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International Education Week: Shrinking World, Shrinking Resources, and Shrinking Time

I grew up in the heartland of America listening to rhetoric about the “Evil Empire” and the nuclear arms race. My school didn’t have a globalized curriculum; the student body was not diverse. Yet, I was compelled to learn more about the world; to make it a better place. My story is not unique. What’s changed and what hasn’t changed since my first foray more than 20 years ago into international education as a high school student on a friendship tour in the USSR?  As I reflect on the field of International Education this week along with colleagues from around the world, the word shrinking comes to mind in positive and negative ways – a shrinking world, shrinking resources, and shrinking time.

A Shrinking World: Tweeting, Friending, Ninging?…as a student studying abroad, I stood in line at the post office to fax home letters to my family;  there was no e-mail and phone calls were expensive. Of course everyone knows the power of communications today and we watched that power used over this last year in the Arab Spring. At IREX we integrate social media into all our projects to further develop our relationships with our international students, teachers, and professionals. This kind of shrinking brings us closer together, but does this replace the need for face-to-face communication? Does it break down stereotypes? Do we gain a deeper understanding of a culture? Does it lay the foundation for long-term relationships with future leaders from around the world? I believe in the power of social media, but it does not replace the power of people-to-people connections.

Shrinking Resources: Only 1%  of the federal budget went towards international affairs in 2010.[1]Of that, only 0.018% was dedicated to the State Department Exchanges Budget[2]out of which Americans and internationals around the world were given opportunities to scrape below the surface of cultures, learning about and experiencing our shared and differing values. At IREX we practice good stewardship with the limited dollars we have that support America’s international education efforts. What is the impact of this small investment? I’m reminded every day as I meet the beneficiaries – the Pakistani youth that broke their stereotypes of America and are sharing their experiences with youth and others in their communities back home; the former child soldier from Uganda that is learning about peace and reconciliation methods used in US communities to further his work with orphans in Uganda; the American teacher that is bringing the world to American students and preparing them for the global community…there are many, many more examples – what is yours?

Shrinking World + Shrinking Resources = Shrinking Time… I believe the importance of international education is even greater today than when I first stepped foot in the USSR. There is no more “Evil Empire,” but we have plenty of other evils to battle – famine, disease, natural disasters, starvation, illiteracy, violence, terrorism – the list goes on. In 20 more years, what will be the face of our global communications? I’m no expert, but I think we all agree that we’ll be even more interconnected than we are today. In 20 more years, will we have more resources than we do today? Probably not, the world’s population just crossed the 7 billion threshold. Education is one of our most powerful tools. The time is now to tell Congress not to cut funding to international affairs. The time is now for our schools and teachers to globalize their classrooms. The time is now to strengthen our global human connections. I believe that international education makes a better world every day, one person at a time, do you?