Back in college I never had the opportunity to study abroad. My strict soccer schedule paired with a strategically planned academic course load never lent itself to the novelty of traveling and living in another country for a semester, let alone a year. As my friends shipped off for England and Spain, I envied their photographs, travels and adventures. My friends were riding camels through the deserts of Morocco as I was writing my papers in the January permafrost of Kansas. I thought studying abroad was just to provide the student with opportunities to explore and adventure, but I learned this summer that it offers so much more than that.
Last March I was accepted to a program through George Washington University to travel to Germany. The International Education Program offered me the chance to conduct authentic research in education through an intensive 12-day case study. I was able to interview college professors, teachers, members of government and private/public sector employees. Everyone we met was filled with knowledge on higher education, educational opportunities in Germany, and much more.
In this class, I was one of the only students who had not studied abroad during undergrad and who had never been to Europe. I sat back and listened to my classmates as they questioned German officials on their study abroad program and involvement in Erasmus+. I quickly realized that Germany views study abroad differently than I previously did. They don’t see study abroad as just a chance for the individual to explore and adventure. To them, it is a much richer opportunity than that.
I now understand why Germany chooses to invest and send a large percentage of students abroad to study. Germany uses the study abroad platform to encourage students to continue to build relationships. In return, they bring in students from all over the world to attend German institutions for free. If these students don’t stay and work in Germany after graduation, their economy actually loses money.
Peace through Exchange
Why does Germany willingly lose money to promote the internationalization of higher education? All twenty officials I met had the same answer: they do it for world peace.
That may seem like a silly or oversimplified idea, but the explanation is hard to deny. When you travel, you get to know people from other cultures and other countries. When you get to know people, you let go of stereotypes and become more accepting. Ultimately, traveling creates relationships that in turn promote peace.
Germany, with a long history of war, is ready to be at the forefront of creating world peace. They are willing to lose money in the name of peace. For many we met with, studying abroad is not necessarily about the curriculum or the coursework, but about building global relationships.
Here at Home
But what about for those of us in the United States who cannot afford to go abroad and lose credit hours? What about students like me with my academic plan and my soccer schedule? Many of my college friends had to take pass/fail courses while in England and Spain, as the coursework just didn’t align with the state and university standards for graduation. The answer to this could be found in a conversation I had with with Dr. Jeffrey Peck.
Dr. Jeffrey Peck, Director of AKA Strategy and former Vice Provost for Global Strategies at Baruch College (CUNY), made a statement in a meeting that stuck with me. He told us that internationalization of education does not have to be limited to going abroad. The United States is a huge country in comparison to much of Europe. “To put it in perspective,” he said, “Germany is about the size of Texas.”
It’s easy to travel in Europe. In our country to promote peace, we could just as easily send our students between states and cities to study. When I was in school in Kansas, I would have loved to experience a semester at a partner institution in another part of the states. There’s so much of this country that I haven’t experienced, and college would have been a great time to get to know another region.
We need to do a better job exploring right here at home. We need to break down stereotypes and borders by traveling, by communicating and by building relationships. To create a more peaceful nation, we need to get to know each other. With the division that is happening in our country today, we need to build relationships from sea to shining sea.
How can you promote educational exchange?
- Teachers and administrators, you can study abroad during summer and use what you learn in your classroom or school. IIE, Fund for Teachers and Fulbright give educators scholarships to go abroad short term to learn about another culture. In turn, you might influence and encourage a student to follow in your footsteps.
- Talk to your students about other cultures. Share your travel stories, photographs and artifacts in your lessons. Whether you went to the beach in Thailand, attended a Packers game in Green Bay or drove down Highway 1 in California, you can incorporate these things into your activities with your students. You may inspire them to travel, or you might just help break down a stereotype for your students.
- Reach out for national or international pen pals. Connect your students via email with others across the world.
- Be on the lookout for scholarship opportunities that enable students to travel. Encourage all of your students to apply and help them see the benefit of stepping out of their comfort zone!
- Use your students’ heritages to teach about culture. Whether you have a new student move from out of state or you have a child who is a first generation immigrant, help these students feel accepted by teaching about their birthplace or hometown. Your students have as much to learn from each other as they have to learn from you. Take advantage of these teachable moments.
Maggie Taylor is the Advocacy Coordinator at Character.org. She is a former fifth grade teacher now earning her Masters in Education Policy at George Washington University.
Want to network with international scholars, teachers and advocates? Attend the 2016 National Conference on Character Education in October and register for the International Summit on October 13.