Visiting my son Marcus during his six months in Ghana (part of his gap year between high school and college), has been an eye-opening experience, one that has raised fundamental questions about where we stand when it comes to achieving the goals of exchange programs aimed at young adults like Marcus. When it comes to Africa in particular, are we successfully understanding each other better through youth exchanges? It’s hard to answer that question when the exchanges are not really happening.
That there is a lot to learn is obvious through even the simplest of conversations with my son after almost five months in Accra, the capital of the West African, English-speaking country of Ghana. Ghana is an up-and-coming African country according to frequent news stories. Indeed, the day Marcus left for Ghana in January, the New York Times published an article listing Accra as #4 on its list of the “46 places to visit” in 2013.
Accra has little in common with the experience of 99% of Americans:
• Walking out of any of our walled and razor-wired hotel compounds into the neighboring community is an amazing contradiction in terms. In an instant, one moves from air conditioning (most of the time), consistent Internet (more or less), real toilets (assuming the electricity is on or the generators are running), and hot showers, to unpaved roads with open sewers along the side of the “street,” people living on $1-$2/day, and few lights at night.
• Drive just a few miles across town, and you will find areas of Accra clearly reserved for the elite (diplomats, affluent ex-pats, senior ministers, international agency officials, banking representatives, etc.). A May 21st BBC video extols construction of luxury apartments such as the Villaggio as evidence of the growing Ghanaian middle class. Middle class, really? The Villaggio apartments rent for $4000-5000/month. The ability to pay such rents is far removed from the “burgeoning middle class” the enthusiastic BBC reporter seems to envision.
• Talk to Marcus and one hears of his discussions with the elementary school children he’s tutoring and supervising as a volunteer in an after-school program, including the apparently common belief that U.S. President Obama is an evil man. They refute Marcus’s arguments to the contrary, saying they have seen the evidence on a DVD video, and so it must be true.
• Talk to our tour guide here in Ghana, and you would learn that most Ghanaians believe that ALL Americans are rich. Given the tourists they see, and the TV shows to which they have access, it’s not hard to see how they reach that conclusion, no matter how misinformed.
The need for improved cross-cultural understanding is obvious. High-school exchange programs are one obvious key link, as are similar university level programs. How many Ghanaians’ opinions about the U.S. has Marcus influenced during his five months in Ghana, simply by being himself, one individual “citizen diplomat”? The reverse is equally critical; from conversations with Marcus, it’s obvious that he has gone through some significant changes in his understanding of world issues such as poverty and economic development. In a recent college essay Marcus indicated that he’d like to use his own college education to come back to Ghana in the future and help Ghanaians finance successful businesses. That’s not the same 18-year-old who left the U.S. in early January.
So where do we stand when it comes to high school exchanges with Ghana and the rest of Africa? Well, nowhere actually. Yes, some students from Africa come to the U.S. every year; using Ghana as an example, the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET) reports that during the 2012-2013 academic year about 49 high-school age students from Ghana (PDF file) spent a semester or academic year in the U.S. The numbers from other African countries are equally low: Kenya, 18; Nigeria, 20; Senegal, 13 – you get the picture. Germany, by comparison, sent more than 6,500 students to the U.S. during the same period, and China more than 4,000. Is the need for improved cultural understanding between Germany and the United States 120 times as large as it is for Ghana? I think not.
The same is true in reverse, when one looks at U.S. students choosing to study abroad through an approved youth exchange program for a semester or academic year, although there is an interesting twist – while the numbers for American students going to Africa are very low, the numbers of American students going anywhere at all is not much better. During 2012-2013, 12 students from the U.S. went to Ghana on a youth exchange program (high school level). It’s a start perhaps, and Marcus and his fellow exchange students here in Ghana have clearly gained a huge understanding of what life is like for ordinary Ghanaians as well as now seeing with their own eyes what it means to live in Africa (even in a so-call “booming” economy). Unfortunately, those 12 in Ghana constitute most of the U.S. high school students in Africa; most other African countries have none, or perhaps one. Compare the 12 in Ghana to the 276 high school students from the U.S. who during the same period chose to study in Germany, or the 36 who went to China. Sad numbers indeed when looked at from the standpoint of the levels of misunderstanding about the United States that prevail around the world.
This post is not the place to talk about all the reasons why American high school students do not study abroad in the way that European, Asian, and some South American students do. I could write pages on the likely reasons: inability to speak foreign languages, cultural indifference stemming at least partially from the geography of a large country with few international borders, the culture of high school in the U.S. which frowns upon giving credit for foreign study, and high school guidance counselors’ lack of knowledge about, and antipathy toward, gap year programs between high school and college. There is simply no question that a large fraction of U.S. high school students would benefit from taking a year off before starting college. If even a small fraction of them went abroad, it would expand the existing pool of American high school ambassadors by orders of magnitude.
Somewhere, somehow, we need a “call to arms” to encourage more students to do what Marcus and his fellow exchange students here in Ghana have done, as well as finding a way to bring more students from Ghana and other African countries to the U.S. It won’t by itself solve the fundamental problems facing Africa, from water and sanitation to economic growth, or by itself change global perceptions of the United States. But it would help create a generation of young Americans and young Africans that would care about working to find solutions to these challenges.