In 1980 the NDU Research Directorate welcomed their first international student, a Diamond Jubilee Fellow from the United Kingdom. The following year they sponsored the first NDU International Research Fellow, a Brazilian Navy Captain who also held a faculty position at the Inter-American Defense College. His experience at NDU was used to verify the feasibility of the International Research Fellows Program. The inclusion of International Research Fellows at the Research Directorate continued until 1984 when the program evolved into something more formal.
The NDU Annual Report of the 1983-84 Academic year discussed this evolution stating that, “this will involve a change in emphasis from a focus on research to a one-year academic fellowship program.” The report stated that this approach would provide the Fellows an opportunity to participate in selected phases of the core curriculum of both the NWC and the ICAF and in selected elective courses. The report also emphasized that the new International Fellows Program would involve participation in “extensive travel within the U.S. to visit military, cultural and industrial locations.”
On 8 June 1984, the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved the establishment of an International Fellows Program at NDU. The initial course was held as a pilot program with six countries participating. The reaction among students and faculty was positive with over 85% of those surveyed supporting attendance by International officers. By 1988 the IFs were fully integrated into the NDU program including enrollment in either the National War College (NWC) or the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (ICAF). The Program emphasized a broad based curriculum at the colleges, supplemented by a wide-range of cultural experiences throughout the U.S. in order to enhance their varied perceptions on international and domestic issues. IFs were awarded masters degrees for the first time in 1994.