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Sending students overseas is ticket to a better image

Published March 31, 2007


A recent BBC World Service poll conducted in 25 countries indicates only 29 percent of the 26,000 people polled feel the United States has a mainly positive influence in the world. Wars, immigration battles and other difficult issues have undoubtedly contributed to an unfair negative view about our country, but I'm convinced that repairing our image can be at least partially accomplished at an individual level. As Americans, we believe we are a caring and compassionate country, but we must do a better job of communicating to the rest of the world the true character of our people.

One important way to change public opinion is to send our best and brightest overseas. We need to show other countries the hearts and souls of Americans. We need to show them that Americans care about people outside our borders. This cannot happen if we all stay home.

Last year, only 20 percent of Americans had a passport. Among students, the percentage is even lower. According to a Roper/National Geographic poll, 38 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 consider speaking another language to be "not too important." Sixty-three percent of those young Americans cannot find Iraq on a map of the Middle East. A survey cited by the Modern Language Association found that only 9 percent of American college students enroll in a foreign language class. That's shameful, especially when you consider that most students in other countries are required to learn English.

Many of the students, faculty and administrators at our country's colleges and universities do not understand the importance of studying abroad. In China, India and other rapidly developing countries that are competing with us for global market share, they get it. Some 600,000 citizens of those countries studied here last year, while only 8,200 Americans studied in China and India. The message: Americans are isolated and arrogant. The reality is quite different, of course, but perception is powerful.

As chair of the J. William Fulbright Scholarship program, I have seen firsthand the difference our scholars and students make in their work abroad. A scholar from Oregon taught young Chinese college students about the importance of democracy; another young scholar set up an art exhibit of the work of poor, self-taught Brazilian artists; and students working in Korea "adopted" a homeless center for children. The long-term impact of this type of foreign service is immeasurable. The people who were affected saw a different side of America, just as they did when former Presidents Bush and Clinton together played such a major role after the 2004 tsunami.

That's why I believe our nation ought to set a goal of at least doubling the number of students it sends abroad by the end of the decade. But that's just a start. I challenge U.S. News and World Report college rankings to include in its assessment the proportion of students who study abroad. And every student should be required to take a foreign language.

One positive note is that this administration is taking dramatic steps to increase foreign exchanges. But so much more needs to happen to give our students a more comprehensive view of the world. Likewise, sharing our best and brightest with other countries will greatly improve the image that America conveys to the world. The negative picture of America as a monolithic, isolated power will be replaced by the personal relationships and positive experiences.

As Sen. J. William Fulbright stated some 50 years ago, "International educational exchange is the most significant current project designed to continue the process of humanizing mankind to the point that we can learn to live in peace."

Sending more citizen ambassadors from our higher education system around the world is one of our best investments in making the world a less dangerous place.

Steve Uhlfelder is chair of the J. William Fulbright Scholarship Board and former chair of the Florida Board of Regents.

[Last modified March 30, 2007, 20:17:08]

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