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Is Travel Necessary?

This week, First Lady Michelle Obama said international exchange was a way towards better citizen diplomacy. "But you don't need a plane to be a citizen diplomat," she said. My colleague Heather Singmaster agrees.

by Heather Singmaster

One of my guilty pleasures is watching Family Feud (it's the only thing on television when I'm on the treadmill). The other day a mom and her four grown children were competing. She told the host, Steve Harvey, that she was most proud of the fact that not only did she make sure all of her children earned college degrees (something she did not have), but that they all traveled internationally—in fact to more than 60 countries among the four of them. Her family won and proceeded to the final round where two of the sons were asked to "name something the French are known for." The first son replied, without hesitation, "fries." Steve laughed and questioned how, with all that travel, "fries" was the first thing that came to mind.

This got me thinking: Do you have to travel to become globally competent?

Let's see if we can meet the criteria of our four pillars of global competence without crossing an international border.

Investigate the World

Can students be interested in the world and formulate globally significant questions if they have never set foot outside of the country? This is probably the easiest piece to accomplish without travel. Teachers are able integrate a global dimension into their curricula in any subject area, thus prompting international interest and questions. In fact, in our own network of international study schools, we have seen higher graduation rates than in similar schools: students are engaged and challenged by the global work. There are many resources out there now to assist teachers; we share many on this blog and on our website. 

Recognize and Weigh Perspectives

Students must be able to realize that they have a perspective that may or may not be shared by others at home or abroad. Can they learn to recognize other perspectives without actually going to another country and talking to people?

Students today are fortunate to be able to connect with others around the world without leaving their home or classroom. They can read international news sources in English or in the second language they are studying (hopefully they are doing so!). Local universities and groups such as World Affairs Councils regularly hold events with international guest speakers that students can attend and participate in. High school newspapers are increasingly encouraging students to cover international news or think about the international dimensions of issues they may cover in op-eds.

And let's not forget the changing demographics throughout the United States. It is not difficult to find immigrant communities where students can interact and make connections with people from around the world. And because these people are living in our communities, there is an opportunity to make deeper, ongoing connections as opposed to a one-off discussion that you may have on an evening out in a foreign land. 

Effectively Communicate to Various Audiences

In our global United States and in our international marketplaces, citizens and workers must be able to effectively communicate with people from other cultures. Students are already communicating with peers around the world every day through Twitter, Facebook, online games, etc. Learning a second, or third language, can take place in the confines of a school. While I do believe that there is no better way to practice a language than to go abroad and talk with native speakers, enterprising students and teachers are doing just that without boarding a plane. They are using  iEARN or Skype in the Classroom to have meaningful interactions online—in a second language or in English. These can take many forms, from joint projects to debates and ongoing conversations—something you may not do if you take a guided tour through China and never leave your tour group. 

Take Action

This one is a bit more difficult, we argue that global competence requires real-world problem solving (of those questions formulated as one investigates the world) and application of what is being learned. Obviously being able to undertake a project abroad is the ultimate manifestation of this. But very few students get this opportunity. Service projects domestically can utilize those connections to immigrant communities. Beyond that, online portfolio projects can explore global dimensions and be shared with international audiences through blogs and websites, inviting feedback from around the world.

Now, as someone who has traveled extensively (not to 60 countries, but I do take pride in saying I have been to every country in Southeast Asia), I would never want to detract from travel or convince someone they don't need to do it. Quite the opposite.

I strongly encourage people to travel internationally. We at Asia Society have seen first-hand, on more than one occasion, how travel can change the course of a student's life. Everyone should have that opportunity. But the reality is, everyone doesn't and that's all right. You can still be globally competent and reap the benefits without leaving the United States.

About the Fries

I don't want to leave you wondering how the answer of fries ranked on Family Feud.  He got credit for it because the judges counted it as part of the number one answer, "food." I've been to France and they have some darn good frites there. But I'm going to guess a French person would not appreciate "fries" as the number one thing their culture is known for! 

Heather Singmaster is assistant director for Education at Asia Society. Follow her and Asia Society on Twitter.

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