Americans need more international experiences. And apparently, the government is starting to do something about it.
Last week, The United States Government invited the world’s most influential travel bloggers to The White House. No, the Obamas were not seeking advice on their next holiday vacation. At least, not while the camera was rolling. What they were seeking was a means by which to change the national consensus relating to meaningful international experiences for Americans, specifically in regards to America’s youth and studying abroad.
The White House Summit for Study Abroad and Global Citizenship, which lasted about four hours and takes as long to say, can be watched here. The Obamas, though kindly inviting the world’s top travel bloggers to their snow covered home, were not present at the summit. But there were plenty of high-ranking government personnel, travel aficionados, and otherwise impressive individuals present. Speakers and panel members included Obama’s Chief of Staff, the First Lady’s Chief of Staff, the Deputy National Security Advisor, the Assistant Secretary for Education and Cultural Affairs, the Director of Social Innovation, the Secretary of Commerce, the Editor-in-Chief of Yahoo Travel News, National Geographic writer Robert Reid, the CEO of I3 Media, and the President of George Mason University, among others.
Topics of discussion ranged from the prohibitive costs of study abroad to the need for Americans to speak more languages to the startlingly low numbers of Americans studying abroad each year. A number of staggering facts were dispersed, a number of initiatives were promoted, a number of economic as well as political imperatives were proclaimed, and a number of cultural norms were analyzed. But above all, The US government made it clear they realize both the necessity of international experiences and the fact that we are behind in this regard.
Beneath the layers of well-prepared speeches and gestures of good will, the summit revealed encouraging insight into the government’s awareness and priorities when it comes to the importance of meaningful travel. The government displayed their intentions to make international travelling experiences a more ubiquitous and accessible component of American culture, not because travel is a luxury worth having but because it is a necessity worth realizing. But why is studying abroad international travel so important?
If you don’t have four hours to watch the full summit itself, here are some key takeaways and reasons why the government is so keen to get Americans moving around the globe:
1. When it comes to studying abroad, Americans lag behind many other countries. That is not good for America’s future.
Basically, Americans are far less likely to study, work, live, volunteer, or even travel internationally than most other nations. This is not only a problem because the world is beautiful and fascinating, but also because a lack of cultural understanding and international experiences puts America at a disadvantage economically, politically, and socially. As Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes stated, “If we are to thrive in the globalized world… we need to get out of our comfort zone.”
2. Not only do Americans need to realize the value of international experiences and education abroad, Americans need to understand the value of travelling to remote and unusual destinations.
Among the varied statistics thrown around was that when Americans DO get abroad, the majority go to England, Spain, or Australia. Government speakers chuckled as they recalled that they too had chosen to study abroad in England or Spain. But each speaker maintained that Americans should get out of that cycle. It’s important to understand and explore all of the varied and dynamic cultures of our world. As the Assistant Secretary of Educational and Cultural Affairs said: “Americans need to learn about all the countries and cultures of the world. Not just a handful.”
Mr. Rhodes conveyed the importance of sending America’s youth to live, work, or study in all the regions of the world but specified Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America as particularly “dynamic” locations they’d like to see more Americans visit and live.
3. In addition to viewing oneself as an American (Or insert nationality here) citizen, it is important to view oneself as a global citizen. We Americans may share this country, but we humans share this planet.
Throughout the summit the words ‘global citizen’ were stated, emphasized, and echoed almost to the point of redundancy. Yet the phrase was not made redundant despite being overused because the concept of being a global citizen is an essential mindset in the 21st century. Many of our issues are the entire world’s issues. From Ebola to ISIS to climate change, we need to work together as global citizens to combat global woes. In order to achieve this we need to understand, interact, and value the varied cultures and people that make up our deeply interconnected planet. We need to work together. And it will be exceedingly difficult to work together if we first do not seek to experience, relate, and understand each other.
4. Americans need to learn more languages, and at a younger age.
I once met a friendly foreigner that shared a joke with me: “What do you call somebody that speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call somebody that speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call somebody that speaks one language? American.” The US government (indirectly) declared the imperative for this joke to stop being so hilariously — yet tragically — true. In particular, it was made clear that for a variety of reasons political, economic and otherwise, they want to encourage Americans to study less commonly spoken languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, and Russian.
5. It is not just for fun or adventure. It is essential.
This wasn’t a warm and fuzzy you should travel because beer in Belgium is delicious and you’ll have a blast in Rio summit. It was made extremely clear that engaging internationally and understanding the varied cultures of our world is a ‘strategic imperative’ for The United States. From prospering economically to combating global issues, studying and living and experiencing the planet’s myriad countries and cultures is an essential component in our ability to thrive in the 21st century.
6. They realize that in most cases, the desire to travel is there.
50% of college freshmen say they plan to study abroad during college and yet less than 10% do so. As was pointed out by many of the bloggers in the audience, and agreed upon by each speaker, a large part of the reason not as many go abroad as would like to is because of cost. Various speakers and attendees stated that international flights and programs are budget strain for many, and when added to the already exorbitant cost of higher ed, not practical for many Americans. Unfortunately, the government did not take after the Germans and offer free higher education to all during the summit. But they did admit higher education is expensive in The US, which is a positive admission. But despite this admission and the lack of any clear way around the costs other than a variety of scholarships, they argued that Americans should travel abroad despite daunting costs. One speaker argued that the cost of studying abroad is high, but the cost of not studying abroad is far higher.
7. Even though cost is an obstacle, the greatest obstacle is mindset.
Cost is certainly prohibitive but what is more prohibitive is the common view among Americans that travel is an expensive indulgence that although desired by many, is not essential or practical. The speakers argued that Americans should begin to see studying abroad as part of their degree, as part of their education, and as a pivotal part of their youth and development.
8. Bloggers are communications experts capable of shaping the minds of a country.
The necessity of convincing the American public that studying abroad is essential is why they invited all those travel bloggers over. The First Lady’s Chief of Staff told the attending bloggers and writers: “The number of people you reach is astonishing.” Bloggers have a unique edge in shaping the mindset and information that reaches nations and their youth. By inviting influential bloggers to the White House as opposed to university study-abroad staff, the US government showed it understands the pivotal role that new media plays in shaping the opinions and culture of the public. They called upon the bloggers present to “get the word out,” to “convince the moms,” and to work with them to create a society that values and realizes that meaningful international experience is essential.