becoming an international student and, later, a professor in the U.S.
How did your experience in the field lead you to NAIE — and what do you hope to do there?
Global perspectives are central to both the work of NAIE and my own work at UCLA, where I leverage global frameworks to broaden and enrich education, research and service at our university. I am passionate about creating opportunities for students to become more interculturally competent through an internationalized and transcultural curriculum, study and internships abroad and conducting international research in diverse disciplines.
As leader of the UCLA International Institute, I champion our international studies degree programs and the work of our interdisciplinary research centers, which bring together experts to address such global challenges as climate change, pandemics, systemic racism, inequality and the geopolitical conflicts of our time — as well as the history, politics and cultures of different regions of the world.
My work as vice provost also includes sustaining and expanding UCLA’s global impact via collaborative research projects and exchange programs, helping connect our international alumni with the ongoing work of UCLA, hosting international dignitaries on campus and representing UCLA in international bodies such as the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU).
My experience has taught me that private and public funding are crucial for international education. Government-funded programs — including the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships/Title VI, Fulbright, Fulbright-Hayes and Language Flagship programs — broaden students’ access to research and study abroad opportunities, helping educate the global experts of tomorrow.
The academy’s global membership is an excellent platform for promoting dialogue and ideas to improve the quality and reach of international higher education. One area I am particularly drawn to is the juncture between international education and equity, diversity and inclusion, a topic with which I have been engaged for some time. For the past several years, for example, I have participated in an APRU mentoring program to cultivate women leaders in academic institutions.
If you were speaking to a parent of an incoming UCLA freshman, how would you convey the importance of international education in the 21st century?
International education is important because the world is interconnected, because global challenges require global collaboration and because international experience makes you more competitive on the job market. Students in any major benefit from language study, study abroad programs and international internships.
UCLA itself is a global university: Many faculty, students and staff speak more than one language and come from diverse heritages, and there are plenty of opportunities to interact with them. International experience and our campus environment expand students’ perspectives, remind them of the value of humility, and improve their critical thinking, communication, networking and problem-solving skills. Above all, international education strengthens students’ confidence in the world and their commitment to making it a better place.
You’re leading campus efforts to expand UCLA’s global reach and impact by going “glocal.” Can you describe how the glocal paradigm relates to international education?
I am very excited about the current UCLA Strategic Plan. One of the plan’s five goals, “Expand our reach as a global university,” aims to empower all schools and divisions at UCLA to engage in research, education and service that enhance the university’s impact, both globally and locally. In this effort, we partner with the diverse diasporic communities of California and the global city of Los Angeles, making international education not just a distant concept, but directly relevant to our neighbors and local communities. I will share this perspective with my NAIE peers because I feel it is essential for building support and appreciation for international higher education.