Broadening Understanding of Others and Ourselves
This week, November 15–19, is International Education Week (IEW). Begun in 2000 and sponsored by the U.S. Departments of State and Education, IEW is an opportunity for exchange students worldwide to share their cultures with their host communities and highlight the benefits of international educational exchange programs, including
- Promoting mutual understanding;
- Bringing people of different nations together to share ideas and compare values;
- Increasing awareness and adoption of alternative, multifaceted approaches to learning;
- Nurturing leadership skills that prepare students for the challenges of the 21st century, such as foreign language acquisition and problem-solving skills;
- Increasing self-development and awareness leading to enhanced self-confidence and self-esteem; and
- Preparing citizens to live, work, and compete in the global economy.
The worldwide celebration of IEW offers a unique opportunity to reach out to people in every nation, to develop a broader understanding of world cultures and languages, and to reiterate the conviction that enduring friendships and partnerships created through international education and exchange are important for a secure future for all countries. You can make a difference by sharing with others your culture—your history, government, language, food, holidays, school system, and traditions.
According to the Institute of International Education's 2010 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, more than 260,000 U.S. students studied abroad in 2008–09 and nearly 691,000 international students enrolled in a U.S. higher education institution in 2009–10. These numbers do not include the thousands of students who participate in high school-level exchange programs. Spotlight international education in your classroom, college or university, and community with these suggested activities and resources.
"[Study abroad] will advance your education. It will expand your sense of possibilities and it will make you more competitive for the jobs of the future. But more importantly it will also show you just how much we all have in common—no matter where we live in the world."
—U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama
In my junior year of high school, I participated in a yearlong exchange program. I left my home in Detroit, Michigan, and lived with a family in Fürth, a city near Nuremberg, Germany. I had a year of language classes and curiosity before I departed and language fluency and a changed worldview when I returned. I attended Hardenberg Gymnasium, a school that provides college preparatory secondary education.
The school system and advanced coursework, especially in mathematics and sciences, were different than my American experience—I even received a B (or a 2, in the German grading system) in my English as a foreign language course! But what was similar was what happens when you put a lot of teenagers in a room together: We asked questions of each other. We learned about each other's values and cultures, homes and schools, hopes and fears. I'm still friends with many of them, though we're scattered around the world today.
Also important during my year of new experiences were the teachers at Hardenberg. It is tempting in these situations to observe, rather than actively participate, for fear of making a mistake. One teacher, Frau Scholz, understood that I would not be able to participate in our German classes at the same level as the German students. During a writing and comprehension exercise, the class read a book and wrote an essay for the exam. Frau Scholz knew that I would not be able to read the book in the same timeframe as the rest of the class, so she challenged me in another way. She asked me to write my essay exam on a recent class trip to Berlin—what I experienced and how it affected my understanding of German history. I remember receiving a good grade on my essay, but it was covered in the dreaded red ink of corrections.
I felt embarrassed when Frau Scholz asked me to read my essay aloud to the class, even though I knew that mastering German grammar took time. I showed my classmates the red-covered workbook and, like all supportive groups, my classmates held up their essay workbooks—with red corrections on every page. We were all learners and all had made mistakes. I ready my essay and felt proud of what I had done. I felt closer to and more engaged in my class. Sixteen years later, I don't remember everything I experienced during my exchange, but I remember Frau Scholz.
I went on to study abroad during college—one semester in Belgium and one semester in Russia—and my family hosted four exchange students—one from Sweden, one from Australia, one from Belgium, and one from Spain. Were you an exchange student or did your family host a student? Did you participate in a study abroad program? How did your experience shape your view of the world and education?