Christine Shiau, Director
I was fortunate that my parents, who immigrated to the United States from Taiwan, knew the importance of travel. Being exposed to diverse places made me more open-minded and curious about the world. But my family vacations didn’t lead to new international friendships or new skills. I would mostly take in sites, indulge in the food, and lounge around the hotel, all of which led to beautiful memories but didn’t have a life-changing impact on me the way that global education can. Without the opportunity to interact with people from a different culture for a longer time and in the absence of someone to spark my curiosity and provide learning opportunities, I found myself craving to go home.
We do not need to dream up ways to engage young people in the types of experiences I yearned for when I was younger – we already have an invaluable tool at our disposal: virtual exchange. Unlike my family vacations, virtual exchange engages young people in a shared project and cross-cultural dialogue – and it also gives participants, regardless of where they live, the opportunity to learn with and from one another. It is an education tool any school or institution can incorporate into their priorities and make part of their learning environment.
I didn’t have a virtual exchange experience but attending the most diverse college in Illinois sparked my desire to expand my limited view of the world and seek the opportunities waiting for me. In transitioning from my small rural farming town outside of Chicago to college, I formed friendships with new people from other races, religions, and upbringings based on mutual understanding and shared interests. This spark was by chance, but virtual exchange can do this for every young person around the world from an early age.
I wonder what it would have been like if virtual exchange was a part of my education experience. What would it have been like to get to know a young person in Egypt or Colombia from a young age while we developed new skills together? While doing so, would I have built friendships, understood my own beliefs and motivations better, and challenged my thinking, while also being a part of something bigger than just myself? How would I have carried this experience into impacting my community and, by extension, approaching the world without fear and with an openness to experiencing new things? I don’t want our future generations to be asking themselves these same questions. And they don’t have to because they can do all of these things through virtual exchange, which is accessible to young people around the world no matter their age, socioeconomic background, or ability. With this powerful learning tool, we can help anchor them in their convictions and self-confidence in who they are as individuals.
We need to help young people find their spark, broadening their horizons to show them an unexplored world is out there. Through virtual exchange, the Stevens Initiative ignites this spark, engaging young people in an opportunity to expand their global perspectives and gain critical skills necessary for success in the future.
As I watch the news, listen to podcasts, and consume social media, I am constantly reminded of our differences: cultural, religious, socioeconomic, and political. These differences weigh heavy in my mind and my heart. I work in a field that uses purposeful dialogue to teach others to understand and value diverse backgrounds and perspectives. At its core, virtual exchange sparks an appreciation of our differences and how our unique identities contribute to a broader global society. It helps young people understand that, while we are unique, there are more similarities between us than we are aware of day-to-day.
And so, during International Education Week, I ask you: how can we work together to ignite that spark for all young people?