By Marlene M. Johnson
The passage of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for FY 2010-2011 (HR 2410) in the U.S. House of Representatives is an important investment in America’s diplomatic capabilities. As Matt observed, “this legislation is necessary and long overdue” and sets the stage for “global persistent engagement rather than persistent conflict.”
Doubling the size of the Peace Corps, enhancing the State Department’s educational and cultural exchange programs, providing scholarships for students from around the world to study in the U.S., and hiring and training more Foreign Service officers are all important elements to bolster the effectiveness of U.S. public diplomacy, foreign policy, and national security efforts. NAFSA strongly supports the enactment of another piece of this important legislation – The Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act.
Currently, only about 1% of U.S. undergraduates study abroad each year, despite the fact that by majorities ranging from 77 percent to more than 90 percent, Americans believe it is important for their children to learn other languages, study abroad, attend a college where they can interact with international students, learn about other countries and cultures, and generally be prepared for a global age, according to a national survey commissioned by NAFSA. And, as 9/11 Commission co-chairs Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton wrote in a Christian Science Monitor op-ed endorsing the Simon legislation last year, polls have shown that “most students enter college wanting and expecting to study abroad. Yet few do.” The reason, they say, “is not only a lack of funding but institutional barriers and curriculum rigidities at colleges and universities.”
Named after the late senator from Illinois, who believed that a more internationally educated citizenry would “lift our vision and responsiveness to the rest of the world,” the Simon Act aims to send one million students abroad annually in ten years’ time. It will establish an innovative new structure that will provide financial support to students to study abroad, while at the same time requiring U.S. higher education institutions to address the on-campus factors that currently impede students’ ability to study abroad. This is what is truly visionary about this bill: it is the leveraging of institutional reform that will make it possible for this program to dramatically increase participation in study abroad – to make it an integral part of the 21st-century education of American college students. The Simon Act places special emphasis on ensuring that study abroad participation reflects the overall U.S. college demographic, and on increasing study abroad in destinations in the developing world.
Last year, the bill passed the House with unanimous support and enjoyed strong bipartisan support in the Senate, including that of then-senators President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, where it was one step short of passage when the legislative clock expired last fall. It has also been endorsed by more than forty higher education and international exchange organizations, and thousands of American citizens have written letters to Congress urging its passage.
President Obama understands the powerful potential of the world’s youth to make a difference. In Istanbul in April, he said: “I'm counting on young people to help shape a more peaceful and prosperous future,” and he said that as president, he wanted to “find new ways to connect young Americans to young people all around the world.” And last week in Cairo, he challenged young people worldwide to “re-imagine the world” in which they live. At both of these occasions and at other times as well, the president has been clear in recognizing the value of international educational exchanges as a tool of public diplomacy and a force for peaceful change in the world. The Simon bill is a visionary, unprecedented opportunity for our country to dramatically improve our capacity to engage the world. We applaud the House of Representatives for passing this bill, and we will be urging the U.S. Senate to take the next crucial step. We must make study abroad a national priority so that future generations of Americans are prepared with the international skills and knowledge they will need to effectively manage foreign policy challenges and to succeed in an interconnected world.
Marlene M. Johnson is executive director and chief executive officer of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, the world’s largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education. She is a former lieutenant governor of Minnesota.
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