To Be a Global Citizen, Turn Inward

This post was originally published on the Huffington Post Blog. You can find that version here.

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As a higher education professional, I recognize that the term “global citizenship” has become a buzzword. We use it to advertise study abroad programs, accentuate courses of study, and develop leadership competencies. On Northeastern University’s campus, I direct the Global Citizenship Project. And I am frustrated.

At my university as well as several others around the country, we offer several programs that “train and develops global citizens.” Though every initiative defines global citizenship uniquely, many of the concepts that sustain these projects center around global awareness, practicing empathy toward different cultural norms and participating in service or civic engagement, often abroad. These are all excellent competencies. Unfortunately, the execution of teaching these competencies does not allow students to deeply understand their own particular values, thus prohibits them from knowing what they might contribute to the global community.

 

We are lucky at Northeastern to develop relationships with many international students who seek community. Many of the students are especially interested in faith, culture, and social justice. I remember sitting in a classroom one January evening in which our Center hosted a Global Citizenship Project dialogue centered on “immigration and belonging.” Around 35 students, both domestic and international, gathered on the floor to share a meal and tell their stories. In my small dialogue group, each person took a turn reflecting on their experience with immigration and belonging. I babbled happily about moving to Tokyo as a teenager and studying trigonometry in another language. When it came time for one South Asian student to share, he sighed, and stated: “I feel as though sharing my story doesn’t have any meaning. It doesn’t seem different than the other Indians’. I think maybe these concepts of dialogue and promoting an individual story is really just American.”

 

I suddenly realized that my definition of global citizenship posed a hypocrisy. As an American-born staff person, I do believe that deepening my knowledge of different cultural practices and learning to respect foreign cultural values is important. My culture and thus the worldview I hold tells me this is important mainly for my own self-awareness, focused less on the collectivist narrative. Thus if I equate these competencies with global citizenship, I am placing an American-centric lens on a term meant to reach beyond national borders. The term “global citizenship” needs to be re-examined, recognizing how narrow a lens it carries.

 

We in the United States are in the midst of a socio-revolution that seeks to bridge the increasing inequality gap and decrease violence on the already underserved. I see students and staff alike participating and struggling to address difficult questions around racial, gender, and socio-economic justice. My campus community, as well as many others, direly needs to explore competencies like cultural awareness, asset mapping, and civic engagement of our own deeply diverse America, and moreover our immediate communities. Thus I propose that we, the administrators of higher education institutions, need to encourage our students to turn inward. Forget transcending national borders. Our own campus is a world unto itself.

 

So what can a global citizen look like? As a higher education professional, I understand that students are complex. Individuals develop with many intersecting identities. The students I serve no longer accept a safe livelihood as the soul motivation to enter a particular field. They hope higher education will offer them a challenging space to explore their passions and how they might affect change. Student activists already tackle complex problems across boundaries. Many times, the work they do together more authentically addresses the national cultural revolution than high level administrative conversations around diversity and inclusion. Students as individuals already hold tremendous value. I mean this in a resource sense. Global citizenship, then, should be about cultivating and lifting up the many resources on our campuses so that the exchange of ideas is available through the practice of asking the right questions.

 

At Northeastern, students collaborate on a number of local and global social issues. This past year, the Northeastern University Interfaith Council decided to hold a student leadership conference around Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee’s visit to campus. They called this the NEISS: the New England Interfaith Student Summit. The student planning committee was faced with a great challenge from the start: How could a small group of students make such a large impact? As the team members reflected and recognized their own individual skills, from website development to cold-calling to leading meetings, each student realized their own resourcefulness. At the same time, each individual remained committed to their vision of bringing interfaith leaders around New England together for best practices sharing and deepening religious and cultural literacy. The NEISS took place amidst heightened Islamophobia, violence, and extremist attacks across the world. I saw the feelings of helplessness and despair many of these students previously felt transform into a strong commitment to continue their work together, to offer their resources.

 

Focusing inward, finding assets among individual community members has helped other institutions see their constituents as resources, not numbers. Christian institutions historically spent billions of dollars sending missionaries to different countries around the world. This practice proved ineffective and moreover harmful to other cultures and communities because the missionary process did not leave room for self-exploration or ways to find shared values. Now, however, many Catholic, protestant, orthodox, and non-denominational communities are turning inward to better serve their own community, recognizing the diversity within. How will they welcome refugees? How might they explicitly include members of the LGBTQ community, with such a wrought pain-ridden history? In an individual-centric culture, challenging every person to recognize our own particular value helps us to understand our purpose and obligation to the world.

Cultivating global citizens means we need to be frank about the inequality, privilege, and oppression built into our campuses and yet to believe we can still hold community. Let’s stop inundating students with thousands of skills and start showing them how they are valuable to us and each other.

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