President Obama, as part of his swan song, recently traveled overseas, touting the benefits of international engagement and study abroad. In mid-November we also celebrated International Education Week, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State to advance global understanding. As a college educator for over 30 years, as well as someone who was a U.S. Fulbright Scholar (and now has a son in the Peace Corps), I believe the benefits of international education are incontrovertible.
But we learned something about our nation as a result of the presidential election that has caused me to reflect on whether the emphasis on international exchange has come at the expense of achieving important domestic understanding. Like a couple who spend little time with each other and instead seek individual pursuits, then wake up one morning realizing they no longer have much in common, Americans woke up the day after the election realizing that they no longer knew one another. We have become, in a broad context, a nation of strangers. We are now at a place where our failure to engage with one another has resulted in the most significant divide since the civil rights era or maybe even the Civil War. A recent CNN poll revealed that 85 percent of Americans feel we are more divided than ever.
That is not surprising to me. I spend much of my time visiting college campuses in rural red and urban blue America promoting international education. In particular, I focus on community colleges: institutions that frequently are windows into local communities. I often start my talks with, “I’m from Washington and am here to help you.” The laughter that follows has increasingly moved from being lighthearted to snickering. (I’ve decided to stop making the remark). For years, I have warned my inside-the-Beltway colleagues that we live and work in a bubble. And this distortion has given us a perspective that is alien -- like being from Mars -- to folks in many parts of the country.
Pundits are replete with answers addressing the reasons for the election results. Was it educational differences, with Clinton supporters having more education than Trump supporters? Was it economic differences: the Trump supporters having never recovered from the Great Recession? Or was it anxiety from middle-aged white voters rejecting the social liberalism of the West Coast, New England and especially Washington, D.C.? We will debate this for a long time, and I’m not sure that there is one answer: it is probably a convergence of conditions.
But I do have one idea of where we might go from here, or a way of helping our couple -- blue America and red America -- to get to know each other again. We should establish a national exchange program for American college students that takes them from their often comfortable environments and provides them with the opportunity to get to know people in other parts of the country and in different settings.
In international exchange, the emphasis is cultural. The objective of going abroad is not to learn from other exchange students (although this happens), but rather to learn about how people in local and culturally rich environments live: what their struggles, hopes and values are. Every international educator hopes their returning students have had transformational experiences in which they learn about the conditions other people live under -- and, in the process, develop empathy for others. As a result, they are better-informed global citizens, not afraid to travel, and most important, can engage in a meaningful way with those who are different than they are.
ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis recently suggested in The New York Times that if hipsters wanted to promote their progressive agendas, they should move to Iowa. But I’m not thinking here about political change as much as improving political understanding. Too often engagement and dialogue are viewed as an occasion to change another’s mind: it’s a chance to make arguments (at times logical, but more often emotional) to convert someone to your camp. Although some people would contend that is needed, we must promote shared understanding and not conversion right now for our nation to move forward.
By providing students with a chance to live in a different type of community-based setting in an unfamiliar part of the country, we can foster a better understanding of the aspirations and needs of others. The overall objective would be to provide students with the opportunity to experience life in a part of the America that is unfamiliar to them and might have been characterized disparagingly. Remember Ted Cruz’s comment about “New York values” during one of the presidential debates, or Hillary Clinton’s remark that half of Trump's supporters consist of a “basket of deplorables”?
I could imagine a student from the rural South spending a semester with an ethnic family in New York learning about cultural diversity and the challenges of immigrants. And I can imagine an urban West Coast student spending a semester living with a farm family in the Midwest learning about the importance of manual labor to support our economy and the values of small-town America.
The program could be set up similarly to how international exchange is run. For example, for more developed international programs, they often have a satellite campus abroad where students go to study, thereby replicating some of what the students have at home. The second model -- more relevant in this case -- is where students from a number of institutions go to a foreign university to study. Here, the home colleges and universities have entered into arrangements with the foreign host to accept students for the term, and often students stay with host families or other people in the country. For example, when my son did study abroad in Turkey, he didn’t live on campus with other exchange students; rather, he got a flat with other local Turkish students. That provided him with an experience that was more genuine.
For a domestic exchange program, I could imagine institutions in red rural and blue urban parts of America hosting and housing students. But a model that probably would provide the best cultural immersion would be having students live with host families.
Fortunately, this concept is not a new one. The idea of students participating in programs in other parts of America has been done. American University has long hosted students in its Washington Semester Program. But the objective is not cultural -- rather it is to learn about public affairs. A closer model could be the program between Brown University (an Ivy League, predominately white institution in Rhode Island) and Tougaloo College (a historically black institution in Mississippi) that has operated since 1964 and established to promote better understanding of race relations.
Could such a program be replicated nationally with the help of federal funding and grants from educational foundations? The various higher education associations -- for instance, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities or the American Association of Community Colleges -- already have members from all parts of the country and could facilitate exchanges and help with coordination.
A national collegiate exchange program would allow students to see another person who differs from them not as a foe or someone to fear, but as an individual whom they could build relationships with. By offering opportunities to connect Americans in a domestic residential setting, they can explore values, dreams and aspirations. That would promote commonality and identify shared experiences and make real our national motto: e pluribus unum, or from many one.
David J. Smith is a consultant based in Washington, D.C., who works with colleges and universities to promote international education and peace building. He is the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing).
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