Looking to the Future of International Education

Co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education, International Education Week is an opportunity to explore and showcase the benefits of international education and exchange in the U.S. and abroad. World Learning is celebrating all week long with stories about how international education has made a difference for our program participants from 162 countries worldwide.

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World Learning has seen how international education can be transformative. Over the last week, we have shared stories of the many people who have participated in our global programs, from the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program to the Fulbright Specialist Program. Those stories have revealed how studying and living abroad have changed their lives and their communities.

Today, as International Education Week draws to a close, World Learning is looking ahead. We’ve asked our staff members—from our field office in Algeria to the International Education department chair of School for International Training—to weigh in with their thoughts, predictions, and hopes for the future of international education.

Leah Bitat
World Learning Country Representative, Algeria

A new generation of teachers is using advances in basic technology to create inclusive classrooms for students previously barred from attending schools at all. I believe this is one of the most promising developments in education and an exciting vision for the future.

Inclusive classrooms are places where all students can access educational content regardless of individual barriers to learning. The vast majority of the time, the special treatment that one student needs to overcome an individual barrier is a simple, well-designed intervention that is helpful for all students. For example, a visual signal combined with words helps all students, from the hard-of-hearing to the inattentive or tired, understand what is coming next. A simple text-to-speech application that comes standard with most smartphones can help a vision-impaired student hear a textbook read aloud instead of waiting for the possibility that a braille version of the book might someday be produced. A student with a long ride to school on a dark bus can use the same basic application to listen to lessons read aloud along the way.

The Algiers STE(A)M—Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math—Center is combining advances in basic technology with best practices in inclusive teaching methods, known as the Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Watching graduates of the UDL in STE(A)M Teacher Training program transform Algerian classrooms into student-centered learning laboratories for students of all abilities leads me to believe that putting simple advances in technology in the hands of motivated and curious teachers across the globe will soon be advancing inclusion internationally at a rapid rate.

Amy Schwenkmeyer
Director of Program Development for Global Exchange

When I reflect on my first international experience—a study abroad semester during college more than 25 years ago—it strikes me that the idea of international education has shifted from an experience for the few to an imperative for the many. To compete in a global economy and thrive in diverse academic institutions and workplaces requires globally competent individuals who have an appreciation for cultural differences, an ability to understand and consider multiple perspectives, critical and comparative thinking skills, problem-solving abilities, comfort with ambiguity and change, and an understanding of globally significant issues.

While experiencing another culture firsthand is certainly a wonderful way to build global competencies and learn about oneself, you don’t necessarily need to travel to partake in international education. There is a definite trend toward integrating 21st century skills that improve global competencies into classroom curricula from a young age. My children study, debate, and analyze topics in their public middle school—issues such as the Cultural Revolution, the U.S. immigrant experience, and self-reflections on identity—that were once mostly the purview of university liberal arts students. I applaud this development.

However, having the chance to travel, study, or work internationally will always have the power to be a transformative experience, and I hope to see the field of international education continue to increase much-needed focus on providing opportunities for all students, no matter their background or means, to experience time away from their home culture. I know I wouldn’t trade my college semester abroad for anything.

Sean Jones
Director, Foundation Relations and Philanthropic Partnerships

World Learning has been in the field of international education since 1932. Back then, our only program was The Experiment in International Living, which sends American high school students to travel and live with host families around the world. In 1942, our founder, Donald Watt, wrote about The Experiment in a brochure: “Freedom from fear cannot be created by legislation alone. Neither can our chiefs of state nor our diplomats and delegates release us from … suspicion. The kind of broad maturity that will make us citizens fit for [today’s world] can be achieved only by changing the foreigners we suspect into friends whom we trust. It can be done … we need only the will to work and an understanding of the way.”

Today’s world suffers from some of the same discontent and suspicion that Watt observed in the early days of our organization. Times like these remind us that the path toward peace, understanding, and shared prosperity is not inevitable. It takes a concerted effort from the global community to overcome forces of fear and suspicion and promote positive, collaborative development. Without international education, we wouldn’t know where to start.

When we study alongside those from other countries and cultures, we shrug off prejudices and put our own issues in proper perspective. It makes us realize that so many of our problems that seem too complicated, too technical, or too fraught to solve are really just issues of communication and trust. While today’s world makes it easier to escape into the monocultural silos of social media, I am heartened by the fact that it also opens many more accessible venues for cross-cultural interaction.

It is the job of today’s international educators to lead the way: harnessing new tools of international communication to create friendships, overcome prejudice, and foster collaboration toward a world that lives up to its potential. It can be done.

Susan Yang
Program Associate, International Visitor Leadership Program

During my undergraduate studies, I spent a semester abroad in Senegal, West Africa, where I lived with two host families, studied international development, interned at a government educational agency, researched an Islamic brotherhood, and solo-traveled across the country—all while only speaking in two foreign languages. This experience threw me into foreign situations where I had no choice but to survive. I gradually learned to distance myself from my values and beliefs and embrace the world before me. As a result, I quickly expanded my worldview and learned how to think differently. Even with a support system, I was forced to become independent—to develop the strength and courage to not only successfully navigate a foreign country but also to enjoy my experience by owning it.

Upon my return, I took with me knowledge and skills that helped me thrive in other areas, including becoming an active member of my communities. When I looked around me, however, I saw my siblings and friends and imagined who they could have become had they been given a chance to explore the world as well.

For me, international education has the power to dramatically transform an individual in ways unimaginable and to cultivate young leaders to become agents of their own communities. In the U.S., international education is often perceived as “extra,” “irrelevant,” or “elitist.” Today, international educators and professionals are beginning to put more effort to help people see the relevance of international education in their daily lives and to include more people of diverse backgrounds to become active participants in the field.

Dr. Sora H. Friedman
Professor and Chair, International Education MA Program, SIT Graduate Institute

SIT traces its history back to 1932, when Experiment in International Living founder Donald Watt created one of the earliest international youth exchange programs. Watt believed that the only way that the world would be at peace is if people learned to be able to live with each other. How would they do that? Well, by actually living together!

I had the chance to experience this firsthand as a teen, when I left my suburban Maryland home for 10 weeks to live with a host family in Bolivia. It was my first time on a plane, outside of the U.S., spending time with people of a different religion, and my love affair with international educational exchange was cemented. I later spent my junior year in Colombia and worked for an exchange program, after which I moved to Vermont to pursue my master’s in international education at SIT. After graduate school, I continued working in the field and upon completion of my doctorate in cultural studies, returned to Vermont to join SIT’s faculty full-time.

As you can see, international education has always been part of my life. Little did I know that my early exchange student experiences would lead to a career in the field, and while I entered the field unknowingly, it was my love of learning about people and places, the thrill of finding commonalities and celebrating differences, the chance to see the seeds of peace sowed among my participants, the lighting up of a student’s eyes once they understood a theory or concept, that has kept me going for 35 years.

Why is international education important today? For the same reasons it was when I first got interested in being an exchange student more than 40 years ago, and for the same reasons it was when Donald Watt took that first group across the Atlantic 86 years ago. We will never learn how similar we are if we only focus on our differences. We will never learn how to accommodate (which is much more than just tolerate) our differences if we don’t learn to live together. We will never learn to live together if we don’t just do it, and international education is what makes that possible.

As a professional in the field, I see trends in international education program management changing all the time. They include an increased focus on health, safety, and crisis management; a greater use of technology to connect with home while abroad; and a rising number of women working in the field. I also see continued challenges in access and equity in education for the world’s poor, for girls, and for members of marginalized groups such as racial minorities, first-generation students, and immigrants.

What has not changed is the need for international education programs. As educators, we must continue to support our youth in their efforts to learn across cultures. The need for this kind of experience does not diminish over time. In fact, as the world grows smaller due to technological advances, the need for this kind of experience increases. We see every day how easy it is for xenophobia to take root, for distrust of “the other” to grow, for division to continue. As Watt demonstrated ahead of his time, only by living together will successive generations learn to live together. The need for international education will never grow out of date.

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World Learning empowers people, communities, and institutions to create a more peaceful and just world.

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