Carrie Circosta, Editor in Chief of International Student Voice Magazine (left) and Dr. Esther Brimmer, CEO of NAFSA (right).

Meet the CEO of NAFSA, the Largest Advocate for International Students in the United States

To put it delicately, the past six or so months has been an interesting time for the United States as a result of politics. And if you are in the country to complete your studies or perhaps you are thinking about the United States as a place to continue your studies, you may be feeling a bit differently about it now.

From news on executive orders affecting who enters the country, some referring to them as “travel bans” and on-going speculation regarding changes with visas, who is advocating for international students to lawmakers in Washington, D.C. and other government leaders?

The answer is NAFSA: The Association of International Educators. Established in 1948, it is the largest non-profit organization representing not only international students, but also international education as a whole.

The new leader of NAFSA is Dr. Esther Brimmer. She began her role of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) January 1, 2017 after a life of diplomacy and teaching in higher education. Considering the current climate and concerns of current and future international students, we requested an interview with Dr. Brimmer during the annual NAFSA conference in Los Angeles this past May to learn more about her role and how exactly NAFSA advocates for international students.

Meeting with Dr. Brimmer, Wednesday, May 24, 2017

With my backpack on my shoulders, we arrive in the Westin Hotel surrounded by the echo of water splashing from the numerous fountains circling the lobby. After a few minutes of waiting, the Senior Director of Media Relations and Advocacy finds us and asked us to follow her. The clear glass elevator rises and I can see downtown LA right before my eyes. The elevator stops on floor 31 and a just a few steps down the hallway and a knock on the door, I meet Dr. Brimmer.

“Hello, welcome!” Dr. Brimmer said as she extends her hand for a handshake.

“Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with us today,” I replied. She guides us to a conference room just off to the right of a sitting area so I can put my stuff down.

“Would you like any coffee, water?” Dr. Brimmer offered.

“Well, I can’t ever turn down coffee, so yes, thank you,” I replied. Hey, coffee is my lifeline. As I pour myself a cup of coffee, Dr. Brimmer pours water as well.

After sipping on our beverages and providing some background information about International Student Voice Magazine, I dive into the questions.

“Can you share your career background and how it has prepared you for your current role as CEO?”

Dr. Esther Brimmer, CEO of NAFSA. (Photograph courtesy
Dr. Esther Brimmer, CEO of NAFSA. (Photograph courtesy

I feel really lucky because being the CEO of NAFSA is a culmination of my career. You can say it brings together three different strands. One is the academic strand and my interest in students. I’ve taught at three different universities, two in the United States and one in Europe.

I’ve also had an opportunity to be involved as a diplomat for the United States and working for the State Department. I have a particular interest in international relations and international organizations looking at how do we together build structures that bring countries together and people together.

Finally, it’s a large management job as well. I’ve led a bureau at the State Department. NAFSA has some important structure with relationships with its members and other organizations.

“What is your personal philosophy about the role international education plays in the U.S. higher education system?”

I see international education very much embedded in higher education. International education is almost part of all disciplines; you don’t necessarily need to be studying something with international in the title. In most fields today, in order to be current in your field you need to be aware of ideas and thinking around the world.

“For our audience, can you briefly describe what NAFSA is?”

NAFSA is a professional association of administrators and others who are committed to international students and the exchange of students and ideas. We are the oldest and largest, founded in 1948 to help administrators in the U.S. who were looking after 25,000 international students in the U.S.

NAFSA from its beginnings has been interested in supporting international students in the United States-that was its first mission. Later we added on education abroad, Americans students studying abroad and supporting the profession as a whole.

We are deeply dedicated to both the well being of international students in the United States and advocating for continuing programs that support international students here in the U.S. 

“What has surprised you about being the CEO of NAFSA?”

The political environment has changed since my appointment was announced last year. But one nice thing is, you know it but to actually feel it, (NAFSA) is one of the most congenial groups of people. People are really supportive of each other and always helping each other. It’s a very nice atmosphere.

“Can you describe what a typical day is like as CEO?”

Is there a typical day? Like many other CEOs you have both your job within your organization and then representing your organization outside. So within the organization on any given day you’re working with your team on immediate issues and longer-term issues, you’re planning ahead with your board of directors, and you’re planning for next year’s annual conference.

You also have an important role representing your organization outside as well. Not only doing media interviews, but also spend a fair amount of time serving the advocacy role helping express the voice of international education to policy makers, which has been particularly important the past six months. Each year we have an advocacy day, this year it was particularly important and helping explaining the impact of the executive orders was extremely important to our members, having that representation.

 Then we also have important relationships with other associations. 

“What do you think will change about international education over the next five years?”

We will see! There will always be something that will surprise all of us. But some things to keep in mind will just be some of the trends where students choose to go and choose to study. As more and more countries expand their offerings to international students we’ll see students going to a variety of different places.

We’ll also have to see vagaries (unpredictable developments) of global economic trends. We’ll have to look at long term funding opportunities that some institutions and programs that are publicly funded, so we’ll have to look at local and national legislators decide what they want to do. Those are always important factors and they will have an affect.

 One long-term factor is that international education will continue to be a long-term international force. It may look different than now, but it will continue to be important to many people.

“What do you foresee (if any) the challenges facing international education and how can NAFSA face those challenges?” 

NAFSA can help its members in the immediate and the long term. A lot of work is in the professional development of people who are working with international students. We try to understand what people need and the skills that people need. There may be a new technology five years from now, so we’ll be keeping abreast of the skills people will need. Not only basic skills, but there may be new skills people may need.

“We’ve had many potential students concerned about studying in the United States in regard to safety. What would you tell these students?”

I would encourage them to come to the United States. They will be warmly welcomed. Communities across the United States have made their voices heard over the past several months. Everyone from university presidents to local leaders are saying we want to have international students in the United States. Everyone here is walking around with the You Are Welcome Here buttons and you’re seeing a lot of local versions of that. We cherish the students who are here and eager to have people come in the future. They should rest assured they will be welcomed in communities large and small in the United States.

“Recently many international students graduated. What advice do you have for them as they navigate the beginning of their careers?

First one is to stay curious. They studied in another country probably because they are curious about the world and that is a good trait to keep throughout your life. Also, look for benefits from what they learned, from the people they met, issues that were raised during their studies. Be willing to try new things and recognize that all of us will do multiple things in our lives. Always look for the opportunity to work with smart people. You always learn from the people you work with. There might be a job where you think I hadn’t thought about that job, but that person would be a great boss.

 To learn more about NAFSA, please visit

Click here to learn more about Dr. Brimmer.

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