On New Year’s Day in 2020, I was in Shanghai with my family. We watched the ball drop in New York City on TV at lunch time and then ventured out for a walk stopping at a local market to sample different street food. Shortly after, we flew home to the United States and learned about the virus spreading within China. Thinking about how I had recently watched my kids playing on an indoor playground inside the massive Shanghai airport with other kids from all over the world, I had a sinking-feeling that the virus would not be contained within China for long.
Like many working in the field of global education, my life, my family, and my work have been transnational — beyond the boundaries of any one particular nation — for as long as I can remember. With this identity often comes a deep understanding of how peoples, communities, and environments are interconnected across borders of all types. This understanding has shaped how I see the world and my role in it and has greatly influenced my work as an educator. But for many years, learning more about and engaging with the world beyond our national border felt to many in education as an add-on, an extra, or only for those students with a specific interest in world languages or international business. Perhaps the COVID-19 global pandemic has begun to change that by showing us all how interconnected we are to each other, how our individual actions can significantly impact those in our communities and beyond, and how communicating and collaborating globally is essential.
In the early months of the pandemic, my professional work focused on assisting schools with efforts to better support their international students from East Asia, to address numerous on-campus incidents manifesting from anti-Asian bias and racism, and to pivot programs and exchanges with partners in China. My children and I also faced questions and comments from neighbors and classmates about our recent time in China — a parent at my son’s preschool stopped me in the hallway to ask me why we had even gone to China in the first place. Her look of barely-veiled disgust only intensified after I told her we went to Japan to visit family and to China for work and to show our kids where we had lived in Beijing ten years earlier.
Stories of anti-Asian bias began to subside from the news media (despite the persistence of incidents) as the pandemic became more visibly global and the epi-center shifted to Europe, but the inability of so many of our students, teachers, and neighbors to feel any connection to or empathy with their peers in or from East Asia stayed with me. I felt deflated and pessimistic about our ability to use this crisis to build a stronger understanding of our interdependence, despite what I saw as the obvious evidence for it in almost every news story from case number tracking data sharing to the local impact of global supply-chains to international collaborations between scientists.
Over the summer, however, I found hope where many of us in education know to look — in our students. As my team and I quickly built-up our capacity in model practices for virtual exchange last spring, we were able to partner with a number of independent and public schools this summer working with students from all over the US on virtual collaborations with their peers from Morocco, China, India, and Peru. The programs ranged in focus but all centered on the global competency of intercultural communication through dialogue. It was uplifting to see the students think together about how to bring more equitable access to educational opportunities and how to spur on-campus climate action in their communities.
The students’ willingness to engage in real listening and open dialogue that gave me hope, despite coming from different cultures, backgrounds, and locations — from rural Georgia to Boston, from the deserts outside of Marrakech to the city of New Delhi. They asked direct questions of each other on topics such as the protests in Hong Kong and the Black Lives Matter movement, without the veils of judgment or assumptions that often plague adults or even classroom-based student discussions. As they explained the injustices within their own community, they were also able to reflect on their role in them and their ability to impact them. This provided me with enough optimism to focus on their resilience and their desire to learn so they can face the future with action — and to center this in my work and thinking.
We have continued to organize intercultural dialogue this fall, hosting virtual dialogues on topics ranging from the student pandemic experience to global social justice amongst over 700 students from over 50 different middle and high schools in 12 different countries. These dialogues provided students and teachers the opportunity to recognize and understand multiple perspectives on complex global topics, and to see their peers from around the world and from within the diversity of their own countries as peers, with the virtual table providing greater equity of access and agency than in-person dialogue could. One 10th grade student recently shared in an email to my colleague unsolicited reflections on what she learned from her participation in three of these dialogues: “To me perspective is vital to every part of our everyday lives because it enables us, as humans, to view our world and life itself through a lens other than our own, which inevitably creates the framework to become better people, and better leaders.”
Across the network of member schools in the Global Education Benchmark Group (GEBG), educators continue to share resources for discussing with their students the ethical dimensions of global vaccine distribution or the international reactions to the events of January 6th in Washington DC — about how to teach their students that their actions have impact far beyond their immediate vicinity. While adolescents sometimes have a reputation for being overly focused on themselves, those of us who have worked with them for years know that they have a tremendous capacity to connect with and care about people and places they have only encountered through a book or a video or a virtual dialogue. They can draw the lines of connection between themselves and those they have never met in person, often much more intuitively than adults.
I am hopeful that in 2021 and beyond, schools will see greater value in supporting student engagement with the world, in all its messiness. I am hopeful that schools will continue to leverage conversations on current events, to utilize technology to virtually bring students from different places and perspectives together, and to create the space for dialogue around ethical global challenges that connect us all such as climate change and greater racial equity around the world.