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Studying Abroad Takes on New Urgency Following Terrorist Attacks

Studying Abroad Takes on New Urgency Following Terrorist Attacks
Most educators see a greater need for international, cultural exchanges

By Karen Jenkins

Educational exchanges take many forms. For a number of years they have been an important mechanism for enhancing the  image of the United States around the world as part of what is called “public diplomacy.” The U.S. Department of State has proclaimed the importance of international exchanges as essential to the diplomatic process.
At a recent congressional hearing, Ambassador Kenton Keith, on behalf of the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group, called for support of a national policy on international education and exchange.
Before the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, preparations were under way at hundreds of U.S. campuses to celebrate International Education Week, scheduled for Nov. 12-16. Just days before the attack, Education Secretary Dr. Roderick R. Paige acknowledged the importance of a global education.
“If we expect students to navigate international waters, we need to give them an international education that meets the highest standards,” said Paige.
The attacks caused educators who are involved with international programs and activities to pause and consider how to have an appropriate “celebration” amidst a national mood of sorrow, retaliatory military attacks, and tough talk in Congress aimed at restricting the flow of foreign students and scholars into the United States. As educators, our response to the terrorist attacks could call into question the validity of welcoming foreign students and scholars to study at colleges and universities across the nation and our ability to attract students to study and travel abroad.
Foreign students and scholars are estimated to have contributed more than $12 billion to the U.S. economy in the 1999-2000 academic year, comprising approximately 3.8 percent of the total enrollment in colleges and universities, according to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, which tracks the flow of students and scholars to and from the United States each year. During that same year, according to the Opens Doors report, approximately 130,000 students from U.S. colleges and universities studied abroad in countries as close as Mexico, Canada and the Dominican Republic, and as far away as South Africa, Japan and New Zealand.
Dr. Peter Gitau, executive assistant to the president at Manchester College in Indiana, says the foreign students at his school have been deeply affected by the terrorist attacks.
“They are listening closely to the discussions by members of Congress to enact legislation that would treat them with suspicion and restrict the entry of students into the U.S.,” says Gitau, who also oversees foreign student advising. “The political environment has changed and become hostile to international students.”
Gitau, who was a foreign student from Kenya, says some of the students he advises are from the areas most directly affected by the conflict, such as Pakistan.
“It is hard for them to accept that their host country, the U.S., for which they have great affection, is retaliating in a violent way against their home country or region,” Gitau says.
The events of Sept. 11 found an estimated 60,000 students from U.S. colleges and universities studying all over the world. Most had just arrived for a semester or a full year of study abroad. While more than 60 percent of students are in Western Europe, others are in India, Israel, Greece or Nepal, countries not far from Afghanistan. Nationwide, study abroad advisers were inundated with calls from thousands of parents and family members seeking assurance that their children were safe.
Dr. Paul M. Brown, associate professor of French and director of study abroad at Clark Atlanta University, decided not to cancel his scheduled trip to Ghana and the Ivory Coast following the attacks. Brown felt strongly that his actions were equally important to what he said to parents.
“I could not in good conscience tell parents their children were safe if my actions indicated that I was hesitant to travel,” Brown  says. “My hosts and colleagues where I visited overwhelmed me with their concern for the citizens of the U.S. and with hospitality to me. This is what I want my students to see and feel.”
Dr. Barbara Holmes, associate professor of ethics and African American Studies at Memphis Theological Seminary, also intends to continue taking her students to developing countries to enhance their academic experience. She says the attacks have increased her commitment to providing study abroad opportunities for her students. 
“If students are to understand the Golden Rule — love thy neighbor as thyself — they must be able to redefine the word ‘neighbor’ to include the global community,” Holmes says.
The need to celebrate international education in November takes on more importance in light of the terrorist attacks. Everyone associated with education, at all levels, should dedicate himself or herself to the promotion of language study and the integration of international, cross-cultural and comparative perspectives into the academic and social fabric of the schools and the communities each serves. The events of Sept. 11 demonstrated that the United States faces serious challenges. Our national ability to respond successfully is dependent on educating and training students to be globally competent, able to speak other languages and willing to cross international borders. 

— Karen Jenkins is president of Brethren Colleges Abroad.

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