Internationalizing New Mexico: What stands in our way?

Posted on 21. Jan, 2012 by Stephan Helgesen in Economy, Education, Politics, Social/Cultural

Ask the average New Mexican if he/she thinks our state is international and you’ll likely be met with a blank stare. Ask a follow-up question like, “Where do you think the most foreigners are?” and the answer will probably be, “In our universities or maybe at the Balloon Fiesta.”

Both answers are true, but there’s much more to our internationalism than meets the eye. I know, because I’ve been involved in international business and tourism for 30 years, first as a private citizen and then for 20 years as an American diplomat. I’ve lived and worked in over 24 different countries in the developed and developing world. Then I moved to New Mexico.

The international halls of ivy

While many states have pockets of foreigners and enclaves of foreign companies that provide valuable jobs and tax revenue, most states have foreign students enrolled in their colleges and universities (they provide a very important revenue stream and justify the international programs created for them). New Mexico is one of those states and UNM has most of them (approx. 800-1,000). This isn’t obvious to the layman because UNM doesn’t actively promote this fact.

When I was President of the Albuquerque Council for International Visitors I often speculated on why UNM’s international personality was largely a ‘best kept secret.’ I thought it might be that: a) the university was unaware of the importance of those students to its bottom line, b) it was embarrassed by the low number of them (our neighboring states have much larger foreign student populations), or c) it didn’t feel it was necessary to promote that fact.

Since starting the New Mexico IQ (Internationality QuotientTM) Project, I now know from my dealings with UNM that it’s a bit of all three, and that’s a pretty sobering reality, especially since we have so much to offer foreign students. New Mexico should be on the short list of many students’ education destinations.

Our state is attractive, has a long and rich heritage as a research-friendly environment, and we have a fairly low cost of living. We’re close to other travel destinations that might appeal to young people, and we have a pretty diverse ethnic population (that should make foreign students feel right at home).

Most at UNM don’t have a clue about the depth and breadth of their own university’s international programs and relationships (I know this from my conversations with university representatives and professors). Absent that knowledge and without a sound narrative to go with it, UNM cannot market or brand itself outside the palace gates. Who can blame them, really? They’re academics and too often focused on the theoretical.

If UNM, which is often called, ‘Our Flagship University,’ is to be successful in increasing foreign student enrollment it will need to start thinking like foreign students (and their families), get organized internally and team up with experienced professionals from the private sector to tell their story. While the jury’s still out on their ability and willingness to do so, the revenue clock is ticking and students are choosing their future colleges even as I write.

The business community

“Businesses vote with their feet,” and they locate where the incentives are best. New Mexico is both ‘on the way to somewhere else’ (to larger population centers) and sufficiently attractive to offset our somewhat uncompetitive re-location incentives. Because of our climate (over 320 sunshine days/year), we are an excellent place for solar companies to locate for research, testing and manufacturing.

Two outstanding solar companies from Germany are in Albuquerque: Schott Solar and CFV Solar Laboratory (one manufactures and the other tests). The Japanese Government, along with nineteen Japanese companies, has a joint venture with Mesa del Sol (Albuquerque) and Los Alamos County to build solar demonstration plants in both locations.

There are other foreign companies that call New Mexico home, too: Sennheiser (manufactures  cutting edge acoustic equipment), Heel, Inc. (produces homeopathic preparations) and Sud Chemie (makes products for the pharmaceutical industry). That’s the good news about our international footprint. The bad news is that we’ve not ponyed up enough money to adequately promote ourselves abroad.

The current administration in Santa Fe drastically reduced the budget of the New Mexico Economic Partnership (the state agency charged with selling New Mexico), thereby limiting its ability to travel and do its job.

Fortunately, they’ve hired a new man to head up the office, an experienced economic developer from Las Cruces; he may be able to make lemonade out of the lemons of a meager budget. I wish him well. If we want to attract more foreign companies to NM we’ll have to start working more closely in a true public/private partnership where every New Mexican business becomes a ‘goodwill ambassador’ for the state.

The elusive international tourist

No sensible state-driven tourism plan can afford to exclude foreign tourists from its sights, as foreign tourists generally leave a small footprint but larger than average ‘dollar print’ on the communities they visit. In my former capacity as Chairman of several ‘Visit USA Committees’ overseas, I worked with the Travel Industry Association and all fifty states to boost their international tourism so I know its value to a state like ours.

Having a plan that only concentrates on home-grown tourism will not yield the desired result of markedly increasing overall tourism revenues, neither will it build solid international tourism relationships. And, as most of us know, “a happy foreign tourist is not only a repeat foreign tourist but is also one who tells his friends – who also visit and sometimes invest.”

We need to forge stronger ties with foreign tour group operators and travel packagers AND with more foreign journalists through ‘FAM’ (familiarization) trips to the Land of Enchantment.

The scientific exchange

Uncle Sam’s contribution to New Mexico generates $6.0 billion each year to the NM economy and funds Sandia National Labs and Los Alamos National Laboratory. Both labs have extensive international relationships and scientific exchanges as part of their projects. That’s good news for all of us, but while these exchanges do much to further specific research, they do little for our local communities (except in those rare cases where the research leads to pilot projects).

Here’s an area where we can do better – by convincing lab leadership to share these relationships with the business community at large, thereby widening the circle of ‘likely favorability’ in similar fashion to the international tourists I mentioned above. The labs also need to join forces with municipal leaders to promote New Mexico’s Internationality Quotient and candidacy as a potential re-location site.

Cultural and fraternal relationships

We know we’re a diverse society here in New Mexico, but the outside world needs to hear the message more frequently and convincingly. Fortunately, there are a number of local internationally-minded organizations that have done an outstanding job interfacing with foreign governments, companies and ‘citizen diplomat’ groups around the world – usually with little or no funds.

There is the Albuquerque Council for International Visitors, the Santa Fe Council on International Relations, the Albuquerque Sister Cities organization and Friendship Force, to name but a few. Each has their own programs and activities, but all are internationally-oriented. We need to support them so they are able to extend their reach.

There are also outstanding individual New Mexicans like anthropologist, Dr. Gordon Bronitsky, who has spent most of his adult life working with indigenous peoples around the world in the performing arts (traditional and contemporary) and festival development.

Many of the performers he works with have come from and to New Mexico largely through his tireless efforts–including touring a Zuni dance group to Mongolia, a Navajo dance group to Estonia, Latvia, Italy, England, the Philippines, The Netherlands and Dubai, and a fashion show in Moscow for a Navajo designer from Gallup! Dr. Bronitsky’s success has been earned the old-fashioned way…through a combination of hard work and an unusually high degree of flexibility.

Government and education

Finally, there’s government, both state and local. New Mexico has had a spotty history of state government support for ‘going global.’ Some governors have embraced it, and some have largely ignored it. It’s not even a blip on the Legislature’s radar screen. Most people don’t know that the Government of Japan signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for scientific and business cooperation with the State of New Mexico or that we are the ONLY U.S. state that has such an agreement with that country.

Dramatic state government budget cuts have reduced funds for pursuing the opportunities inherent in this MOU and they have severely limited our activities in another important area, international trade. The Economic Development Department has had to reduce the size of its international trade staff, and these cuts have also hampered their ability to travel to high-potential target markets.

The Legislature needs to be aware of the importance of New Mexico’s international relationships and their impact on our society in order to stand squarely behind the Governor should she choose to adopt an internationalization initiative.

Municipalities, too, have an important role to play. They can set up special advisory councils, comprised of internationally-savvy, experienced individuals who can contribute their special expertise to the crafting of municipal plans for the recruitment of foreign companies and for developing new international activities.

Our middle schools and high schools need to be ‘discussion incubators’ of new curricula that includes geopolitics and economics as they relate to actual functioning markets and governance.

If we are to take this next crucial step on the journey to true internationalism, we must have a thorough understanding of the size, scope and value of our current relationships. That will require commissioning a comprehensive impact analysis of our state’s relationships including foreign direct investment, jobs, tourism and foreign students.

It may be a way for UNM to begin the process of self-examination, because its own research arm (BBER – the Bureau of Business and Economic Research), could conduct the study. They should make this a top priority. Perhaps UNM’s new president will take on the challenge and set the wheels in motion. One can hope.

We cannot wait for the recession to end before we begin planning for prosperity, nor should we succumb to the argument of cost. On this point, Oscar Wilde said it best, “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing.”

Stephan Helgesen is a former U.S. diplomat and former Director of the State of NM Office of Science and Technology. He is currently the Honorary German Consul in New Mexico and heads up his own export consulting company. He can be reached at:

Stephan J. Helgesen


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