Internationalizing NM: What stands in our way?

Stephan Helgesen

Stephan Helgesen

There’s much more to our internationalism than meets the eye, and it’s time we begin planning for the prosperity that’s possible.

Ask the average New Mexican if he thinks our state is international and you’ll likely be met with a blank stare. Ask, “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 correct, but there’s much more to our internationalism than meets the eye.

The international halls of ivy

Most states have foreign populations, and many more have foreign companies that provide jobs and tax revenue and foreign students in their universities. New Mexico is one, and UNM has approximately 800-1,000 foreign students. This isn’t obvious because UNM doesn’t actively promote this fact.

For years I often speculated on why this was largely a best-kept secret. I thought it might be that the university was unaware of the importance of those students to its bottom line, or that it was embarrassed by the low number of them, or maybe it didn’t think it necessary to promote that fact.

I now know from my dealings with UNM that it’s a bit of all three, and that’s pretty sobering considering we have so much to offer. We should be on the short list of many students’ education destinations for a number of excellent reasons.

Unfortunately, most at UNM don’t have a clue about the depth and breadth of their own university’s international programs and relationships (my many conversations with university representatives and professors underscored that fact). Absent that knowledge and without a sound narrative to go with it, UNM cannot hope to market itself outside the palace gates. Who can blame them, really? They’re too focused on the theoretical and have no real sales quotas.

If UNM wants to be successful in increasing foreign student enrolment, it will need to start thinking like foreign students (and their families), get organized internally and team up with 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. While New Mexico is on the way to somewhere else (to larger population centers), it is sufficiently attractive to offset our somewhat uncompetitive re-location incentives.


We are an excellent place for solar companies to locate. 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 19 Japanese companies, has a joint venture with Mesa del Sol and Los Alamos County to build solar demonstration plants.

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.

The bad news is that we’re not adequately financed to promote ourselves to more companies 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).

Fortunately, they’ve hired a new, experienced and energetic man to head up the office. He may be able to make lemonade out of the lemons of a meager budget. If we want to attract more foreign companies to New Mexico, 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. These tourists leave a small footprint but larger than average dollar print on the communities they visit.

Having a plan that only concentrates on home-grown tourism will not markedly increase our tourism bottom line; neither will it build solid international tourism relationships. 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 nearly $6 billion each year to our economy and funds Sandia National Labs and Los Alamos National Laboratory. Both labs have extensive international relationships and scientific exchanges, 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).

We can do better, by convincing lab leadership to share these relationships with the business community. The labs also need to join forces with municipal leaders to promote New Mexico’s Internationality QuotientTM and candidacy as a potential re-location site.

Cultural and fraternal relationships

We know we’re a diverse society, but the outside world needs to hear the message more frequently and convincingly. Fortunately, there are a number of local, internationally-minded organizations doing an outstanding job interfacing with foreign governments, companies and citizen diplomat groups around the world.

There is the Albuquerque Council for International Visitors, the Santa Fe Council on International Relations, the Albuquerque Sister Cities Foundation and Friendship Force, to name a few.

There are also many 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 through his tireless efforts. People like Dr. Bronitsky deserve our encouragement, too.

Government and education

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.

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 effectively promote us abroad. 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 incubators of new curricula that includes geopolitics and economics.

Our current relationships

We cannot take the next crucial step on the journey to true internationalism without a thorough understanding of the size, scope and value of our current relationships. That requires an impact analysis of our state’s relationships including foreign direct investment, jobs, tourism and foreign students. This may be a way for UNM to begin the process of self-examination, because its own research arm (the Bureau of Business and Economic Research), could conduct the study. They should make this a top priority before UNM’s new president arrives.

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 N.M. 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

4 thoughts on “Internationalizing NM: What stands in our way?

  1. “Public Private Partnerships. Fascism. United Nations Agenda 21. It is all there between the lines.”
    …and under the tin-foil hat.

  2. Totally agree with this.  NM needs to promote itself in a better way.  International is the only way to go.  We can’t go back to isolationism.  Planet Earth needs all it’s peoples to co-operate and prosper by many means.  We need to develop a better environment for all living things.

  3. This is a very timely article.  The more people are exposed to New Mexico the more they admire it.  However there is very little will to invest or promote the state, and an expectation everything will take care of itself. I am doing research on 
    New Mexico and Arizona’s language policy at the University of Queensland. Whenever i approached anyone in official circles for information or an interview i either was replied with silence or asked why was i bothering?  Fortunately i have a lot more tenacity than that.  There was a complete lack of understanding of the attractiveness of and need to promote New Mexico, its history, culture and people. International tourism is a serious source of revenue in Australia, and we all understand the need to promote and welcome visitors.  Foreign students are a serious source of revenue in our universities.  New Mexico is a great brand.  But without vision, investment and stepping outside the box it is just that.  A lot of promise but little effort.  UNM
    M could easily become a major  center for research and study on the world stage.  Good for funding, good for the economy and good for the state.