How Elementary School Students Taught Me about Being Globally Competent

Marina in São Paulo, Brazil. She studied abroad in Rio de Janeiro in spring 2015. (Photo credit: Marina Kelly)

Marina in São Paulo, Brazil. She studied abroad in Rio de Janeiro during the spring of 2015. (Photo credit: Marina Kelly)

At age nine I had the chance to visit my father’s birthplace, a rural town in Guatemala surrounded by mountains. This trip, and many others that followed, would change the way I view the world and have inspired me to learn more about my heritage. Over the years, I have developed an affinity for international issues that led me to learn Portuguese and study abroad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Through these experiences, I learned important skills like flexibility, adaptability, open-mindedness, inquisitiveness, and I gained greater self-knowledge. I didn’t realize it, but I was learning to be globally competent.

The Global Competence Task Force, established by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Asia Society, defines globally competent individuals as people who can “use their knowledge and skills to investigate the world beyond their immediate environment, recognize their own and other’s perspectives, communicate their ideas effectively with diverse audiences, and translate their ideas into appropriate actions.”

During my first two-and-a-half years of college, I volunteered at a predominately Latino, bilingual elementary school in Washington, D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood. Many of the students reminded me of myself, and some even had parents from Guatemala. But, unlike me, almost none of them had ever left the country, yet they were still very in touch with their heritage.

Marina with first grade students in San Lucas Tolimán, Guatemala. (Photo credit: Marina Kelly)

Marina with first grade students in San Lucas Tolimán, Guatemala. (Photo credit: Marina Kelly)

These students taught me two things. First, I learned that you do not need to go overseas to be globally competent. While the students I worked with faced many obstacles, they had already mastered several globally competent skills. All of them had at least a basic proficiency in a second language and were familiar with other cultures. Schools across the nation like the one at which I worked are recognizing that global competencies are vital to succeeding in today’s diverse world and that these skills can be learned in the classroom.

The second lesson I learned is that having overseas experiences, too often, is a privilege – it is not an opportunity that is afforded to everyone. Coming from an underserved community, many of the students I worked with would be lucky to meet their extended family in Latin America, like I did. This led me to design a service project to teach these students about study abroad as part of the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship I received to go to Rio.

Before interning in the International Affairs Office at ED, I knew I had learned these lessons, but I did not know how to articulate them. This semester, I have been fortunate to participate in discussions about the future of global competencies. Something that will really stick with me from these conversations is that global competencies are not add-ons or “nice-to-haves,” but rather, components of a quality education that all students need. As Secretary Duncan said in his statement on this year’s International Education Week, “Let’s work together … to make global competence the norm, not the exception.”

Marina Kelly is an intern in the International Affairs Office at the U.S. Department of Education and a Senior at American University.