“You Don’t Build Bridges to Safe and Familiar Territories”: Study Abroad Practice Based in Reconciliation as Falling Apart (Part III)

by Dr. Kalyani Unkule

This three-part article series aims to relate a new understanding of reconciliation with higher education internationalization practice, particularly study abroad, drawing on Anzaldúa and Keating’s (2002, p. 3) imagination of bridging as “the work of opening the gate to the stranger, within and without.” Part II outlined specific interventions that stem from positing reconciliation as in-betweenness and study abroad as building bridges back to ourselves. In the third and final part, we conclude our exploration of the links between higher education internationalisation and transitional justice by imagining international higher education as a just institution. 

Textbook definitions of globalization, to the critical mind, were always vulnerable to the circularity and idiosyncrasy of history. But today they are up against a precipitous decline in faith in the promises of modernity. Just as we were beginning to figure out how to prepare students to cope with the idiosyncrasies of the job market, educators were sent to work from home on disciplining labour for a jobless future to be available for 24/7 work in isolation (see Ovetz, 2021). As noted in Part I of this series, when reconciliation is grounded in falling apart, we deal with the root cause of regimes of exploitation rather than obsessing over polarization, which is the mere symptom. Going to the root of the problem has thus far been admirably attempted by practitioners committed to critical perspectives on internationalization who appreciate that “if individuals and institutions become increasingly interconnected, but power and resources are not redistributed and inherited patterns of relationship are not reimagined, then this may intensify existing patterns of inequality within an already uneven global higher education landscape” (Stein, 2021, p. 1773). The next step is to formulate concrete strategies and actionable proposals. 

Kanu’s (2014) paradigm of describing-informing-confronting-reconstructing – proposed in relation to hybrid postcolonial curriculum development – has the potential to trouble existing inertia within practice of study abroad and make strides towards intentionality. Describing involves articulating the principles and assumptions behind current practice, for instance, the entrenched belief that learning in/from some contexts is more valuable than that based in others. The next step, that of Informing, calls for unravelling and explaining the contradictions that emerge from articulation of current practice. For instance, the supposition that learning is unequally distributed around the world generates categories of sending and receiving regions, directly undermining any possibility of authentic exchange, which study abroad programmes expressly claim as their ambition. Informing also necessitates an avowal of forces that cause practitioners to operate in the ways that they do, inviting an examination of impacts of institutional contributing factors such as credit-completion requirements or hidden curricula and sectoral contributing factors such as accreditation, assessment, and rankings processes. Confronting, the third step, redirects practitioners to taken-for-granted social visions and instruments used to maintain constraints on what is possible. Preconceived ideas in the minds of study abroad participants about programme objectives and the nature of experience sought might be a clear manifestation of said social visions. Unexamined attributions to study abroad such as gaining of “cultural competence” or indeed mistaking homogenization for “best practice” have hampered innovation through their preponderance in practitioner parlance and ultimately starved authentic exchange. Provided they are motivated by desire for change, the three steps of Describing, Informing, and Confronting, as outlined above, lay the groundwork for reconstructing study abroad practice as the embodiment of a more just vision of International Higher Education. 

Self-reflection that acknowledges the co-existence of both marginality and privilege within us has the potential to lead us to the “uncomfortable level of self-implication” (Jones, 2010, p. 122). The attendant risk is the falling apart of the myth of innocence of international higher education as an untarnished, uncontested good. The transition from self-reflection to self-implication is key to expanding our accountability from self to others and self – a relational accountability, in other words, without which international higher education’s claims of positively contributing to the intercultural encounter are utterly unconvincing (see Jones, 2010). Stein (2021, p. 1777) has described what is called for simply as the ability to “stay with uncomfortable feelings of uncertainty, insecurity, and equivocal authority,” yet this would require a shift away from the quest for “intellectual certainty and moral authority” (ibid) as the very aims of education. 

By diluting the intercultural engagement that may ensue to varying degrees during the course of study abroad into a matter of “skill development for employability,”      international higher education has opted for competence which is “internalization of normative rules, processes, procedures, relationships, and laws” and “completion of isolated fragmented tasks” over learning, which is “about making connections” and “presupposes critical thinking, exploration, analysis, intellectual growth, and self-awareness” (Ovetz, 2021, p. 1071). For practitioners, reflexivity can be a generative standpoint to gain fresh perspective on how systemic factors influence our subjectivities over time. It has the potential to open our eyes to the progressive standardization pervading all aspects of education, even as we hesitate to drop the façade of individualised and personalised learning (see Ovetz, 2021). For students, the flaneurship model discussed in Part II of this series makes room for refusal of standardisation, instead allowing their reflexivity to be the light that charts the course of learning. 

Even as we reimagine international higher education as a just institution, we must be mindful that excessive institutionalisation is counterproductive and risks reinforcing top-down strategies. There are inevitable limits to the transformative potential of any given paradigm/framework and the same is true for how far a thick conception of transitional justice and reconciliation can inspire a vision of international higher education grounded in justice. As Sharp (2019, p. 571) aptly stated, “The gap between ambitious critical theory ideals and incremental realities has the potential to produce an unwarranted sense of pessimism, disillusion, and failure, even as overall empirical assessments of the field suggest meaningful if modest impacts in many contexts.”  This series, I hope, will be received as encouragement to more practice-led scholarship which outlines actionable proposals for (and documents context-specific examples of) incremental steps towards the original purpose of higher education internationalisation: building bridges back to oneself via intercultural dialogue. 


Anzaldúa G.E. and AnaLouise Keating (Eds.). (2002). This Bridge we call Home: Radical visions for transformation, Routledge, New York

Jones R.G. (2010). Putting privilege into practice through “Intersectional Reflexivity”: Ruminations, Interventions, and Possibilities. Reflections: Narratives of Professional Helping, 16(1),122-125. https://reflectionsnarrativesofprofessionalhelping.org/index.php/Reflections/article/view/800

Kanu Y (Ed.). (2014). Curriculum as Cultural Practice: Postcolonial Imaginations, University of Toronto Press 

Ovetz R. (2021). The Algorithmic University: On-Line Education, Learning Management Systems, and the Struggle over Academic Labor, Critical Sociology, 47(7-8), 1065–1084, DOI: 10.1177/0896920520948931

Sharp D.N. (2019). What Would Satisfy Us? Taking Stock of Critical Approaches to Transitional Justice, International Journal of Transitional Justice, 13(3), 570–589, https://doi.org/10.1093/ijtj/ijz018

Stein S. (2021). Critical Internationalization Studies at an Impasse: Making Space for Complexity, Uncertainty, and Complicity in a time of Global Challenges, Studies in Higher Education, 46 (9), 1771-1784, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2019.1704722

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