Global Forum: International Education Today To Prepare the Leaders of Tomorrow

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by Karen Jenkins

Given the current headlines — piracy off the coast of Somalia, Ireland’s unexpected financial difficulties, and civil unrest in North Africa and the Middle East — America can no longer ignore the need for our students to acquire a deeper understanding of the world.

The greatest challenge of higher education is to prepare students to be global citizens — to be able to cross national boundaries, speak other languages and seek solutions to transnational issues. Meeting the challenge will require an unprecedented focus of talent and resources to ensure that every American college or university imparts an international perspective to its students. This focus must extend from the faculty to the administration and must be deeply embedded in the field of study of every student.

The students sitting in classrooms today will be the leaders of tomorrow. How will they solve tomorrow’s complex international problems if they don’t receive effective and comprehensive multicultural training and exposure now? Unless all are included in an education that teaches understanding about the world, the solutions will be left in the hands of an uninformed few.

The most visible sign of international activity on a campus is often the number of students that study abroad. In the 2008-09 academic year, 260,327 students from the United States studied abroad, according to the Institute of International Education’s “Open Doors 2010” study.

That number represents barely 1 percent of all U.S. college students that year and is a 0.8 percent dip from the previous year. If such a small percentage of students travel, live and study abroad, can academia truly say it is adequately preparing all students to understand — not to mention operate in — an increasingly global community? The numbers are particularly dismaying for minority students. Blacks represented just 4.2 percent of U.S. students studying abroad in 2008-09, while Asian Americans and Hispanics made up 7.3 percent and 6 percent, respectively. American Indian students barely registered, at 0.5 percent. Females represented 60.2 percent and males 35.8 percent. In other words, the overwhelming majority of students that studied abroad in 2008-09 were White females.

Studies have been trumpeting the importance of international literacy for more than 25 years. In 1983, for example, The National Commission on Excellence in Education issued “A Nation at Risk,” a thoughtful report urging all colleges to add foreign language training as an admission requirement. Today, 28 years later, this recommendation has yet to be implemented.

Even after recognizing the need for more emphasis on an international education, the process of transforming into a global campus can be daunting, particularly for smaller schools or community colleges, which often cater to minority, low-income or part-time students.

Moving forward, this column will provide guidance and advice for those institutions, focusing on five pillars of any dynamic international program:

• Teaching cross-cultural understanding

• Promoting foreign language fluency

• Encouraging faculty to develop international curricula

• Supporting efforts to bring international students and scholars to U.S campuses

• Promoting study abroad

President Barack Obama, son of a Kenyan scholar, spent his early years living in both Hawaii and Indonesia. When he came to the White House, he brought with him an understanding of the life and culture of people from very different walks of life. His positive commitment to re-engaging the world sets an example for every young person that an international perspective is integral to success, no matter the chosen field. Our colleges and universities owe every student an education that will prepare them to meet the future as global citizens who are willing and able to be engaged with the world.

— Karen Jenkins is executive director of the African Studies Association at Rutgers University. Her Global Forum column will appear periodically in Diverse and on diverseeducation.com.

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