Flags representing students from around the world blew gracefully in the breeze last weekend as I joined thousands to celebrate the graduation of the class of 2014 at Brown University. The image was a beautiful reminder of how much we gain from getting to know people from different countries, cultures and perspectives, and how important it is that we build deep personal relationships and connections that can bridge these differences.
Also last week, the U.S. Department of Education’s International Affairs Office hosted a policy seminar on the importance of education diplomacy, with a particular focus on the role of study abroad. We heard from an undergraduate student, a STEM teacher, an academic mobility researcher, and a university vice president. They were all passionate about their overseas experiences and the importance of broadening the availability of study abroad, to make it the norm rather than the exception.
Currently, less than 10 percent of all U.S. undergraduates study abroad. The number would increase with a broader definition – adding, for example, internships, research projects, and volunteer opportunities – but even still the experience would not be the norm for most U.S. students. Rajika Bhandari, from the Institute of International Education (IIE) and one of the experts who joined us during our seminar, is exploring an expanded definition of study abroad and also supporting an effort to double the number of students studying abroad through IIE’s Generation Study Abroad. This is a simple but ambitious goal. Fanta Aw, from NAFSA and American University, also stressed during the seminar that bold action is required to increase study abroad opportunities for U.S. students from all backgrounds and to ensure the U.S. is a welcoming face to international students coming here.
Multiple perspectives, cultural empathy, and intercultural fluency are part of what one learns from international experiences. Jake Sorrells, an undergraduate at Georgetown University, came away from his high school experience in Paraguay with a new understanding of human relationships and the value of studying other languages. As an example, he described how much his host father, a large, gruff man, cared for him and tried to express it across linguistic differences. Jake also talked about the highly diverse high school he attended in suburban Maryland and how he wished that he had engaged in more genuine conversations across groups of students. Fanta Aw talked about her experiences growing up in Mali, France and the U.S. and how being a “global nomad” shaped her worldview. “You find yourself among people from all different walks of life, who speak different languages and come from different cultural backgrounds,” Fanta explained. “But you also realize what you have in common and what you have in common is deep fundamental human values.”
The Department of Education’s international strategy defines global competencies as “21st century skills applied to the world.” Overseas experiences help students to gain these competencies: to see things from different perspectives, to apply what they’ve learned to new challenges, and to think outside the box. Maya Garcia, a recipient of the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching and a STEM specialist in DC public schools, found that her overseas experiences dramatically changed the face of what she is doing in DC, including blending global competencies into the curricula, taking students overseas and designing professional development programs for her colleagues.
Michele Obama confirmed the importance of connecting across the globe in her talk with students during her recent trip to China, reminding them that “in the years ahead, much like you and I are doing today, you will be creating bonds of friendship across the globe that will last for decades to come.” You can watch excerpts of the First Lady’s talk here.
Maureen McLaughlin is senior advisor to the Secretary and director of international affairs.