06 September 2012
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then it must be nearly impossible to articulate the value of an experience. In a world that is increasingly interconnected though globalization that now touches every aspect of our lives, the importance of having an informed global frame of reference is important to individuals who identify themselves as global citizens. The standards and values that pervade American culture do not easily translate and, in some cases, are unintelligible to citizens of other countries. In an interconnected and globalized world, understanding of these different worldviews is critical to diplomacy and commerce at the individual, community, and national levels.
Spending time overseas during the early years of adulthood is fast gaining popularity as a rite of passage. From study abroad programs at universities to independent providers, passports are becoming as necessary a credential as diplomas. As Americans, most of these young adults are used to looking at the outside world from a singular point of view—an American one. Paul Burnore, Managing Director of the disaster relief organization All Hands, articulated this point succinctly, "Every American citizen, regardless of demographic circumstance, runs the risk of presuming their own economic situation, values, and viewpoints are the only ones worth thinking about or contributing to if they are never exposed to other cultures, ways of living, and belief systems." A structured international experience—or anything more intentionally engaging than a touristy pass-through of a community—allows individuals to learn about communities in ways that may otherwise prove to be inaccessible.
The takeaways of structured or facilitated international experiences—be they ecotourism, service-learning, or small scale business incubation programs—inherently inform a global citizenry. Experiential learning engages minds and shapes outcomes to a degree that no other form of learning does, and facilitated programs have measurable outcomes that are often unattainable through independent travel alone.
While independent travel is also educational—indeed, any experience abroad is going to be transformational in some way—there is indisputably value added by programs that integrate intentional reflection and learning. Longtime international educator Dr. Eric Hartman, Visiting Assistant Professor of Global Studies at Providence College and lead author for the forthcoming Building a Better World: The Pedagogy and Practice of Global Service-Learning, summed up the value of facilitated programs with his observation, "Educational, reflective international experiences have profound power to unsettle assumptions and have participants look anew at the world around them. It is not the case, however, that crossing borders alone leads to greater acceptance of others, embrace of global social responsibility, or interest in peace." The most effective processes encourage provocative reflection to derive the greatest takeaways.
Often it is a rude awakening for young Americans going abroad that the autonomous nature of American lifestyles is not the base unit of societal function elsewhere in the world. The community often emerges as the basic unit of society—be that a community of family (either immediate or extended), or a community of neighbors who share everything but DNA. This is important when students grow to be businesspeople and politicians, as it serves as a reminder that what we think is normal as Americans is not necessarily the standard elsewhere.
Ironically, as these experiences readjust perceptions beyond the individual level, that is where most of the learning occurs for the traveler. They realize that they are a being that is independent of where they have grown up and what they are used to, and in that way can realize the value of the privilege of self-determination that they may have never been conscious of before. They know that they can go back home and step outside a comfort zone they thought (knowingly or unknowingly) they were confined to, and they know that they will be fine. Participants in international service and education programs learn adaptability, responsiveness, and maturity that is nearly impossible to learn in a traditional educational experience.
Sara Noel, Outreach Director of the service-learning organization Amizade, observed, "When students return from an experience like this they are intimately connected with the countries and communities they visit. A protest, a war, an election, or a famine are no longer, 'Terrible things that happen over there;' they become real events that happened to your friends and [host] family... even if no one they knew was directly impacted by the event, it is the community that they are connected to. This can affect how they vote, the causes they support, and the direction their careers may take." In America it often seems that narrow-mindedness is easy to understand and hard to fix until there is personal exposure to foreign cultures and communities.
Dr. Hartman, of Providence College, commented of the vast majority of his students who participated in programs in developing countries, "They wish others could know that many of those people work as hard and dream as beautifully as we do, and that—due to circumstances beyond their control—they nonetheless have far fewer options than we do." The Kenya-focused service organization Carolina for Kibera has embraced this realization in their slogan, "Talent is universal, opportunity is not."
Young ThinkImpact scholar Becca Liebman's reflection of her time settling into working in Kenya is insightful: "This week has been shocking and a huge adjustment for everyone; people are people. We are not that different. We use the resources we have to make the best we can. And that's pretty universal. So there you have it—a diploma would ask me to list differences I have noticed. A passport has taught me that there is no point." It is the differences between cultures that students prepare for and expect, but more often it's the nuanced human-level similarities that are the most educational. Those are the most valuable lessons, and they are the ones that cannot be learned in a classroom.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's September/October edition.