Global Youth Summit: What students want in their schools, communities

They are curious about the world, and eager to explore. They want their schools to ramp up language instruction, promote global awareness, and open up more avenues to experience other cultures and engage with diverse people.

The high school students who participated in the Wisconsin Global Youth Summit offered a range of ideas for amplifying international perspectives within their schools and communities. While some suggestions would require more resources, many of the ideas could be accomplished through creative and concerted efforts, at little cost.

The 80 students, from nearly 20 high schools from around Wisconsin, gathered February 23, 2013 on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus for the inaugural summit, which was designed to allow them to talk with peers about internationalizing their lives and their schools.

In the summit’s final session, the students deliberated in small groups on this question: How can your school and community become more “global”?

Global Youth Summit from UW-Madison International Studies on Vimeo.

Offer more languages

All groups emphasized that they want more opportunities and choices for learning languages and discovering the cultures in which these languages are used.

They highlighted the disparities among their schools, that some offer instruction in as many as five languages, while others offer just one (Spanish). They see technology—online classes and connections—as a means to expand their access, particularly in smaller districts.

They recognize that language and culture are intertwined, and made clear their desire to learn about both. They say that languages and cultures should be showcased beyond the classrooms—for instance, through language clubs and cultural events. They also called for more interaction between language students and native speakers.

Language instruction, they emphasized, should begin much earlier—in elementary schools.

One group noted: “If we start training for sports at a young age, why not languages? Can you imagine if a high school quarterback had to start freshman year? It doesn’t make sense.”

Language classes shouldn’t be the only courses that present international perspectives, they added. They want global perspectives infused into other classes, from social studies, history and sciences to literature, art and music. And they want that to carry over into extra-curricular activities—for instance, through clubs that spotlight cultures, global connections, and, of course, languages.

Increase engagement

These young summiteers value opportunities to engage on a personal level with people from different countries and cultures.

Many come from schools that host international exchange students, often through AFS, Rotary and other programs.  They talked about ways to ensure that international students are integrated into the school community and can share their cultures with their host schools.

The summit participants want more (and affordable) options for American students to go abroad – especially short-term experiences, because many students don’t want to feel left out or left behind by being gone for a full year. Increasing scholarship support also would add to the appeal of becoming an exchange student.

The students cited a need within their schools to raise awareness about exchange programs, for both hosting and sending. For example, they said students who return from exchanges could share their experiences through articles in their school newspapers, photo displays in prominent locations, and talks to classes.

In addition to individual exchanges, the students encouraged more teacher-led group travel, from field trips to cultural events and attractions in the region to excursions abroad.

Connect through technology

They also recommended using more non-travel means to connect, taking advantage of such online tools as Skype and e-Pals.

“It’s so expensive to travel; technology is more convenient and efficient,” one group noted.

In addition, they see the potential for developing more international relationships through sister cities and partner schools. Closer to home, they says that more community residents and others who come from or have experiences in other countries should be invited into their schools to speak and engage with students.

International awareness and cultural diversity, both within their schools and in their communities, could be promoted by hosting a variety of special events. In addition to speakers, their ideas include holiday celebrations, dances, dinners, foreign films and international festivals that range from one-day event to a week-long festival.

Moving forward

In general, the students recognized the importance of fostering open minds, and promoting awareness and acceptance of different cultures, including those within our own communities.

One group noted: “Intolerance and ignorance of other cultures must be minimized. Get rid of patriotic egotism.”

The students acknowledged that they have role in spreading the enthusiasm about studying languages and becoming more internationally engaged.

Their ideas include sharing this message with their peers, especially younger ones; devoting at least some of their service work to supporting international causes, such as UNICEF or Rotary projects; and generating interest in other languages and cultures by volunteering to read stories in other languages at the local public library.

This engaged group of students made it clear that ideas for internationalizing schools and communities are plentiful. In fact, many schools and communities across Wisconsin have been putting at least some of these into practice. Still, the summiteers indicated that they want more.

The summit participants – students, teachers and others – were encouraged to carry their enthusiasm and the discussions of the day back into their schools and communities, perhaps even holding their own mini-summits. As these conversations move forward, ultimate success will depend on translating talk into organized and innovative efforts that will guide more students on the path to becoming global citizens.

— by Kerry G. Hill

(Kerry G. Hill, Director of Public Affairs for UW–Madison’s Division of International Studies, was one of the lead organizers of the Wisconsin Global Youth Summit. He also serves on the board of Global Wisconsin, Inc.)

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