The real value of study abroad isn’t that it can transform individual lives, it’s that study abroad can transform all of our lives.
Study abroad transforms lives by increasing awareness and empathy. Successful programs, like the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program, begin this transformation during the pre-departure orientations. YES students coming from 40 countries with significant Muslim populations to the United States for an exchange experience are well prepared. Their orientation topics have included: how to be a young ambassador, bullying, financial management, media relations, law enforcement, volunteerism, privacy, religious beliefs, and race relations. Each topic addressed builds awareness and empathy.
The 11th cohort of more than 800 YES students will arrive next month to a country engaged in recently intensified national dialogue on race relations. These remarks by President Obama on Trayvon Martin are extraordinary for their awareness and empathy, and relevant for YES students:
There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
We need more extraordinary young people from around the world in the day in, day out of our daily lives. We need more cross-cultural exchange programs, more meaningful international experiences from underserved communities of learners, and more awareness and empathy from our leaders and policy-makers. The investment in YES and other innovative study abroad programs is critical.