Reimagining Global Education in America

If you walked down the hall of your school and picked three students at random, asking each to identify the country of Venezuela on a world map, chances are that the exercise would end up like a late-night talk show sketch of embarrassing proportions (only without the camera recording and 3 million television viewers).

Being able to point out where Venezuela is located on a map is a good thing to know, but the knowledge itself is just a product of rote memory. Information about Venezuela—details about the actual country, culture, and language—is, more often than not, filtered directly into the “stuff I don’t really need to know” part of the cerebrum for the average American student.

The purpose of education is to empower students with the tools necessary to be able to think and learn about the world around them, giving them the ability to acquire knowledge about how to develop relationships with peers and the larger community, which today represents the global community.

In this new age of rapid technological improvement, money, ideas, and goods can be transported around the globe—sometimes in mere seconds! Our world is becoming increasingly interconnected as the physical boundaries that once divided different populations and cultures become less defined. Today, it’s not uncommon to wake up in a bed from the Swedish chain store IKEA (manufactured in China), after slumbering in faux-silk sheets (produced in Thailand) in a house built with cypress pine timber (harvested in Australia) to head out and purchase coffee (sourced from Honduras in a paper cup manufactured in Canada) before driving in a Nissan sedan (Japanese) to work, where one might need to jump in on a video conference with colleagues from around the world.

What this illustrates is that we are now well into a global age in which change and innovation drive our lives. Our educational programming ought to grow and innovate as well. Long gone are the days of insular isolation. Global competence is now a skill required—not optional—for tomorrow’s leaders.

The Benefits of Global Competence

Creating global citizens and leaders from today’s youth calls for innovative curricula that support new ways of teaching and learning. These curricula must also provide students with effective opportunities to develop the dispositions, knowledge, and capabilities to understand the world in which they live, to make sense of the ways globalization shapes their lives, and to be good stewards of the world’s resources.

Both anecdotal and empirical evidence support the claim that global citizenship and leadership training translate into important skills, such as learning to recognize and respect diversity, developing critical thinking skills for problem solving, demonstrating social responsibility, and increasing empathy for others and the environment. Students must also develop an understanding of global issues and the connections among the local, national, and international problems that we face as a society. They must learn to be peacemakers.

Take Ethan, a freshman student at a high school in Chico, CA, as an example. As the son of an Honors English school teacher and a secondary school principal, Ethan has benefited greatly from his participation in two different global service learning programs over the last three years. During one such program, he worked with Syrian refugees and rehabilitated homes for the elderly in Rhodes, Greece. “Even though I fell asleep on the dinner table each night from exhaustion, I will never forget how the experience changed me,” Ethan says. “I see how fortunate I am to be able to help other people. I love learning about different cultures and lifestyles. I now realize that people are the same everywhere, and our differences are outnumbered by our similarities.”

Eye-Opening Experiences

Two years later, Ethan went to Cuba with the same global service learning provider. He notes, “Every single day on each program, the generosity of the local people who had so little to offer was eye-opening,” he says. “The farmers, who made just enough money to support themselves and their families, gave us food from their farm, the casita owners who opened their homes for us to stay in overfilled our plates at each meal, the baseball players who played friendly games with us offered fresh pineapple to quench our thirst.”

Ethan walked away from his experience with a deep sense of empathy, as well as profound personal growth. Other students, such as Isabella from Dallas, found that in addition to the personal growth and leadership training that she developed because of her involvement in such programs, they also became a huge help when it came time to apply to college. Isabella leveraged her coursework and experience in Ghana and Cuba on her college application essays. “It showed that I am the type of person who is really committed to making a positive mark in the world,” Isabella says. “It showed that I was a well-rounded candidate.”

Isabella’s group (all from a Title 1 school in Texas) used nonprofit global service learning provider Bright Light Volunteers (BLV) to organize and implement the program. Before actually visiting the countries she had been studying, Isabella participated in an online dual-enrollment college course from Bethel University (BU) in McKenzie, TN, specifically designed to provide the information and context necessary to make the most of her service learning portion of the program that takes place in the field.

This partnership is one example of an innovative approach to global citizenship education. In this case, a nonprofit organization focused on fostering cross-cultural experiences and an established brick-and-mortar educational institution joined forces to create a platform on which high-quality, rigorous education—coupled with sustainable, international service—provides a groundbreaking global service learning and citizenship program. High school students enroll in a global service learning and citizenship course for college credit or a certificate of global citizenship prior to their service work abroad. This unique, multifaceted approach to global citizenship education results in the deep global competence required of tomorrow’s leaders.

During her senior year of high school, Isabella was awarded three hours of transferable college credit and a Certificate of Global Citizenship from Bethel University (educational partner to Bright Light Volunteers). Today, Isabella is a freshman at the Savannah College of Art and Design—her first choice of schools.

Gabby, originally from Dresden, TN, is also a product of the BU-BLV partnership. In fact, participation in the program changed the trajectory of Gabby’s life. After taking part in the online course as preparation, Gabby participated in a global service learning program in Cuba, which allowed her to begin to see the world through a new lens of possibilities. Since participating in the global leadership development program, Gabby reports that she feels “a deep sense of intercultural competency.” Gabby decided that she wanted to take a bigger part in “the movement to revolutionize the state of advocacy in the world.” She is currently studying law.

Bethel University Professor Stacie Freeman, who also serves as co-executive director of BLV, explains the experience. “The online college course part of the program is where the students are empowered to develop agency, empathy, and deep knowledge and skills to recognize the biggest global challenges and opportunities of our times and to advance sustainability, human rights, and peace.

Building a Global Community

Creating opportunities for your student population doesn’t need to be difficult. In fact, implementing initiatives that foster global leadership and citizenship by outsourcing the setup and implementation of such programs to a third-party provider is probably the safest, easiest route to go with limited liability for the educators or school campus involved.

At the end of the day, empowering students to become global leaders and fostering a deep sense of global citizenship, in addition to the customary academics, is a no-brainer. Students are the very embodiment of the hope we carry for the future. Let’s make sure they have the skills necessary to imbue the world with more peace, understanding, and collaboration.


Catherine Greenberg is founder and co-executive director of Bright Light Volunteers, based in Dallas.


Sidebar: Making It Work

Integrating Global Citizenship Training Into Your Curriculum

Use these tips to incorporate global citizen training into your school:

  • Encourage faculty and students to create time and space for global leadership and citizenship focus.
  • Advocate for the addition of a comprehensive global service learning program to your current educational offerings.
  • Choose a third-party provider that offers safe and innovative programming to supplement the knowledge gained in the classroom into hands-on learning in the field. There are many for-profit and nonprofit providers that may meet your needs.
  • Document your success stories and keep up with the participants/students. Your ability to demonstrate the importance of global education and the associated levels of scholastic achievement set you up for success in furthering your efforts to make all students global leaders.