Education Diplomacy: Developing Deep and Lasting Personal Relationships

Flags representing students from around the world blew gracefully in the breeze last weekend as I joined thousands to celebrate the graduation of the class of 2014 at Brown University. The image was a beautiful reminder of how much we gain from getting to know people from different countries, cultures and perspectives, and how important it is that we build deep personal relationships and connections that can bridge these differences.

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Seminar participants (from left) Jake Sorrells, Student, Georgetown University; Fanta Aw, President, NAFSA: Association of International Educators and Assistant Vice President, American University; Maureen McLaughlin, senior advisor to the Secretary and director of international affairs; Rajika Bhandari, Deputy Vice President, Institute of International Education; Maya Garcia, Fulbright Distinguished Awardee for Teaching and DC STEM Specialist; Lenore Yaffee Garcia, acting senior director for international and foreign language education, ED’s Office of Postsecondary Education.

Also last week, the U.S. Department of Education’s International Affairs Office hosted a policy seminar on the importance of education diplomacy, with a particular focus on the role of study abroad. We heard from an undergraduate student, a STEM teacher, an academic mobility researcher, and a university vice president. They were all passionate about their overseas experiences and the importance of broadening the availability of study abroad, to make it the norm rather than the exception.

Currently, less than 10 percent of all U.S. undergraduates study abroad. The number would increase with a broader definition – adding, for example, internships, research projects, and volunteer opportunities – but even still the experience would not be the norm for most U.S. students. Rajika Bhandari, from the Institute of International Education (IIE) and one of the experts who joined us during our seminar, is exploring an expanded definition of study abroad and also supporting an effort to double the number of students studying abroad through IIE’s Generation Study Abroad. This is a simple but ambitious goal. Fanta Aw, from NAFSA and American University, also stressed during the seminar that bold action is required to increase study abroad opportunities for U.S. students from all backgrounds and to ensure the U.S. is a welcoming face to international students coming here.

Multiple perspectives, cultural empathy, and intercultural fluency are part of what one learns from international experiences. Jake Sorrells, an undergraduate at Georgetown University, came away from his high school experience in Paraguay with a new understanding of human relationships and the value of studying other languages. As an example, he described how much his host father, a large, gruff man, cared for him and tried to express it across linguistic differences. Jake also talked about the highly diverse high school he attended in suburban Maryland and how he wished that he had engaged in more genuine conversations across groups of students. Fanta Aw talked about her experiences growing up in Mali, France and the U.S. and how being a “global nomad” shaped her worldview. “You find yourself among people from all different walks of life, who speak different languages and come from different cultural backgrounds,” Fanta explained. “But you also realize what you have in common and what you have in common is deep fundamental human values.”

The Department of Education’s international strategy defines global competencies as “21st century skills applied to the world.” Overseas experiences help students to gain these competencies: to see things from different perspectives, to apply what they’ve learned to new challenges, and to think outside the box. Maya Garcia, a recipient of the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching and a STEM specialist in DC public schools, found that her overseas experiences dramatically changed the face of what she is doing in DC, including blending global competencies into the curricula, taking students overseas and designing professional development programs for her colleagues.

Michele Obama confirmed the importance of connecting across the globe in her talk with students during her recent trip to China, reminding them that “in the years ahead, much like you and I are doing today, you will be creating bonds of friendship across the globe that will last for decades to come.” You can watch excerpts of the First Lady’s talk here.

Maureen McLaughlin is senior advisor to the Secretary and director of international affairs.

Mapping the Nation: Making the Case for Global Competency

To kick off International Education Week 2013, the U.S. Department of Education cohosted the release of Mapping the Nation, an innovative online resource developed by Asia Society, Longview Foundation and SAS. Using an interactive map and infographics, Mapping the Nation shows how connected each state and county is to the rest of the world. With nearly one million data points related to economics, demographics and education, we can see how prepared our states and local communities are to operate effectively in an increasingly interconnected world.

Panelists

Panelists at the release (from left to right) Audrey Singer, senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Donna Wiseman, dean of the College of Education at University of Maryland, Terry Holliday, commissioner of education, Kentucky, and Caroline McCullen, director of education initiatives at the SAS Institute.

I decided to look at the data for Virginia, where I live. As a state, we are highly global: an increasing percentage of the state’s population is foreign born and we have substantial engagement in international trade. The map shows, however, that there is quite a bit of variation within the state. This new interactive online map and the infographics are powerful because they bring the data together in one place and highlight facts in a visual and compelling way, providing the spark for analysis, discussion and action.

In Secretary Arne Duncan’s introductory remarks during the release, he said that “tools like this will help us to better understand the current and growing demand for globally-competent workers. … This type of information can help inform bold education reform and workforce development strategies in our states and communities, in ways that will grow the available talent and better meet our employer needs.”

During the event we heard from an esteemed panel about how the map can inform and help advance efforts at the national, state and local levels. We heard how important it is for a state to prepare a globally competent talent pool in order to attract international business and investment. For example, we learned how businesses like SAS are looking for technical skills, but in conjunction with second languages and cultural awareness, since many staff will work with teams in other countries. We also heard that Kentucky is working to develop a global competency diploma that would recognize students who have studied world languages and other coursework with strong global implications.

Another suggestion was to share the map with teachers so they can understand what is happening in their communities and see how it links to what is happening in schools. If teachers are convinced of the importance of global competency and are globally competent themselves, they will more easily impart that to their students.

The data highlight different patterns across communities—some have high concentrations of international students and scholars; some have diverse immigrant populations who are spread across the wider area; some have highly concentrated immigrant populations; and some have little diversity.  These different patterns have quite different implications for business and education.

I’m optimistic that Mapping the Nation will spark conversations across the country–with teachers, students, parents, business leaders, policy makers and others—and challenge all of us to work more effectively to build a stronger pipeline of globally competent young people.

Maureen McLaughlin is senior advisor to the Secretary and director of International Affairs