I had lunch the other day with a young man who had just returned from an academic semester in Europe. Making conversation, I asked, “did you learn anything?” I wasn’t at all surprised when he compared his first extended international experience to being on a par with taking a drink from a fire hose. Sensory overload.
And his comments weren’t just confined to "book larnin’." Certainly the course work was useful and necessary, but much of the learning, maybe most of it, took place outside of the classroom.
There were, of course, the usual visits to archaeological sites and museums, plus the mandatory late nights at bistros savoring the local scene. And, then, there was the joy of learning another language. It’s one thing to memorize how to say, “I love you” or “two beers, please” in a foreign language, but it’s a major leap to realize that people are actually communicating when they spew out a series of what used to be incomprehensible sounds. What delight my young friend took in joining conversations that quite fluidly slipped back and forth between English and Spanish.
Is it too much to say that the major takeaway from a chance to live in another part of the world is an enhanced self-awareness – a greater understanding of the world and one’s place in it? I don’t think so. I’ve been told by many people that such an experience changed their lives. This change may be hard to quantify, however, and can vary from person to person and situation to situation. It might mean a completely new career path or a new political outlook or a recommitment to long-held personal beliefs. The only constant is change, it would seem, and, if my lunch companion is any judge, such change is to be treasured.
Not all of us are fortunate enough to have the time, resources, or jobs to permit us the opportunity to spend longer than a vacation outside our own country. So, how do we get some of the benefits of a prolonged stay overseas without leaving home? Cue the large number of international nonprofits in Kansas City – organizations like the International Relations Council », the United Nations Association », GlobalTies KC », Sister Cities of Kansas City », the Ethnic Enrichment Commission », People to People (both the local chapter » and the world HQ »), and many others.
Each of these organization has a unique approach to the mission of promoting awareness and understanding of the greater world. Hosting a visiting delegation of labor leaders or librarians or entertaining an exchange student from Mongolia may not be your cup of tea. Perhaps having an in-depth discussion on foreign policy or meeting international politicians or business people might be more to your liking. How about watching dancers from Indonesia or enjoying the creative work of young artists from Taiwan and Botswana? Receiving international military officers in our homes or attending a discussion group may not be life-changing events for most of us, but, taken as a piece of the greater whole, such activities are important. By enhancing our knowledge and participating as “citizen diplomats,” we can get the satisfaction of being a part of the solution, rather than a part of the problem of a national lack of awareness of our world.
An educator of a century ago wrote that one measure of a well-educated citizen was to be “at home in all lands…and to carry the keys to the world’s library in one’s pocket." There are diverse paths to becoming well-educated, and there is certainly no age requirement. So, even without a junior year abroad, isn’t it nice to have local opportunities to be a life-long learner constantly en route to feeling “at home in all lands”?
Mike Wood is a board member, volunteer, and long-time member of the IRC.