By Kelly Haggart
Adel El Zaïm joined uOttawa in August 2018 as chief internationalization officer. In January 2019, he also became president-elect of the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA). His election marks the first time the US-based organization with members in 120 countries has chosen a non-American president. We sat down with El Zaïm recently to ask him about uOttawa’s internationalization strategy.
Tell us about your background.
My own experience of being an international student and researcher has enriched my professional life. I was born in Tripoli, Lebanon, studied in Paris and came to Canada in 1991 for postdoctoral research. With a PhD in linguistics, I led research and innovation teams on information technology at multidisciplinary research centres and international NGOs and in the private sector. I then worked in the Middle East for eight years with Canada’s International Development Research Centre. IDRC has a culture close to that of a university, so I never really left the academic milieu. When I returned to Canada in early 2012, I became executive director of the international office at the Université de Sherbrooke and then at the University of British Columbia.
What does it mean for a university to internationalize?
Internationalization means integrating an intercultural, global dimension into a university’s mission, objectives and actions. At uOttawa, we now want to develop the coherence behind our international engagement and spell out exactly why we want to expand it. Sending students abroad or recruiting international students is just one part of the process. But in that area, we want to reflect on the added value of student mobility. What will our students learn abroad in addition to what they’re learning here? And how do the international students we recruit contribute to research here and to their own societies when they go back home?
Why should uOttawa internationalize?
Our society is already globalized and very sensitive to everything that happens in the world. Our schools welcome children from everywhere – and they probably speak two or three languages. As a university, our role is to understand this global society and contribute to it as we fulfill our mandate of developing knowledge, finding solutions and nurturing global citizens.
Opening uOttawa wider to the world will add value to our core mission as a university. Through internationalizing our research, teaching and learning, and community engagement, we can make meaningful contributions to society. For example, how is our research on global health, migration, cybersecurity or artificial intelligence helping Canada and the rest of the world address the major challenges facing humanity? This is what I love about the Canadian approach — in addition to providing concrete solutions, we reflect on the fundamental issues. Our international strategy will identify a few global priority issues and try to move them forward.
Where are we at with the new international strategy?
I’m working with the University’s senior management to develop an "intentional and comprehensive" internationalization strategy, which will clearly state the purpose, the “why.” It will be comprehensive, because it will encompass the internationalization of research, all our activities and academic programs, our engagement with the community and our campus milieu. This will be a global approach, implemented in a systematic way. Faculty and support staff and all our services can contribute in important ways to making campus life more international. Consultations are under way, and the results will be aligned with the institutional strategy, Imagine 2030.
What is your vision for the students of a more international uOttawa?
I’d love to see all uOttawa students gain international experience, though not all of them will go abroad. Indeed, uOGlobal is a good example of how we can provide this experience even to those who stay in Canada. Ottawa is in an enviable position because of the proximity to Parliament Hill, embassies and international organizations, businesses and communities. This provides many opportunities to interact with other cultures, experiences that can prepare students to go abroad or give them an appetite to do so later.
For those who do go abroad during their studies, our challenge is to prepare them to not only travel safely but also understand, respect and be open to other cultures. And for international students, the point is not for us to accommodate them in such a way that they live here exactly as they would at home. International students and researchers come to Canada for a Canadian experience — and in Ottawa, as a bonus, they can also access the world. In this international city, Chinese students can eat shawarma if they like.
What will your presidency of AIEA involve?
My responsibilities will vary year to year during my three-year mandate with this association of more than 1,000 senior internationalization officers. In 2020, I’ll be in charge of the annual conference in Washington DC. I’ll also take part in several working groups, including one on governance. The AIEA is developing a new global strategy to better serve higher education institutions as they contend with changes in the world.
Many universities promote open science in an open society, while their governments — though not Canada’s — are becoming more closed and turning toward populism and xenophobia. How does this backlash against globalization affect our work and the mobility of our students and faculty? I’ll make sure that our university benefits from the new knowledge I gain through working with the AIEA because uOttawa is definitely not closing to the world. In fact, in 2020 we will host the International Research Conference, which will attract more than 200 leaders in the field.