Going global: President’s Award winner John Godfrey advances U-M’s international mission

August 12, 2021
Contact: Fernanda Pires fpires@umich.edu
John Godfrey. Image credit: Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography

John Godfrey speaking at the 2019 Wallenberg Lecture. Image credit: Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography

As international education starts to recover from the pandemic, John Godfrey, an assistant dean at the University of Michigan Rackham Graduate School, is working to assure that foreign students can navigate this ever-changing global landscape successfully.

Last year, after the coronavirus wreaked havoc on research and study abroad programs and foreign students were unable to secure visas because U.S. consulates were closed, Godfrey took quick action to alleviate the disruptions.

In summer 2020, he collaborated with U-M administrators to create mechanisms to allow international doctoral students to study and work remotely while receiving stipends by wire transfer. As a result, a significant number of students were able to begin their doctoral studies from their home countries.

“The last few years have been challenging and we’ve been able to respond to the tremendous needs of our international students, particularly because of the collaborative effort of a lot of dedicated staff,” Godfrey said. “Also, I’ve seen the resilience and self-organization of our students. That solidarity, that collegiality and comradeship have been decisive. We, in the university, can intercede to try and resolve particular issues that affect particular people, but are not always successful.”

Godfrey’s commitment and advocacy for international students started almost three decades ago. Now, he is being recognized for his efforts as the 2021 recipient of U-M’s President’s Award for Distinguished Service in International Education.

“I commend Dr. Godfrey for his outstanding commitment to international education and stalwart dedication to our students,” said U-M President Mark Schlissel. “His remarkable body of work has made U-M a welcoming, highly sought campus, and he has fostered greater understanding of our world. I’ve also benefited from his advice on a range of important matters and thank him for his important service to U-M.”

Circumnavigating the globe

As a young boy, Godfrey remembers being fascinated by stories told by an aunt who lived abroad and had circumnavigated the globe before World War II.

“She was my first international influence,” Godfrey said. “For a kid growing up in Maine, her experiences fed my curiosity about the wider world and made me eager to see more.

“Then, in high school, I spent an extraordinary year in Bogotá, Colombia, through an organization called the American Field Service. The first months were exhausting. I had studied French and Latin but didn’t know a word of Spanish. I was in a school where no one spoke English and struggled to communicate for the first couple of months.”

When it was time to go to college, Godfrey chose to attend the University of Toronto in Canada, where many students were recent immigrants from around the world.

“I experienced an absolutely inspiring sense of intellectual freedom and was able to feed my interest in the world,” Godfrey said. “Among my courses, I studied some Indian and African history. I went on to do a doctorate at Johns Hopkins in the history of Africa and the Atlantic world.

“I am fortunate to have spent a good bit of time in the world. I’ve lived, studied and done research overseas, and have never felt far from the curiosity of that child who listened to his aunt’s stories.”

U-M’s journey

Godfrey’s road at U-M started in 1993 as the associate director for the founding of the International Institute.

“The II began as an office with a couple of telephones,” he said. “And the university had about 1,500 international graduate students, less than half the number today.”

Since then, Godfrey’s service in international education has had a profound impact on thousands of students. He participated in early engagements with Chinese universities and worked with faculty to build collaborations in Ethiopia and elsewhere. He has helped create many of the policies that guide the university’s international collaborations, and at Rackham has shaped partnership agreements between graduate programs and overseas institutions.

He also led the establishment of the International Travel Oversight Committee, which allows the university to assist students, faculty and staff who face emergencies while overseas, and directed assistance to travelers in a number of crisis situations, including the Arab Spring and the Fukushima earthquake.

“In the early 2000s, with increasing numbers of faculty and students going out into the world for research, study or conferences, the university had no idea where people were and couldn’t respond to emergencies. While I chaired ITOC for about 11 years, that effort is now in the hands of capable staff in the central administration—much to my relief,” he said.

Directly or indirectly, Godfrey’s committed service, advocacy and support have had a significant impact on the growing scale and diversity of the university’s global presence, which today includes nearly 8,500 international students and scholars and hundreds of graduate students engaged in research abroad.

More recently, he was part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) subcommittee in response to a range of critical issues.

“John is a welcomed advocate for international education and students regardless of their immigration status,” said Judith Pennywell, director of the International Center. “He utilizes his position and deep institutional knowledge to advance the conversation and to support students and those who serve them. Above all, his social justice orientation, his dedication to Rackham, and his ongoing commitment to international education are greatly appreciated.”

Under his portfolio, Godfrey is chair of the Wallenberg Committee that plans the annual Wallenberg Medal and Lecture and established the Raoul Wallenberg Fellowship, a program that allows a graduating senior to engage in a self-designed independent project embedded with a community anywhere in the world.

He is also the adviser to Graduate Rackham International (GRIN), a student organization that seeks to improve the experience of international graduate students, promote connections and social involvement across programs of study and cultures, and provide students with a voice and a platform for advocacy on issues that support their success and well-being.

“Without John, we would not have been able to understand the various structures of decision-making within the university and our efforts would have largely been misdirected and ineffective,” said GRIN co-presidents Yixuan Chen and Andrea Belgrade. “Throughout this process, John was always honest with us, providing constructive criticism as a university administrator and faculty member. He is always there to amplify the international student voice—not to change it or direct it.”

Godfrey said he’s pleased to receive the President’s Award for Distinguished Service in International Education, but “as an academic administrator, I want this recognition to bring attention to the extraordinary commitment of faculty and administrators to make the university a welcoming and open place for international students, faculty and visitors.”

“Michigan has been a leading international university for decades,” he said. “It’s been an honor to have had the opportunity to work alongside remarkably dedicated and knowledgeable faculty and staff from across the university, and to have been able to make a difference to students.”