Learn locally to think globally

Trisha Craig considers how universities can help foster in their students a lifelong commitment to community service

April 29, 2016
Businessman holding planet Earth in palm
Source: iStock

For university administrators tasked with international strategy, there is hardly a term more widely bandied about than “global citizenship”. If we examine the websites of myriad institutions or the formulations of leaders, it appears that one of the goals higher education has set for itself today is the creation of global citizens.

Such a task sounds sensible enough in an increasingly globalised world and implicitly references the historic mission of education to inculcate civic values in those who would go on to play important roles in their communities. Yet global citizenship is a more complicated and contested concept than citizenship, in part because there is no direct parallel in the international arena to the nation state that confers citizenship.

In higher education, there are multiple meanings of global citizenship. At perhaps the most general level, it suggests that being well educated in the 21st century requires an understanding of people and issues beyond the borders of one’s original home. Yet there is another, more transactional sense of global citizenship that is often evident in the international programmes of colleges and universities such as study abroad and overseas internships. In this view, to be a global citizen means to be competitive in international labour markets.

Preparing students for jobs is an important role for education and there is a wealth of evidence from companies everywhere that they are looking for employees who understand other national and regional contexts, are multilingual and can work in multicultural teams. A recent report by the European Commission on the Erasmus student educational mobility programme, for example, found that two-thirds of European employers use international experience as part of their hiring criteria, a sharp increase compared with even a decade ago. For students, and their parents, who worry about employability and global competition for jobs, such data is likely to be compelling as a rationale for getting international experience.

Yet the concept of citizenship, global or otherwise, would also seem to suggest something about the interconnectedness of people beyond market interactions. One approach to global citizenship retains the traditional mission of the university to produce civic-minded leaders but looks at the nature of issues facing modern polities that in many cases are global or transborder. The focus is on training students to examine the global linkages and connections that adhere in contemporary policy concerns such as health, environmentalism and trade flows.

Somewhat paradoxically, it may be that an emphasis on the local is the best way to promote this kind of global citizenship. An example from my own institution – Yale-NUS College, a new liberal arts undergraduate institution founded by Yale University and the National University of Singapore – illustrates how this is possible. The face of many countries is changing with the presence of migrant workers who now number 150 million globally. To look at this first-hand, we offered an experiential field project on migrant workers in Singapore that looked at the global flows of people, goods and remittances as well as living conditions in destination countries. This resulted in student-run community service activities with migrant workers, including the construction workers on our own new campus. As well as the local students, some international students are returning to their home countries for the summer to continue working on this theme. Having not just first-hand experience working with a particular population but also an understanding of another country’s policy, allows such students to broaden their own local or national conversations, informed by a global perspective.

As students make the transition from adolescence to adulthood, institutions of higher education are helping them develop the habits that they will carry with them out into the world. Being deeply engaged in the community where they live, even if it is not the one where they will eventually settle, can build a lifelong commitment to serving one’s community. Providing the opportunity for students to work on local concerns that are connected to global issues is one way that institutions can develop the next generation of leaders and citizens with a global perspective.

Trisha Craig is dean of international and professional experience at Yale-NUS College.

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