As part of the 10 Ideas: A Defense Strategy for the Global Generation series, a call to make studying abroad more affordable as a way to improve America's image in the world.
The United States faces many obstacles in foreign policy, but major one is growing anti-American sentiment. Studies show that global opinion toward the United States has plummeted since 2002. But we can address this problem through soft power diplomatic approaches like international education. Global education has been a neglected component of U.S. foreign policy and should be a driving force in moving forward to build bridges with other countries, breaking down cultural barriers, acting as preventive national security, and better equiping the American youth to be the diplomats of the future.
American students are in desperate need of a more international education. Studies by National Geographic show that American students' geographical literacy is below average, and students have trouble locating nations like Iraq and Afghanistan. It also shows that 21 percent of young Americans believe it isn't important to be aware of the geographical aspect of current events; 38 percent believe that learning another language is unimportant. A NAFSA report shows that 73 percent of Americans believe that our lack of global education will diminish Americans' advantage in competing in the global economy. Yet many American students, like me, lack the financial accessibility to a study abroad program, and this prevents millions from gaining access to the opportunity to forge relations with civil society abroad and establish cultural sensitivity.
In order to understand the importance of global education, I asked fellow classmates about how study abroad programs affected them. Dairanys Virgil and Monica Siu are two undergraduates at the City College of New York majoring in international studies who studied abroad in the winter session of 2012. Dairanys is a senior who studied abroad in Morocco and Monica is a junior who studied abroad in China. Dairanys told me:
During my stay in Morocco, I developed a great amount of respect for Muslim culture. The Moroccans' way of living, such as their family structure, friendships, education, food, and behaviors derives from what the Koran has taught them. Also, I have a better understanding of the hijab. Before I saw it as a tool of women's subjugation, but today I understand that in their culture it empowers women.
Dairanys believes that academic institutions should play a stronger role in promoting cultural awareness through international education programs.
Monica Siu had a similar experience in her trip to China. She told me:
Since I was raised in a predominantly Peruvian household, I grew up with little knowledge of China and its culture. I wanted to learn about China first-hand. A history class can only do so much, but culture can be perceived and understood through physical observations. Were it not for the study abroad department, I would never have had the opportunity to travel to China.
In both stories, Monica and Dairanys had established misconceptions about the culture they were about to explore, but in both experiences, they became aware and educated as to why these cultural norms exist. They learned about life outside of the cultures they grew up with along with phrases in other languages. These experiences better equip them for representing America positively.
Study abroad programs can be a cost-effective and beneficial policy for the United States' image abroad. This soft power diplomacy of international education saves more money than hard power diplomacy through the military. The cost of increasing the amount of troops in Afghanistan for 2011 came to $30 billion for the entire fiscal year, or $1 million per soldier. Conversely, sources indicate that the average foreign exchange program costs $10,000 plus pocket expenses. If agencies such as the Department of State or the Department of Defense sponsored an exchange program as a means of foreign policy, it would cost an estimated $1 million to sponsor 100 students. It is 100 times more expensive to sponsor soldiers in war than sponsor students in international education. Congress has caught on to this idea. As of 2009, Congress had introduced the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Act, which is an initiative to encourage American students to study abroad and seeks to get one million students to study abroad within the next ten years.
Reports and statements from the U.S. Department of State also indicate that our government is looking to build connections beyond the state level and reach out to the grassroots level. The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review by the State Department outlines how the entire agency plans to improve the public and community diplomacy between the United States and societies abroad. This report indicates that it is important to build bridges with civil society in order to prevent terrorism, expand people-to-people relations, and better inform policymaking. Hillary Clinton launched a Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society in order to empower civil society abroad and forge relations between other countries, the United States, and the various institutional players in the world in order to help fight anti-Americanism abroad.
It is crucial for federal government agencies like the State Department and Defense Department to recognize international education as not just an initiative, but foreign policy. Opportunities to study abroad empowered the cultural awareness of Dairanys and Monica and helped them forge relations abroad. We should look to empower more Americans. The United States will gain back the positive world image it once had by sponsoring international education.
Tahsin Chowdhury is in his junior year as an undergraduate in City College majoring in International Studies. He serves as the Policy Director for Defense and Diplomacy in the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's City College Chapter.