Nabil stopped by my office frequently. He was tall with penetrating eyes and a warm smile. His innocent charm and soft-spoken manner were disarming, but he was incredibly bright with a formidable intellect. He was an outstanding student, who would eventually complete a Ph.D. Nabil was the first person I had ever known from Beirut, Lebanon.
I served as his adviser for everything from his academic program to his needs as an international student. Advising Nabil was easy since he was well-organized and always prepared. Though this environment was new to him, he made an adjustment to American society that seemed effortless.
He was also a lot of fun. Over the time he spent in the United States, he developed a fascination with American idioms. He carried small index cards with him to prepare for the next phrase that would capture his interest. One day as he sat across the desk from me, I said, “And, that’s where the rubber meets the road.” His eyes lit up and a huge smile grew on his face. He quickly reached into his shirt pocket for a card, nearly ripping the seams, as he said, “That was great. Can you say that again?” Another entry was ready for his growing lexicon.
I wonder about Nabil today and the role he is playing back in Lebanon. I have not spoken to him in many years, but a quick “Google” search indicates he is in Beirut living with his wife (who also completed a doctorate) and their three children. His work involves both teaching and community development. My guess is he is having a great impact on that society.
For decades, the United States has hosted millions of international students from countries throughout the world. According to the Institute for International Education (IIE) the number continues to grow. A recent press release announcing the publication of the organization’s annual Open Doors report, published since 1919, notes the following:
“American colleges and universities have attracted a record number of international students for the 2009-10 academic year,” said Ann Stock, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs. “The State Department, through partnerships with U.S. colleges and universities, has made it a priority to reach out to talented international students, particularly students from disadvantaged backgrounds. A global education prepares them to become leaders in their own countries and societies.”
“The United States continues to host more international students than any other country in the world,” said Allan Goodman, President and CEO of the Institute of International Education. “Active engagement between U.S. and international students in American classrooms provides students with valuable skills that will enable them to collaborate across cultures and borders to address shared global challenges in the years ahead.”
The Middle East/North Africa is a particularly interesting region to consider in this light. Not only has the population of international students studying in the U.S. from these countries increased 15 percent in 2009-10 to 38,738, but students from the U.S. studying abroad in the Middle East and North Africa increased 12.6 percent in 2008-09 to 6,446.
In addition, the IIE indicates this organization:
“…delivers programs in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region that reach over 7,000 students, scholars and professionals. As a result of the Institute’s partnerships, thousands from the region gained access to the world’s leading higher education and training programs.”
Recent events in several Middle Eastern and North African countries are signaling a change. A younger, educated and more secular population is reflecting the emergence of a new global society. The “ideology” behind these movements is not necessarily well-defined, widespread or even consistent. Yet somehow there is a shared purpose rooted in a set of fundamental values about fairness, freedom and opportunity – echoes of past struggles on many shores. Aided by technology, these citizens of a virtual community are not contained by the boundaries of a nation-state, but are redefining the role of political power in the hands of the people.
Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who served as a catalyst for the uprising in Egypt, is an interesting example of this new kind of citizenship. He was born in Cairo, but raised in the United Arab Emirates. He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Cairo in computer engineering and an MBA at the American University in Cairo in 2007. His work with Google provided a platform for understanding new information technologies and the power of social networking. He is young, educated, globally aware and very motivated.
Nabil and Wael share something in common, though they are a generation apart. Their knowledge of the world was shaped through a shared experience with individuals and groups in different countries. To see the world through different lenses is to acknowledge that as global citizens we carry unique differences in history, culture, language and tradition from one country or region to the next. Sensitivity to this is the first step in establishing a common understanding. They also learned very early that despite these differences, deep inside we share many of the same underlying values – family and community, a common good, peaceful existence and a hopeful tomorrow.
Nabil is expressing this as a teacher and community developer over many years; Wael is seizing this moment of incredible change on a national, even international scale. They will never meet or actively collaborate in their respective roles, but they need each other. As the winds of societal change blow through the energy of a few like Wael, that region and the world will need Nabil and many more like him to build a civil society one community at a time. Their journeys become one in service of a great task that will take us one step closer to understanding what it means to live as global citizens.