The number of American students abroad today is at a record high: more than 223,534 young Americans are overseas, eager to acquire competitive skills and motivated to participate in global development initiatives. According to the report Open Doors 2007, published by the Institute of International Education, the increase in students abroad can be attributed to the realization that international experience is important for students’ career-building, is valued by employers, performs a diplomatic service abroad, and generally is vital to America’s national interest. As Senator Richard Durbin said in July 2006, introducing legislation to establish the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Program, “Our lack of world awareness is now seen as a national liability.”
I beg to differ. While the geographic ignorance displayed by Miss Teen South Carolina in 2007 could be easily considered a national security concern in this post 9-11 world, there are other reasons for our increasing interest in international exchange, beyond self-interest. Our generation is also starting to realize America’s place in the world, its role in geopolitics, and its influence on the global economy. Apart from applauding the benefits of globalization, students of international affairs are also becoming aware of its costs and trade-offs. In an age where social, economic, and environmental problems have become global crises, travel abroad for the sake of language immersion, cross-cultural experience, and career-building is simply not good enough. “Exchange program” is out, and “change program” is in.
In 2008, more than 1,500 Global Brigades volunteers traveled to provide health and economic development solutions to more than 50,000 beneficiaries in communities in Central America, Ghana, India and Vietnam. Global Brigades students pour concrete, pull teeth, support struggling micro enterprises, plant trees, build infrastructure, and provide some of the poorest villages in the world with clean water, health care, and economic opportunities. Global Brigades travel as groups and team up with local communities to foster sustainable change and improve quality of life.
Students emerge from these Global Brigades experiences transformed, with new perspectives, skills, capacities and concerns. Not only are they aware of the global backyard, they are aware of their own power as agents of change. Volunteers who participate in one-week brigades often go on to become club leaders of next brigade, regional advisors coaching multiple clubs, country directors of Global Brigaders programs, and most recently, a CEO of the organization.
When we say Global Brigades is student-led, we’re talking about new era of leadership: an age of Global Citizenship. Citizenship implies a sense of duty, collective responsibility, and cooperative leadership. Global Citizenship calls for an expansion of national self-interest to include commitment to other countries, cultures and environments.
The age of Global Citizenship comes not a moment too late. If we don’t become aware of our power to address global crises such as hunger, poverty and climate change, our lack of world awareness will no longer be a national liability, it will become a global liability. Travel abroad is monumentally important in empowering today’s Global Citizens, but it must foster change over exchange.