The Journeys of Global Citizens

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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.

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9 responses to “The Journeys of Global Citizens”

  1. Betti Abbas says:

    You should definitely contact Nabil and let him know of the impact he had on you. For surely, he has thought often of the impact you had on him. This is the great part of international experiences – both sides learn and are changed. Thanks for your blogs — CUI is in good hands!

  2. Jennifer Giezendanner-Gates says:

    The potential of respectful dialog to change the world is often underestimated. Thank you for opening it up amongst the Central College community in this way!

  3. Retired faculty member says:

    I can fully appreciate and authenticate the truth and wisdom of Mark’s insight regarding the importance of one’s international friendships, and a deeper understanding of other people and their cultures. My experience is that some of my colleagues in both China and in Yucatan are essentially “part of my family.” We share concerns for our respective countries and their needs, the issues which all of us must deal with, and I remain amazed at the important roles many of these friends play in their own countries, institutions and families.
    Central is uniqely positioned to continue and expand its influence on people and cultures involved in our International Studies Programs. One must experience these exchanges to appreciate their potential for significant achievements.

  4. Fred Hopke (1980) says:

    I’m lucky, I live in Middlesex County New Jersey one of the most culturally diverse places on earth. Being exposed to a variety of cultures is one of the foundations of education. Central being located amongst a homogeneous population has to recognize that and guard against that potential cultural isolation. I am glad that Dr. Putnam values the benefits of multi-culturalism, and will steer Central accordingly.

  5. karen regal says:

    The best thing that ever happened to me was the chance at Central’s study abroad program in London. It changed my life, and I look at the world, and the US, so much more differently now that I have had that experience. Now, that I teach young adults who have been brought up to think that college is often out of their reach, and who also don’t often concieve of world travel either, I am blessed to share the excitement of that possbility. Also, now that my college recruits students (36% this academic year) from all over the world, our colleges “home base” students are getting the chance to make world friends. There could be no better opportunity to opening eyes, minds, and systems by this moment in friendship. This opportunity to the kinder gentler way to change lives–and far more lasting.

  6. Ross Vermeer says:

    This post is a nicely-written – and sweetly optimistic – expression of faith in the belief that western values can be exported to people and nations who have little experience of them, and perhaps little or no desire to adopt and live them. This faith has been promoted by 20th-century American leaders from Woodrow Wilson to JFK to George W Bush.

    I wish I could be equally sanguine about the events you describe. I’ve lived in a foreign country for 20 years. China, my home now, has seen a lot of changes – many for the better – in those two decades. But I really wonder if there’s any substantive set of ‘global citizens’ emerging here, or in the Middle East, or anywhere, for that matter. Yes, there are more people who now can afford exotic foods and consumer goods, plus overseas travel, education and entertainment, but to what degree have their ‘fundamental values’ converged with ours?

    Some of the biggest Muslim nations – e.g. Egypt, Iran, and Turkey – were all more secular and ‘westernized’ 50 years ago than they are today. A takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood looms in Egypt; who knows what its fate will be? In recent days several European leaders (i.e. David Cameron in the UK, Nicolas Sarkozy in France, and Angela Merkel in Germany) have sharply disavowed their countries’ pursuit of multiculturalism, because it’s simply not working.

    Obviously, I value overseas experience – it’s become my life, and Central helped me get started on that path. But in stark contrast to an earlier commenter, many years of living overseas have taught me that the ‘potential of respectful dialog to change the world’ is grossly overestimated, because we wish so desperately that it were so.

    Central students preparing to study overseas should to be taught to think critically, as well as being told about the potential benefits of cross-cultural experience. And by this I mean genuine critical thinking – not the easy, politically-correct option of criticizing one’s own culture while naively celebrating others’, but instead seeking out the truth about all cultures, both their glories and their shames, as uncomfortable as that may be.

    • Retired faculty member says:

      I understand what Ross is saying, and one has to wonder if there’s actually an emerging set of global citizens as a result of intercultural activities. My guess is that it depends largely on the individuals with whom one works in another culture. My experience has been in higher education, and my empression is that there is some definite positive impact for both my colleagues there, and for myself as well. It may well be that we overestimate the potential, but I’d think that even the small progress made is better than lack of cfross-cultural experience.

  7. Joel Maidens says:

    Central equips its students in such a profound way to become global citizens. Not only through its world-class study abroad program, but also in each classroom and on campus. With the new sustainability core requirement, each academic field will be infused with the message that many of our decisions and actions, though seemingly minute and insignificant, actually have a global impact. This also bestows upon students the desire and ambition to witness and experience the world outside of Pella and the United States.

    As a result of an increasingly ‘flat’ world, information, goods and services, have become more accessible than ever. This also means that people, now more than ever, have the opportunity to break down traditional barriers of communication and interaction and engage in citizen to citizen diplomacy. With the Wikileaks controversy, diplomatic operations have been exposed but one thing has remained untarnished: the ability of individual citizens to shape foreign affairs through individual relationships. Politicians make a government; people make a country. Let’s not forgot the impact that Americans can have on the world simply by traveling abroad and developing relationships. Central provides students with the opportunity to make that impact.

    As a recent graduate (2010) I have taken the global lessons learned at Central and am now applying them to my two years of graduate study in Chinese studies. I studied abroad on Central’s program and was anxious to continue the study of China after Central.

    Central’s emphasis on creating globally competent citizens is such a fixture that sets it apart from other institutions of higher education. This emphasis has positively affected me and so many other people. Bravo and please continue this wonderful legacy!

  8. karen l. regal-johnson says:

    The smartest thing I ever did, besides attending Central, is participate in the London Study Abroad program. It changed my life–literally awakening me to the life of the “other.” I was given a perspective of America and its perceived dominance, not easily found from the inside. I was given a view of the interconnectedness of the Europeans not easily obtained through the lense of that American dominance.

    That said, I now share my experience and views with students who often do not believe that college is open to them or that foriegn tavel is anything but a pipe-dream.

    In addition, I also have the blessing to meet and educate students from foriegn countries, 36 as of this fall, who are seeking the opportunities that our college systems offer them. Now, I am not the only mouth piece for the larger world. These students bring their comments and experiences into the classroom and share with all of us. They have risked far more to come here to educate themselves, and see us differenly, in way that my home grown students benefit from. We are a richer classroom and community college because of these relationships.

    I see now that our interconnected attempts and our exchange of messages may have a far greater impact with those around us who are seeking to obtain and change better lives. If there is any message we can help in the exchange of ideas and opportunties, may other countries benefit from it. We can only be a stronger place in the universe becasue of it.