Global citizenship, ignorance, and the power of travel

Sarah Stanlick, Lehigh University

In late-December/early January, I had the honor and pleasure of accompanying our Global Citizenship Program students on their winter trip to Peru.  Each year, 23 students who have been selected through a highly-competitive application process travel together to what could be considered a “non-traditional” study abroad location.  The trip to Peru, the scope of our Global Citizenship Program, and recent “Presidential comments,” lead me to the topic of this post – what counts as “traditional” and why must we encourage and enable more young people to have “non-traditional” experiences?

For many, when the topic of study abroad arises, the mind wanders to scenes of London, Prague, Madrid, and Rome. Data from the Institute for International Education’s annual Open Doors Survey indicates that Europe is still the destination location for 54 percent of US Study Abroad students, despite the continent comprising only twelve percent of the world’s population, and seven percent of the world’s land mass.  For our Global Citizenship Program, in addition to Peru, other cohorts have travelled to Cambodia, Malaysia, Ghana, and India.

We choose destinations where a colleague has significant expertise and relationships from which we can build upon and learn. The intent of the program is to be immersed in a complex cultural and civic excursion – meeting with “global citizens” abroad who come from many disciplines and orientations, and, of course, practicing fair trade learning ideals through investment in local economies and a “tread lightly and intentionally” mentality.   We also choose countries where we hope that our students will be able to examine their preconceived notions of socioeconomic, cultural, or political groupings and critically reflect on the concept of otherness.

During our time in Peru, we explored Cusco and Lima across contexts and critically reflected throughout on our roles as guests, visitors, tourists, and civic beings.  We experienced immersion and distance from American media.  Internet was not as reliable as we were used to, and while we were working in sometimes difficult or critical contexts, we also had a blissful digital vacation from the oftentimes demoralizing state of the news.  You might imagine my dismay when I was able to check the news and hear comments made about countries such as Haiti and Nigeria; disappointing comments rooted in ignorance.

This brings me back to my earlier comment about “traditional” study abroad destinations. What does it mean?  Is it a code for something else?

Reasons for choosing specific countries for travel, study abroad, volunteering, and/or internships are multifold.  Individual goals, personal indicators such as comfort level or language training, and cost drive many decisions.  At the same time, I am always interested in the reaction when I tell someone about the nations we have explored as a program.  It’s usually something along the lines of “interesting” or “that’s different”.  Or, equally disturbing, there can be reactions rooted in colonial assumptions of development that are often promoted by organizations’ messaging or promotional material.

Those reactions, much like the comments circulating in the news, are based in a fear or misunderstanding of the richness of our world.  They are built upon single narratives of places through others’ eyes.  In the higher education landscape,, while more institutions are committing to internationalization plans that emphasize study abroad, the percentage of students taking that opportunity by total enrollment is still very low.  Even so, where are the students going that they are having a truly disorienting, critical, or transformative experience?  They are simply not likely to be travelling to the countries that seem to dominate our fears, stereotypes, and condescension.

The rhetoric and insulting comments in our news were not lost on our guides.  As we were bustling along on our PeruRail trip through Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu, the conversation turned to politics and travel.  Vlad, longtime Cusco resident and one of our guides, mentioned that he had read a study that less than half of the US population holds a passport. He’s right, according to current numbers, we have about 41.6% of the population with a current passport, but that is not a clear indicator of how many people use that passport.  Vlad posited that part of the reason that the United States is experiencing this new wave of xenophobia and fear is because of that lack of travel or exposure internationally.

What is the answer?  Clearly, there is no magic solution.  But there is hope in the power of travel, whether for intense global service-learning, demanding international internships, or as a conscientious tourist. A wonderful TED Talk from the seemingly genteel and non-controversial PBS staple Rick Steves reminds us of the value of travel.  More radically, his book Travel as a Political Act, contends that we cannot understand our own nation if we do not see ourselves outside of our home country, and that travel creates a sense of interconnectedness and responsibility that we cannot cultivate within our borders. Working in higher education, we are able to ensure such experiences are embedded within curricular pathways or other forms of preparatory and post-experience reflection and learning, to increase the likelihood that such experiences actually reduce stereotypes and bring people together.

While in Peru, we had the opportunity to meet with individuals striving to make the nation better across contexts and disciplines.  We found a place that wrestled with the past and looked towards the future with hope.  For the students and myself, as well-educated and open-minded as we feel we are, were still surprised by the common threads that ran through Peruvian history, culture, and society that matched much of our own understanding and experience in the US.  Finally, we felt those feelings of otherness morph into interconnectedness that we had not felt with the country before traveling there.  Students commented on the similarities of lived experiences, comparisons between social issues impacting the US, and connected with our guest speakers and hosts on issues of identity and intersectionality.

There is power in travel, for the tourist, student, professional, and the host country.  There is also great responsibility involving many choice points that mean the difference between ethical, empowered travel and unknowing, often unintentional exploitation.  In upcoming blog posts, I will tackle intent and impact as it relates to cultural appropriation, a chance encounter with medical volunteers in Lima, and ethics in research abroad.

There is a lot here to unpack and consider.  What are your thoughts?  Feel free to comment below with our reactions, stories, or critical feedback.

This blog post starts a series of reflections on global citizenship and experiences abroad that are in part reflective of recent experiences through the Global Citizenship Program at Lehigh University.  The purpose is not to advertise the program, but rather talk about experiences that were made possible through the program and the context of the travel.

Sarah Stanlick is the founding director of Lehigh University’s Center for Community Engagement and a professor of practice in Sociology and Anthropology. She previously taught at Centenary University and was a researcher at Harvard’s Kennedy School, assisting the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. She has published in journals such as The Social Studies and the Journal of Global Citizenship and Equity Education.

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