By Dr. Carlise Womack-Wynne, Professor of Education at the University of North Georgia
Counting their students as global citizens is one of the ideals that institutions of higher education aspire to. Generally speaking, the terms indicates that a student has acquired a knowledge base which includes relevant knowledge of governmental relationships, global trends, and worldwide issues.
Yet this definition, laudable as it may be, has some limitations. With our focus on technical knowledge, we might be losing sight of the need to equip our students with the tools necessary to implement the knowledge they gain as a global citizen and apply it to their chosen field – much less the world and society at large. We are not always teaching our students to reflect on the body of knowledge they gain as a global citizen and apply that to the world and their place in it.
Empathy and social justice are concepts that should be deeply ingrained into students’ journeys to becoming global citizens. They are values that will serve them well throughout their lives.
By the same token, we need to do a better job of modeling what it means to engage in conversations that are based on civil discourse – even when two sides disagree. We must begin to develop students’ ability to engage in dialogue by actively participating and actively listening, so as to develop a generation of leaders who can both pose and implement responsive solutions to our world’s complex problems.
Fortunately, experiential learning and study abroad are both excellent training grounds for promoting empathy and dialogue. As practitioners of international education, it is our challenge to develop new forms of curriculum that will prepare students to navigate complex interactions during their time abroad.
What if we were able to expose students to a curriculum based on social justice, diversity, and inclusion principals, prior to them stepping foot outside the United States? What if we were able to encourage them to be introspective? What if we challenged students’ thinking in ways that allowed them to identify their own social identities to shorten the learning curve once they are abroad?
The University of North Georgia’s biannual, three-week student trip to Botswana and South Africa is a perfect example of how unexpected lessons can be woven into curricula and study abroad programming. On this trip, students travel throughout the region, visiting stunning national parks, and learning about the historical, sociocultural, and biological context influencing conservation of landscapes and biodiversity in southern Africa.
Prior to going abroad, students took a course focused on identifying their individual social identities, gaining a better understanding of who they were and what they believed about themselves and the world around them. Students also tackled major topics of diversity and inclusion from domestic and global perspectives, engaging in discussions and activities specifically designed to make them question their views and empathize with the perspectives of others.
It is important to note that the requirement was self-reflection, not conversion. To that end, the instructors were careful not to push students’ thinking towards a particular conclusion.
While abroad, students applied these lessons by examining poaching at Nkambeni Safari Camp in South Africa from the perspectives of locals. While poaching is illegal – and the population knows this – a massive amount of poaching still occurs within the boundaries of Kruger National Forest.
The general population around the park is living in poverty and relies on the abundance of impala that roam freely in the wild. Students were able to engage in dialogue with park rangers, guides, and naturalists on the trip to try to understand not only how the problem is occurring, but why. They learned that in July, during their trip abroad, it is high winter in that climate, meaning that it is difficult to grow food on family plots on which many locals sustain themselves and their families.
Land holdings are small and meager at best even when growing season is at its height, and poverty is a year-round situation. Students began to see the problem in a more nuanced light by examining poaching from the perspective of survival, rather than profit.
Sending students abroad who are self-aware and possess the ability to consider issues from multiple perspectives is critical to prepare them for exposure to unknown situations and to engage in complex dialogues. Preparing our future generation, our future leaders, diplomats, and scholars to use an elevated frame of reference as a launching point for understanding the world helps students become not just global citizens, but global stewards.
Dr. Carlise Wynne is a tenured Professor in the College of Education at the University of North Georgia. She has served in faculty and administrative roles for more than a decade. She received her Doctorate and Bachelors degrees in Education from Valdosta State University, and her Masters and Specialist degrees in Educational Administration from Albany State University.