Education Is Not Just About What’s Happening in the Classroom: Rajika Bhandari, Ph.D.

By • September 27, 2018

Education is one thing no one can ever take away from an individual, but it is something that can be hard to access, especially at the college level and beyond. Rajika Bhandari, Ph.D., senior advisor, research and strategy, works to expand access to higher education for students and faculty worldwide by leading research, evaluation and thought leadership activities for the Institute of International Education where she also directs the Center for Academic Mobility Research and Impact.

Rajika Bhandari, Ph.D., Institute of International Education
Rajika Bhandari, Ph.D., Institute of International Education

With a background in psychology and education, Dr. Bhandari’s interest in education and international development has led her to research how education impacts countries and their development, and how the free flow of students and knowledge across the globe can positively influence a host of issues beyond the classroom.

Dr. Bhandari spoke with Association Adviser about why IIE sponsors scholarship and fellowship programs across the globe, how the organization works to support scholars in dangerous areas of the world, and why families should consider international education an essential component of their children’s (and their own) education.

Association Adviser: Tell us a little bit about your career background and how you became a senior advisor for research and strategy with IIE.

Rajika Bhandari, Ph.D.: My entire career has been in the space of educational research. I started out training academically in psychology, but while I was a grad student I moved away from purely studying psychology and became interested in how different countries leverage education to drive their developmental goals. I also became interested in the education of women and how their education level is linked to development.

So, I’ve always been interested in the international aspect of education but spent a number of years conducting research and program evaluations of the secondary and higher education sectors in the U.S. The international aspect was beckoning me again, and I found my way to IIE which gave me the opportunity to focus my research on how education can drive the flows of global knowledge and talent. More specifically, I look at patterns and trends, how students from around the world seek out educational destinations, and how scholars and faculty engage in overseas experiences that help them become more global citizens.  In my current role, I also focus on how the research that we are generating can inform our insights and strategy at IIE, and strengthen our thought leadership in international education.

AA: More specifically, what are IIE’s research goals?

Institute of International Education LogoRB: At IIE we conduct a wide range of research on different aspects of international education. One is American undergrads going abroad; IIE’s focus is on how institutions are trying to increase the number and diversity of American students who go abroad. We accomplish this through our programmatic work through initiatives such as Generation Study Abroad as well as research to promote studying abroad.

Another area is researching the connections between study abroad experiences and career outcomes. Students go abroad and that enriches them in social and cultural ways, but what are the more tangible impacts and returns on investment when it comes to their future careers or job opportunities?

In terms of foreign or international students coming to the U.S., one major area of focus is that the flow of international students coming to us has slowed down. We’re conducting research into the slowdown and what’s happening at institutions and their efforts to continue to attract international students.

Finally, we carry out program evaluations and impact studies about the short- and long-term impacts of fellowship and scholarship programs

AA: How does IIE advocate for more access to, and more support of, international education?

RB: Broadly, through our programs and our research. In terms of programs, we run more than 250 around the world that enable students and scholars and mid-career professionals from other countries to come to the U.S., or enable Americans to go overseas. We also implement programs for individuals to remain within their country or region and gain access to further educational opportunities within their country. One way we enable equity and access is by designing scholarship and fellowship programs that reach underrepresented groups. For example, in the U.S. a lot of our programs target improving access to higher education for girls and women, particularly in fields of study where there is a gender imbalance, such as STEM-related fields. Another way we encourage higher education access is by increasing the reach of our programs for underrepresented study abroad students.

The Institute has had a long history of increasing access/retaining access to higher education for academically displaced groups. One of our most prominent programs is the Scholar Rescue Fund, through which we strive to provide a safe haven for persecuted scholars in another country where they can continue their work. With everything happening around the European and Middle Eastern refugee crises, we’ve launched new initiatives that focus on refugee students and provide them with access to a higher education.

The second broad way we advocate for international education is through evidence-based research that brings to light where the inequities in international education programs lie. Our research demonstrates what the profound impacts are when individuals from marginalized groups are given access to better educational opportunities.

AA: What obstacles do you face most often when advocating for international education?

RB: One of the major obstacles is overcoming a mindset that international education is meant for a select few. It’s challenging outside of the sector to convince people of the value of an international education, especially in countries that are dealing with bigger and more fundamental challenges such as access to primary education for young children. International education can often be seen as a nice-to-have frill that’s not essential to a quality education. Trying to bring about a shift in thinking where individuals, communities and societies think of international education as central to a robust education is a perennial challenge.

Another challenge is that given all the investment being made in international education, particularly in the U.S., demonstrating the value of that education in terms of future employment is becoming increasingly important. There are more parents investing in higher education for their children, and it’s expensive. Decision-makers and employers are asking, what is the value of a study abroad experience? How does it increase someone’s chances of being gainfully employed?

Our third current challenge is that we are living in a time when there is an increasing sense of nationalism and looking inward. Why should the U.S., for example, be hosting international students? Why should anyone invest in international partnerships? What value is international education really bringing to the U.S. domestically? Now more than ever, our sector must be effective advocates for international education and show the domestic value of these opportunities.

AA: How do research projects such as Open Doors and Project Atlas further IIE’s overall mission of helping people and organizations leverage the power of international education to thrive in today’s interconnected world?

RB: There are a few ways in which these projects contribute to IIE’s mission but more broadly to the field. Open Doors and Project Atlas provide IIE and the entire sector with a really solid, reliable, evidence-based foundation from which to understand global flows of students, and their impact on campuses. This work enables us to understand the financial impact of student mobility and the really critical education, cultural, and social impact. Through these projects we know that international students contributed just under $40 billion to the U.S. economy in 2017 through paying tuition and fees, living expenses, and through spending on discretionary items.

This data is used by a range of stakeholders for promotion and advocacy purposes, so it’s a service we provide the sector. The data is used extensively at the state and federal government levels in policymaking, and by campuses to advocate for a stronger international presence on campus as well as their desire to send American students abroad.

AA: How do you collect feedback about the success or failure of your work to promote international education?

RB: At IIE we have a strong culture of measuring the outcomes and impact of what we do. At the programmatic level, we have in place a rigorous monitoring and evaluation process that we apply to all programs to ensure that we’re delivering what we intend to deliver. We measure our failures by looking at the evidence that shows where and how we should make adjustments. We have a dedicated monitoring and evaluation team whose focus covers all programs. We ask ourselves, what learnings and best practices do these evaluations reveal?

We also measure our success as an organization at the macro level through our mission metrics, or how we are doing in terms of meeting our mission and vision, and the broad goals that derive from that mission. We’re invested in better understanding how we’re doing as an entity in international education. Each year we track our mission metrics through an annual process that evaluates the whole organization in key areas. These indicators enable us to also retain high ratings by organizations such as Charity Navigator and others that assess the effectiveness of mission-driven non-profits.

For the monitoring and evaluation aspect of programs, we use a mixed methods approach. We are intentional about how we use different tools in concert with each other. We run large surveys to get broad findings across an entire group of participants. But while a survey can reveal broad trends and have breadth and scope, they’re limited in depth. So we complement surveys with more qualitative approaches such as focus groups, interviews and field visits. We have the capability to conduct evaluations in many regions of the world. We go into the field and have conversations with the participants and beneficiaries of our programs to understand how their work impacts those around them. The nuances revealed go deeper than surveys.

AA: What advice would you give to someone wanting to grow into an advocacy or research role in education?

RB: If you’re going to be an advocate for education, it’s really important to understand the multiplier effect of education: That education is central to development and change efforts and can have a profound influence on many other areas of life. Education is not just about what’s happening in the classroom. It impacts issues around health, development, the environment, the workforce, the economy, and many, many other fields. To advocate effectively for education we need to not just look at educational opportunities and programs through a narrow lens but understand the wider impacts.

For a role in research, I would say that it is important to not only be trained in a wide range of research methodologies and data analytic approaches, but to also really develop skills around the application of that data to generating important insights and can drive decision-making.

AA: In terms of your job, what keeps you up at night?

RB: The growing nationalism we’re seeing – not just in the U.S. but in other parts of the world, too. It worries me because our entire sector of international education is grounded in the assumptions and ideals of the free flow of knowledge and talent. It worries me that we live in a time and place where we may see a constriction of the open flow of scholars and students across borders. It’s a worry for the entire sector, but we will all need to work towards joint solutions.

Another aspect that worries me is the escalating cost of a U.S.-based higher education or credential. This is worry of every American since costs are perennially rising. This expense has serious implications for all of U.S. higher education because it raises issues of access to domestic and international education.

Third, I think about the relevance of the higher education sector as we currently know it, and what future changes technology will bring. We’re already in an environment of changing educational delivery and all sorts of modes of virtual learning. How do we need to adapt the educational opportunities we provide students? How do we situate opportunities now in the context of what will higher education look like in 10 years?


Interested in learning more about the impact international education can offer? International Education Week is November 12-16, 2018. IIE will present its 2018 Open Doors Report in International Educational Exchange, showcase the stories of students who have studied abroad and in the U.S., and share how individuals and associations can support scholars in need. Bookmark for more information.