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International Educational Exchange: The Best Defense

International Educational Exchange: The Best Defense
By Evelyn Hamilton

We are living in perilous times. They are times of instability, intolerance and uncertainty. Each day, we are bombarded with images and ideologies that force us to admit our vulnerability as global citizens. The wall that seemed to protect the United States from the ills that plagued other countries was torn down on Sept. 11, 2001.

Hoping to reclaim that false, yet reassuring sense of security, we rely on the U.S. government by way of the military to protect us. Our government seems to believe that as more troops are deployed, the public will feel increasingly safe. In actuality, this dependency on weapons and war produces the opposite effect.

Unfortunately, one of the most powerful weapons in our arsenal — international education — plays a poor second to weapons of mass destruction. International education — particularly international educational exchange — targets and combats a much more covert enemy than terrorists — it battles ignorance. It is this foe that permits someone to believe that one group of people or one country is better than another based on simple economics or ideology. It is this ignorance that allows a polarization of good vs. evil when classifying specific cultures or ethnic groups. It is this ignorance that breeds the arrogance that skews people’s view of the beauty of diversity and difference.

International educational exchange is one of the main antidotes to ignorance. By allowing the exchange of people from all corners of the globe, international education consistently erodes prejudices and misunderstandings. Not only does it provide the opportunity to better understand a culture, it allows a person to view him or herself and his or her culture from a more objective perspective.

While studying abroad in England during my junior year of college, I not only discovered the intriguing aspects of English culture, I also began to question and explore my own. In order to seriously conduct some self-analysis regarding my role as a U.S. citizen and a citizen of the world, it was vital that I step outside of my familiar surroundings. International education does that for a person. It forces you to question what you thought you knew.

According to the Institute of International Education’s annual Open Doors study, 582,996 international students studied in the United States and 154,168 U.S. students studied abroad during 2001-02. Within a span of 365 days, more than 700,000 people interacted with and began to appreciate a culture foreign to their own. In one year, international study planted a seed within future world leaders. During that academic year, ignorance was replaced with admiration for different ideas, lifestyles and cultures. Such growth must be supported, nurtured and expanded. Although the results may take longer to crystallize than the celerity of military action, it will ultimately create a safer and much more stable world.

It is true that the United States is currently at war, but not in the way most people think. We are at war with the prejudice and intolerance that exists in the world. We should fight for international education to be the weapon of choice. In fiscal year 2002, the U.S. government spent $378 billion on defense, while allotting only $247 million for international education exchanges (including such programs as Fulbright, Humphrey, International Visitors etc.).

While U.S. leaders say international educational exchange is valued because of its integral role in diplomacy, this is not reflected in the federal budget. Secretary of State Colin Powell has publicly noted that, “People-to-people diplomacy, created through international education and exchanges, is critical to our national interests.”

It’s time that the U.S. government supported such rhetoric by allocating more resources for international education and exchanges. Doing so is critical to the safety of the United States and that of the world. We are living in perilous times. More than ever, we must plant seeds of tolerance, understanding and peace.

— Evelyn Hamilton, a graduate of Dillard University, is a program assistant at Brethren Colleges Abroad in Elizabethtown, Penn. She works on exchange programs in Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Wales, England, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia.

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