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Nation Must Produce More Globally Competent Students to Remain World Leader

By Anthony L. Pinder ‘85
Executive Director, Andrew Young Center for International Affairs

On Sept. 11, 2001, our country’s ignorance of the world became a national liability. Not only did nearly 3,000 individuals die on that tragic day, but our nation’s arrogance that we could persist in our ignorance of the rest of the world also came to a screeching end.

The American public’s parochial attitude (or overtly domestic concerns) has limited, on some levels, U.S. foreign policy leaders’ facility to address issues necessary to the defense and promotion of national interests.

One way to address this challenge is to ensure that U.S. college graduates have some minimal degree of global competence and cultural sensitivity. Those who have spent time studying and learning abroad and who have developed an interest in a foreign region will become the next generation of foreign-policy leaders prepared to understand future global trends.

More importantly, our nation pursues global interests and faces global threats, so we need to cultivate global understanding. To achieve this, a massive amount of U.S. students must begin to study broadly throughout the world. It is critical that Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) begin to re-imagine their institutional missions to include strategies to promote study abroad so that they remain viable and relevant academic choices for African American students seeking competitive learning environments.

I suspect that many U.S. citizens would agree that if the world is to be a secure place for the United States, where Western values prosper and people throughout the world have the opportunity to live in democratic societies, the United States must continue to play a leadership role. Further, I suspect that many cultures throughout the world might also agree that U.S. leadership—when exercised wisely, inclusively and sensitively—can be a good thing.

This last speculation, however, is not without its challenges. If U.S. leadership is crucial to the world, then the U.S. must understand the world. Most Americans have never been abroad except to cross the border or on a guided tour.

According to the U.S. Department of State, only 25 percent of U.S. citizens hold passports. Most Americans, except for the growing number of immigrants whose first language is not English, do not speak another language. Sadly, the United States leads by necessity and default, but on many levels is ill-equipped to exercise its leadership responsibility.

Not only is this reality compelling, it is extremely dangerous. It threatens our interests and the ability of our values to prosper. In order for U.S. students to graduate from college with a basic understanding of other countries and languages, the nation must work towards making study abroad the norm, rather than the exception. Failing this, we will continue to be a nation deaf to the world it struggles to lead.

Of course, the case for study abroad was prevalent before Sept. 11, as our students have been slowly graduating into a global world with an increasingly interconnected economy affected by international forces. Corporations have recognized that their business must be handled by people with global skills. Students who prosper in this world will be those with skills or the foundations to build on their budding global competence.

I could easily add the array of personal and educational growth benefits to students who study abroad. I see these benefits immediately in students who return from semesters and academic years abroad. But it is the national security, foreign policy and U.S. leadership benefits that lift study abroad from an educational to a public policy concern.

If HBCUs are to produce graduates who are prepared to meet the growing national need for professionals with global competencies, study abroad must become a critical component of their academic enterprise. It is imperative that HBCUs have a coherent, comprehensive strategy for using international education for the purpose of producing African American graduates poised to be either informed constituents of foreign policy or future foreign policy leaders.

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