I personally believe that we are our best selves when we feel that we belong to a community. Whether a close local community, a family community, or a global community, belonging somewhere connects our identity and our view of the world. As international educators, we have a responsibility to broaden a student’s sense of community, to expand the horizon of understanding, and enrich personal, academic, and even professional perspectives. The question we must ask ourselves is how best to achieve this goal and engage students in this community building at this time in our world history?
My own trajectory started in just this way. My family hosted exchange students when I was in high school, I studied abroad in college, I live abroad with my family, and I co-founded an organization that focuses on innovative ways to broaden and build community across cultures for US students. Each experience expanded my sense of community and who is part of it. Each expanded community provided me with the opportunity for new insights and personal growth. I cannot imagine my life without these unique experiences and the challenges that led to new worlds of understanding and to where I am today.
A critical underlying philosophy of community building is the concept of access. We can and should foster greater access to communities for all students. Some students will choose to study abroad, some will volunteer abroad, others will engage in a virtual internship, and still others may first experience a new community through virtual programming in their classes that introduces them to new worlds – a sea turtle hatching captured on video in Costa Rica, a virtual interview with a toy maker in India, a tour of famous monuments in Florence. It is our responsibility as international educators to foster and facilitate access to these broadening experiences both through physical and virtual mobility. Organizing education abroad programs is critical; working with faculty to incorporate virtual education abroad in the classroom is equally essential; utilizing these virtual opportunities in pre-departure orientations to help students maximize their time abroad deepens their chance for growth. For some students, the virtual engagement will inspire participation in a study abroad program. For other students, the virtual may be their single critical launching point for understanding our broader community. It is important that international educators not restrict themselves to a single road of access for students. “Tried and true” runs the risk that new innovations will go unnoticed, and some students will be left behind.
Campus internationalization involves engaging students and faculty in the mission of internationalization. This includes linkages with international students on campus to foster domestic engagement with the many international worlds on campus. Freshman orientation is an excellent platform for intentional engagement activities to build awareness about the world. Creating a global scholars program that allows students to explore different countries virtually gives greater access for all. Building these activities into an honors program with a resulting certificate or virtual badge helps bridge worlds. Incorporating virtual exploration and livestream interviews into the classroom with events and people from across the globe brings learning right to students’ doorstep.
Ultimately, the more venues we foster, the more we help students experience the journey of international education, build international competency, and hopefully move to a new place as active world citizens. Maybe some of these students will even choose to follow in our footsteps and become international educators. I know first hand the great impact these experiences had on my life, the doors they opened, and the opportunities that they provided. I encourage us to continue to identify new ways to expand the number of individuals who will have these experiences and help connect the world in a positive way. All we need to do is think more creatively, use the tools that we have available, and continue to explore, learn, and discover in order to promote diversity, understanding, and acceptance. That is our best community.