The Study Abroad Solution: We Need More, But It’s Not an Answer to All Things

In early 2016, Dr. Sanford Ungar published a provocative article in Foreign Affairs, “The Study Abroad Solution: How to Open the American Mind.” I looked forward to hearing what Dr. Ungar (former president of Goucher College and a key proponent of study abroad as a requirement for college graduation) had to say. I re-read the article recently, and decided there were points worth reiterating almost a year later.

To summarize Dr. Ungar’s points:

  • Despite the ever-increasing prevalence of the Internet and its impact upon our daily lives, many Americans still know little about the rest of the world.
  • Relatively few Americans spend any significant amount of time abroad.
  • As the world has become more interconnected, understanding world affairs becomes more critical than ever before. Yet Americans seem to have become more isolated.
  • The fact that much of the U.S. public does not “know and understand others, except through a military lens,” is not just unfortunate but also dangerous, since it leads to fractured foreign policy and widespread misunderstandings.

Dr. Ungar concludes that a “disarmingly simple way” to combat this state of affairs is to “massively increase the number of U.S. college and university students” who study abroad for some portion of their undergraduate or graduate education. He would like to see the U.S. federal government create incentives to make study abroad a more widely available educational choice for U.S. students. He argues that only a significant push from the government and increased commitment from the private sector will make this happen, with (in his viewpoint) a positive result being that the United States would begin to have “a more healthy relationship with the rest of the planet.”

I agree with the general tenor of these points. Like many in the international education field, I believe it’s more important than ever. We do need more intercultural understanding and exchange, and it’s not happening by itself. We see people turning away from reading the news as a result of drowning in too much information, much of it difficult to sort through to determine fact from fiction. We’ve all heard about Facebook and Twitter algorithms showing us only what we already believe and want to see. How can this help us move forward towards more cooperation and mutual understanding and goodwill?

It’s depressing to think that many Americans seem unaware of the importance of cross-cultural understanding in a world of global inter-connectedness. It’s frightening to see how isolationism has become a renewed focus in this country. As Ungar notes, fewer than half of U.S. citizens hold passports — by his estimate and that of others, it’s less than 40 percent. One recent estimate is higher, at 46%, but that’s still not something to get excited about. Ungar notes:

Compare that figure with the numbers from other English-speaking countries that are geographically isolated: 50 percent of Australian citizens hold passports, as do more than 60 percent of Canadians and 75 percent of New Zealanders. In the United Kingdom, which is admittedly much closer to foreign destinations, some 80 percent of citizens carry passports.

Even if it’s 46 percent, that figure may not provide a reliable guide to how many Americans actually travel abroad. How many got a passport for one short trip, never to be repeated?

It’s easy on some levels to see why many Americans do not have exposure to other cultures or why international travel might not be a vacation of choice for many Americans. The U.S. is large, after all, and getting to another country is often farther away than a short drive of a few hours. International travel as a result can be expensive. Our country also has quite a bit of diversity of its own. The implications of our own diversity have become more evident to many Americans since the November 2016 presidential election. Although significant regional differences have existed since before the U.S. became a single nation, it feels as though the recent election has increased polarization between “liberal” and “conservative,” “red state” and “blue state,” and “urban” vs “rural.”

Is Study Abroad Always the Answer?

I’m in favor of study abroad in high school, college, and post-grad. Benefits include not just learning another language and culture, but include increased self-confidence, development of an ability to think on one’s feet, increased confidence in dealing with unfamiliar situations, and more. International educators and others point to the many leaders in their respective fields who have studied abroad.

That doesn’t mean I’ll defend all study abroad programs at all costs. To the contrary, I agree that one can legitimately raise questions about the effectiveness of many study abroad programs. Concerns and questions that I (and others) have raised include:

  • Where do U.S. students go for their study abroad programs? More than half of U.S. students studying abroad go to Europe, which — while certainly providing positive experiences — arguably does not provide the key cross-cultural understanding that U.S. students need in today’s world, which includes much more than the U.S. and Europe. The same problem afflicts high school cultural exchange programs bringing students to the U.S.; Europe and just a few Asian countries are the primary countries sending teens in this direction.
  • What languages do U.S. students speak during their study-abroad programs? How many Americans have the language ability to take classes in a language other than English? More and more study-abroad students do their studies in English, a trend that misses the point in an increasingly complex, multicultural world where a considerable percentage of the world’s population speaks more than one language.
  • What kind of interaction do students have on their study abroad programs with local people and culture? Do they interact primarily with each other on campus and off campus, or does their program encourage and provide incentives to interact with the people who live there?

As Dr. Ungar notes, one way to make progress on a goal of increasing our understanding of the world at large is to increase the number of Americans who study abroad for some portion of their educational career. Such efforts include the Institute of International Education’s Generation Study Abroad initiative, which aims to double the number of U.S. students studying abroad by the end of the decade. I’m not quite convinced, though, as Dr. Ungar says, that “[a]ny study-abroad experience is better than none at all.” With current programs running the gamut in the kind of experience being provided, it’s entirely possible that we could dramatically increase the numbers of U.S. students studying abroad without significantly expanding inter-cultural experience and understanding.

We need something more. We do need more U.S. students studying abroad, absolutely. We also need to take a closer look at the nature of foreign study and to provide alternatives. We need to address the lack of language requirements in U.S. schools. All of these are critical, and all could help. As Dr. Ungar notes, there continues to be a gap between the “positive, even zealous views [Americans] hold of the United States and its role in the world, and the anti-Americanism and negative perceptions of U.S. foreign policy that flourish almost everywhere else.” The global landscape today calls for a radical restructuring of how we target traditional study abroad programs and international cultural exchanges.

Dr. Ungar and others tend to focus on colleges and universities. I would argue we should provide incentives for schools to encourage more students to study abroad during high school as well. We should encourage our own children to study abroad, and we should also increase the number and country of origin of students who come to the U.S. for a semester or year. Living with host families in a foreign country, as the students we work with every year do here in the U.S. and as our own son did in Ghana, can be a powerful cultural and personally enriching experience — perhaps more than what college students from the same country living together among themselves may find in some study abroad programs.

Convincing U.S. high school students to go abroad is a challenge. Athletics are a strong focus in U.S. high schools, which is both a strength and a weakness. Students participating in athletics are reluctant to take time away from the team, and are concerned about potential impacts on college athletic opportunities. Students involved in debate, music, theater, and other non-academic activities common in U.S. high schools find that they may be held back in their ability to progress in those activities if they spend a semester or year away. Rather than assuming these barriers are insurmountable, shouldn’t we try to find ways to solve these problems?

Encouraging Cultural Exchange Within the U.S.

The size of the U.S. tends to result in domestic, rather than international, travel patterns. Our own family will go from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle, Washington, some three hours away in a different state; we consider that a normal road trip. In three hours, families in southern Germany go to Austria, Italy, Switzerland, or France for their road trip. The difference in cultures experienced in a 3-hour trip is infinitesimally small in the U.S. as compared to what’s possible in Europe; indeed, Portland and Seattle are essentially the same culture.

Our size and history as a nation of immigrants from many places contribute to a diversity that most countries don’t share. Our “backyard is as diverse as it is enormous.” In fact, we as a country would benefit from inter-cultural exchange within the U.S. Let’s not limit the conversation to the international level.

This isn’t a new idea. In an earlier post, we talked about a two-part podcast series from the public radio show This American Life called The Problem We All Live With which talked about school integration. We noted several university programs that have initiated “study away” programs within the U.S. in which students learn about different U.S. cultures by living there. At the high school level, see this program in Minnesota, started by a kindergarten teacher.

Let’s explore all of it. Let’s talk about how to increase real inter-cultural exchange and broaden our thinking about what that means. Let’s explore how to get more students from other parts of the world to come to the U.S. during their formative high school years, to experience American friends and sports and holidays. Let’s find additional ways for U.S. students to study abroad. I applaud Dr. Ungar’s efforts and his larger message; I just think the conversation we need is a broader one.

Finally, but certainly not least . . . let’s try to avoid having the U.S. State Department’s budget slashed by 28 percent, as recently proposed in the President’s budget. The proposed budget would cut funding for most of the Department’s cultural exchange programs other than the Fulbright Program. It’s perhaps one of the most “penny-wise pound-foolish” savings you could find in Washington.

 

Will Cultural Exchanges Die Under the Trump Administration?

We try to avoid making “political” comments here on The Exchange Mom blog, knowing that audiences involved in cultural exchange and international education come from all walks of life and all political persuasions. President Trump’s proposed budget, however, is so potentially game-changing that we feel compelled to speak up.

There are many impacts of the President’s budget proposal beyond international education and exchange. I’m not even going to go into what the proposed budget cuts would do to environmental programs and the environment. Let’s just stick with the one agency that we’re involved with in high school cultural exchange — the U.S. Department of State.

The President’s proposed budget would cut funding for the U.S. Dept. of State by about 29%, eliminating most cultural exchange programs other than the Fulbright Program. Exchange programs dependent on significant federal funding could be doomed. These programs are important. See, for just a couple of examples, our posts Hiding in Plain Sight: The Changing Needs of Cultural Exchange and Today, An Exchange Student: Tomorrow . . . ? for our thoughts on why some of these programs are important. We would all be poorer for their loss.

proposed budget graph Dept of State 2017
Source: What Trump cut in his budget, Washington Post, March 16, 2017, http://wapo.st/trump-budget-proposal?tid=ss_tw.

It would be a mistake to assume that other cultural exchange programs — even if they do not primarily rely on Department of State funding for students — would come through this with no significant impacts. If the relevant oversight offices at the Department of State are defunded, for example, what happens then? Can the cultural exchange programs exist without a partnership with the Department of State?

Less direct but just as important is the additional pressure that public schools may face in coming years. The new Administration has plans to implement voucher and other programs. If attendance at public schools decreases as a result of such programs, the public school system will be increasingly squeezed. Will they still be receptive to high school exchange students on J-1 visas, who do not pay tuition? Will they be able to afford those students?

It’s hard to know how this will all play out. We can all see, however, that the Trump Administration has made clear that these are its priorities. The Administration’s proposed budget reflects a “hard power” approach to the future, not the “soft power” approach generally attributed to diplomacy and the State Department, and which most cultural exchange programs clearly support.

The international education community is beginning to speak out. As stated by the Alliance for International Exchange yesterday, as one example:

“Educational and cultural exchange programs have been a critical component of our national security policy since the end of World War II. ….the State Department reports that 1 in 3 current world leaders have been on an exchange program in the United States. In another Department study, 92 percent of participants from Muslim majority countries reported having a more favorable view of the United States.”

Shutting down these programs in favor of buying more guns and bombs ultimately will prove both shortsighted and “penny wise, pound foolish.” We hope that the high school, college, and post-graduate exchange community will make this clear to congressional and other representatives.

Saying Goodbye . . . or Until Next Time?

As I write this, one of my students from this academic year has already left to return home to Germany. Over the next few weeks in June, the rest will pack their suitcases and return to Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Thailand. Like every year, I have watched nervous teenagers grow into confident young adults, have had the opportunity to get to know people in my community I would never have met otherwise, and seen relationships develop that did not exist 10 months ago.

plane 466585981These students return to their families and friends as different people. They are more mature, have gained independence, and have a whole different understanding of what another culture is like. They know that making new friends may be harder than you think, and the skills they have gained in doing that will help them in meeting new people as adults. They know that different school systems are just that, different: they can see advantages and disadvantages to both. They have learned that people may be different the world over, but they’re the same, too.

The year has not always been easy; it would be foolish to promise students or host families that bringing someone new into the family – someone who has no idea how you live or what your community is like – is always going to be a walk in the park. For some, the transition was not difficult. They jumped right in, found a niche in a sport or program at school, and became close to their host family with little outside guidance. For most, however, there were some bumps along the way.

These bumps are the normal bumps of life, perhaps compounded by cultural issues and the challenges of living in a strange home and culture. Some students had a hard time adjusting to life without the family and friends they had left behind. Some families struggled Risk & Reward Aheadwith issues that happen to families everywhere: difficulties between teens and parents, changes and stresses at a parent’s workplace. Their students lived through those issues with them; more often than not, they learned something from those “ordinary” stresses that they will take home with them. There were some painful times, and we had students in our home several times this year as we transitioned a student from one family into another.

The purpose of high school exchange educational and cultural programs is to “support personal growth, lead to a deeper understanding about foreign cultures and improve international relationships.” My students and their host families, as a group and individually, have succeeded in and surpassed expectations for what the U.S. government intends with the J-1 visa high school cultural exchange program. The teens have learned what life is like for U.S. teens, and have adapted to lifestyles and a culture different from their own, while their host families have themselves learned accommodation, compromise, and the nature of another culture (as well as being better prepared for when their own younger kids become teens). The teens, and sometimes their parents, have developed relationships with their host families that will continue after they return home. The host families have gained connections in foreign countries they will not lose; for many, they now consider that they have a new “son” or “daughter.”

Talents 123 Educational Center Inc © 2011
Talents 123 Educational Center Inc © 2011

There is a saying in the international exchange community: “exchange is not a year in one’s life, but a life in a year.” For students returning to their home countries, their “life in a year” is coming to a close. But the rest of their life is beginning. These students have lived far from home, and families in the U.S. (and elsewhere) have opened their doors to strange teenagers from countries around the world. They have all moved outside their comfort zone. Even the difficulties they may have experienced may make them better people. I live with the hope that they have all gained something valuable that will stay with them. That, indeed, is the point.

Photo credits: ©2014 Thinkstock.com unless otherwise noted
I’ve linked this post to the June 2014 My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com – take a look, you’ll find some other interesting blog posts.

The Montana Shooting: Reflections on a Tragedy and Thoughts on the Future

On April 27, 2014, a tragedy in the U.S. state of Montana shook the high school exchange community from coast to coast, and reached across the Atlantic to Europe. Diren Dede, a 17-year-old high school exchange student from Germany, was shot and killed just weeks before he was scheduled to return home. Diren had reportedly entered an open garage in his neighborhood late that night, and the owner of the house shot him. Some news reports say Diren was “garage hopping,” a fad in which teens run into open garages looking for … alcohol … soda … snacks? It’s supposed to be a prank. It didn’t turn out that way for Diren Dede.

I’ve been thinking about this horrific event, not quite knowing how to apply it to my work with exchange students. It’s an absolute tragedy for everyone involved, with ripple effects to Diren’s family and friends – both back home and here in the U.S. – and to exchange students all over the country. It’s been difficult for Germans to grasp how this could happen; many of us here in America can’t figure it out either.

risk diceI’m not planning to discuss who did what, and who is at fault for what; it’s hard to sort out the facts from a distance. But I think it makes sense to look at the situation from the perspective of exchange programs, and in particular the perspective of the 2014-2015 group of exchange students and their parents as those students prepare to leave for the United States this summer. I’ve heard, for example, that one German student’s parents refused a host family placement in the state of Wyoming because Wyoming is next to Montana and therefore it, too, must be a dangerous place to live. The reaction is understandable, but it’s unfortunate. What might that student miss by not spending the year with the host family in Wyoming who chose her application from among all others?

Lessons Learned From Tragedy

How do we in the exchange community reduce the chance of this kind of thing happening in the future? How do we further ensure our students’ safety, which is already constantly on our minds? We have to start by understanding that teenagers aren’t adults. We know their brains are not fully developed. They process risks differently from how they will view risk several years from now. Risk, for all practical purposes, just doesn’t exist for them. Moreover, we know that many teenage exchange students anticipate that their study abroad experience will be a vacation from their own parents. That’s a normal teen feeling regarding the prospect of being away from home. It takes time for them to learn that they are living a real life, not a vacation life, in their host country.

Those of us working in this field try to teach them that they are coming into a totally different environment from their lives back home, and that they have to adapt. That means they have to grow up pretty quickly; we’re expecting them to suddenly make good adult-like choices, change habits they may have lived with for years, and adapt to a different community and a different school system from what they are used to – all in a few months. We’re there to help them along that path, and to help them make good decisions. But we can’t foresee everything. Garage hopping? Most of my colleagues and I had never heard of it. But I guarantee it’s on the list now, regardless of whether that is, in fact, what was going on that night in April.

Warning our students to be careful and to make “good” decisions has nothing to do with whether they are in Montana or Oregon. In the U.S., the principles of private property are such that the idea of walking into someone else’s garage at midnight – much less someone you don’t even know — is a terrible idea. This isn’t good, and it’s not bad; there’s no value judgment. It’s just a fact, part of our “normal.” Acknowledging that Diren may have made a mistake in walking into the garage of a neighbor at midnight does not justify the action of the homeowner. But it still leaves the question of why a teenager was walking around at midnight in the garage of someone who, by all accounts, he did not know.

No alcohol imageThe simple answer is that Diren was 17 years old. If you have – or have had – a 17 year old, you “get” it. They do things like this, things that make the adults around them ask “what were they thinking?” Most of the time, a teen’s bad decisions are just dumb, with little or no long-term consequences. Some of the time, there are mid-level consequences – a fine or a court appearance for a teen caught drinking alcohol, for example, or financial consequences for crashing a car the student wasn’t supposed to be driving. For an exchange student, bad decisions can lead to the disciplinary action of immediately being sent home. Sometimes, however, the consequences of making the wrong decision are even more tragic and irreversible.

This is why, in the high school exchange community, we have rules about “act first and ask questions later” when it comes to student safety – if there is even a hint that a student is in trouble or in danger, U.S. government regulations require us to take action to protect the student and investigate the circumstances afterwards. This is why parents and host parents want to know where their children and students are when they are out on their own, and who they are with and what they are doing. This is why it’s common for U.S. teens to have curfews. It’s always hard for exchange students to understand; many of them feel they are being treated like children, and they often have been accustomed to much more freedom in their home country.

But they’re not at home now. They are in a foreign country, with foreign rules and foreign customs. Host parents shouldn’t be afraid to impose the rules and guidelines – not only are we talking about teens, with risk management brains that are far from fully developed, but we’re talking about teens who don’t understand their host country’s peculiarities – any host country, not just the United States. Natural parents of students can help by trying to understand that they can’t expect the rules and customs of the host country to be the same as their own; they can encourage their children to adapt to the reality of life in their host country. This can’t totally prevent students from making bad decisions — but I believe it substantially reduces the possibility.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, we all need to figure out how to move forward. Should we give up on the idea of cultural and education exchange in this country? I believe that would be a serious mistake. Does it make sense to cancel your child’s plan to come to the United States this August? I would strongly disagree; terrible things can happen anywhere and at any time. Should we establish a new rule that exchange students can’t go out after 10 pm? That would be silly.  How about not allowing exchange students to ride in a car? Of course not, although the fact is that the chance of being killed in a car accident is far greater than of being shot. That doesn’t stop us from getting into cars. Life does go on for the 30,000 exchange students who come to the U.S. each year, and for the new batch that will be here this coming year.

Diren Dede should not have died that night in April. He should be preparing his return home to Germany after a year that would have framed his approach to his life as an adult. I don’t know how to help alleviate the pain Diren’s family, host family, and friends feel right now. I know there is nothing I can do directly. But I also know I will continue to work to bring young men and women to my country to learn the value of study abroad and cultural exchange, and I will continued to encourage U.S. teens to do the same in reverse. If they stay home, it’s true they won’t suffer from things that could go wrong. They won’t cry from getting in trouble for a bad teen decision. But we won’t meet them, either, and they won’t meet us. And that seems like a shame for everyone. Better, in my opinion, to learn somehow from what has happened and to work to make sure there aren’t other headlines like this.

Photo credits: ©2014 Thinkstock.com

How Far Will the Pendulum Swing for Rules Governing High School Exchange Students?

We recently received a note from the exchange program we work with notifying us about a new program rule: host parents who speak the language of their exchange student (even as a non-native) will be asked to sign a statement that says that host parents will “only” communicate with their student in English.

On the face of it, that doesn’t sound unreasonable.  After all, the students are here to improve their English and a key goal of the secondary school exchange program is to immerse the students in their host language and culture.  So making sure host parents speak English in the home, as opposed to using the exchange student as a year-long language immersion program of their own, is important.  Right?

Well, yes.  But host parents already sign a document comprising several dozen or more rules they are committing to abide by. Is a separate document saying they will “only speak in English” necessary, or even appropriate?  What happens when extended family members come over to visit and want to have a small German conversation at the dinner table, both to perhaps practice their own language skills and in a perceived attempt to make the student more comfortable?  What if the student is having a problem at home or at school and is having difficulty expressing himself in English (not exactly uncommon, especially at the beginning of the year); is a host parent who knows the student’s language not allowed to have a short conversation in the student’s language to ensure clear communication?  What if the student asks you to explain something to his parents over Skype and wants to participate in the conversation?

When we raised these issues, the exchange program noted that these hypothetical situations wouldn’t pose a problem.  But that’s not what the document says.  If it isn’t intended to suggest “zero tolerance,” how is it different from the general guidelines already in effect, discussed with families on a case-by-case basis, that English is the primary language?  Why is it needed, and what is the point of taking away that flexibility?

How many rules are too many?

When we expressed our discomfort with this document , the program did back down – for now.  It’s not this specific rule that troubles me, though, in the long run. I’m using this example to bring up the larger issue of “how many rules are enough?”  Government rules and regulations tend to follow the path of a pendulum.  Something bad happens, it receives public attention, and the pendulum regulationsstarts to swing in the direction of more regulation. The pendulum swings farther and farther until the negative consequences are so obvious that changes are made and the pendulum starts to swing back in the other direction. But then it often swings too far in that direction, something bad happens again, and the cycle starts again. It is a maxim of regulatory decision-making that it is very hard to stop the regulatory pendulum at the “right point,” regardless of which direction it is swinging at the time.

There are many who believe that over the last several years, the pendulum for high school exchange programs has been swinging toward “overregulation.” For each new regulatory requirement, something has no doubt happened involving one or more exchange students somewhere in the U.S. (out of the 28,000 who come to the U.S. each year), and a decision is made to implement a new general rule with the goal of preventing that particular occurrence in the future.  In today’s inter-connected world, when almost any negative news event can be public knowledge across the entire country within a day, this kind of reaction is almost inevitable: people hear about it and demand that “something must be done.”

Can exchange programs survive?

But does creating more rules really prevent future occurrences of bad events – and at what point do we see unintended consequences?  As the pendulum continues to swing, generating more and more exchange rules, how many host families might be walking away from the table? winners losersCan the public diplomacy goal of cultural and educational exchange survive the challenge of ever tighter and more numerous rules and regulations?

We have seen a number of new rules in the last few years (adding to the many already in place).  Among those that have raised eyebrows among the every-day world of host families:

  • If a host family wants the student to spend a few days with a friend’s family or with extended members of the host family (without the host family), that other family now has to go through a background check, regardless of how well the host parents might know the family. This isn’t an insurmountable challenge, to be sure, and it’s not difficult to get background checks.  But the inability to make impromptu or last-minute plans removes flexibility and can make it more difficult for students to develop relationships with U.S. teens or extended members of the host family.  It also can put local coordinators in the awkward position of telling someone that their student cannot spend weekends with host mom’s parents unless and until the parents get a background check.  Desirable in terms of student safety? Perhaps. But one can also argue there are probably very few situations in which a student is in danger when visiting an extended host family member or friend of the family for a few days.  So is “zero tolerance” the right strategy?
  •  In many programs, local coordinators often can no longer organize impromptu trips with students they supervise.  Host parents can decide on Friday to bundle their exchange student into the car for a weekend trip to Seattle, and even invite another exchange student along.  But coordinators not currently hosting a student can no longer invite students we supervise to accompany our family on a similar impromptu last-minute trip. Don’t misunderstand: we can organize trips for students we supervise, as long as it’s enough in advance to submit paperwork to the home office with all the details (when are we going, where will we stay, how many students, what is the agenda) and obtain written permission from students’ parents back home.  In other words, we can organize a trip as a travel agent/tour guide.  It’s possible to do it; but the reality is that the extra work involved reduces the likelihood that exchange students we’re supervising will be able to participate in such trips.

Do we really want to keep narrowing the definition of what’s “reasonable”?

An inevitable downside of having so many rules is that host families have trouble prioritizing all the rules, and quickly come to forget some of them. There are 26 separate “terms and conditions” in our own host parent agreement, for example. In practice, host parents don’t remember each and every item each and every day. Yes, of course, we can announce with all seriousness that you are expected to read what you sign and remember what you read.  But then there’s reality, which is that the more rules you have in place, the more likely people are to forget some of them.  And what if they forget the really important ones because they’re distracted by so many others?

think outside boxAs host parents read through longer and longer lists of rules, it gets harder and harder to instill the vision of “a fun year” in their minds.  And if it’s not fun, it’s harder to convince people it’s worthwhile! There is such a thing as too many rules.  It’s certainly true that we’re dealing with people, and people will make mistakes.  But if you perceive rules as your only hammer, you may accidentally hammer shut the lid on high school exchange.

Study Abroad as an Element of Diplomacy

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has received many positive reactions to her push for cultural exchange and global education.  In 2010, she energized the cultural and education exchange industry with a speech that barely lasted 1½ minutes.  In her comments, she stated that student exchange still serves a purpose, even in the 21st century.  Student exchange enriches the lives of the students, host families, and communities, she said, and helps to “build people-to-people connections that span the globe and last a lifetime.”

It’s all individual communication.  Secretary Clinton emphasized that the goodwill and exposure to other cultures that exchange programs foster on an individual student and family level are “critical to meeting the challenges of today’s world.”  She stated what many of us believe: that individuals can and do help – one person at a time – to improve communication among nations by “citizen diplomacy.”  At its basic premise, this means that each and every one of us can contribute in our own way to improving international relations.  A positive thought, to say the least.  It seems to be confirmed by what we see as these teens grow up; exchange students often go on to become leaders in their own countries and bring their widened vision of the world to their vision of leadership.

Secretary of State John Kerry has made an effort to continue what Secretary Clinton started.  In November 2013 remarks, he noted that “international education creates life-long friendships between students and strengthens the bonds between nations.” He emphasized that it’s not just about education; it’s an element of diplomacy and economics.  Those who gain a world view can help to bring the vision of their own country to others and better meet cross-border challenges; those who have such a world view can better compete in the global economy.  Secretary Kerry notes that the percentage of international students at the university level in the U.S. hasn’t really changed in the past decade (3.5 percent; the same share they represented in 2000), and he calls for a “much greater level of exchange.”

Opportunity just ahead
Copyright 2014 Lurin/Thinkstock.com

If you are interested in contributing to this vision, I encourage you to read some of my blog posts to learn more about student educational exchange, and contact an exchange program representative in your area.  Don’t just rush forward immediately – I’m not that kind of advocate.  Ask questions, make sure you are comfortable with the person you would be dealing with, and choose a student who you think would fit in your family’s lifestyle. Educate yourself about your student’s culture and country before he or she arrives.  Accept that you will change as a result of this process, and that it will be an adventure – hopefully, one that will last a lifetime.