An acquaintance of mine recently posted photos of his travels in Europe on Facebook. Another friend commented on a photo taken in Albania, asking, “Albania? What’s that?” When the former replied that Albania was a country and provided a few geographical facts, the second friend replied, “I’ve never heard of that. The United States is so big!” Is this an extreme example of the ignorance of American students? Certainly. However, the underlying ignorance and lack of interest in the larger world, displayed all too often by students and professionals alike, should not be so easily dismissed. This apathy and disinterest is the most pressing issue for international education today, and could be a serious detriment to our increasingly linked world.
Studying or interning abroad is too often viewed as a luxury or an “extra” for those students lucky enough to have the opportunity and the funding. Students and administrators tend to attach too little importance to the benefits of international education (especially those in fields without an overtly international component), and many students simply do not view spending time abroad as a real possibility, for a wide range of reasons. However, this attitude fails to grasp the immense personal growth any individual can (and usually does) gain from being immersed in a foreign culture and life, as well as the growing importance of such experiences and understanding for our world today. An international education is less about what is learned in the classrooms or offices of study abroad programs and more about the personal knowledge and growth that individuals gain from living day-to-day in an environment that differs from their own. Students learn to have a better view of differences, and more importantly, to deal with them in a positive way and to benefit from them. The lessons learned from an international education instill in students a type of empathy that can stay with them for the rest of their lives, making them more aware of and sympathetic to what is happening in the rest of the world. As of today, this type of awareness is all too lacking.
In an era where the world is becoming more connected day by day, international education and its benefits are becoming ever more important. Yet even as we acknowledge globalization and increasing ties between nations and peoples, international education continues to be a low priority in many institutions. Further, accompanying programs such as foreign languages continue to lose funding or are even cut. A lack of international education leads to a disturbing ignorance and, potentially, fear of the larger world, undermining international ties. Further, this ignorance severely weakens those who hold it. This failure to understand the full importance of international education, as well as the attendant budget challenges and lack of support, is the main issue that the field must face. How this problem is addressed could have significant repercussions on a much larger scale.
The Diversity Network sends its sincere thanks and appreciation to Kyrstie Lane for sharing her thoughts on the most pressing issue facing international education today. If you would like to share your thoughts, email us at members(at)diversitynetwork.org.