Global Citizenship and Higher Education’s Responsibility

Global Citizenship and Higher Education’s Responsibility

Anne M. Hornak
Central Michigan University

International travel can be a powerful transformative experience. Colleges and universities all over the United States and internationally are seeking out opportunities to sponsor study abroad programs, partner with institutions across the globe, and expose students to other parts of the world through an educational experience. Student affairs professionals work closely with faculty, students, administrators, and many other college and university personnel to make sure these experiences are educationally valuable. Putting the experience into context in professional settings, classrooms, and everyday life is one of the most critical pieces to making these programs successful. As I sat down to write this article I was struggling with the question: is it our ethical responsibility in higher education to prepare students to be global citizens?

I am going to present reasons why higher education professionals may want to think about their responsibility in this domain. I want to begin with a story I recently heard that really resonated with my focus on cross cultural experiences and dialogue.

Joe’s Narrative

My friend Pam was flying home from Poland and she sat next to a middle aged man named Joe. She began talking to Joe and realized he was heading home to a small town in the Midwest where he was a machinist. He was talking about how excited he was to get home and see his family. Pam asked him what he was doing in Poland and he said he had been there for a year working on helping them set up some specialized machinery for a new production facility. He was asked to go because he is one of the only machinists qualified and specially trained to work with these machines. Pam was quite intrigued and asked about his time in Poland. Joe said originally he was only supposed not have spent 2 months in country to get the machines up and running. He ended up being there for a whole year. His family did not have the financial resources to visit. He has been home twice in the 12-month period.

Joe went on to talk about how incredibly unprepared he was to live and work in Poland. He did not speak the language, nor did he really have any clue about Polish culture. The company helped set up travel and accommodations for Joe, but little else was done to prepare him to live and work in this new culture.  He went on to tell Pam that when he first arrived he found it exciting and new. There were a couple of other individuals from the same company finishing up assignments, so he was able to gather some information and assistance in getting set up. After the first month his colleagues left and he felt he was pretty much on his own. Language was the biggest barrier. Navigating around the city to meet basics needs – groceries, transportation, communications with home were among a few of the issues Joe faced in the first few months. The next issues Joe faced were long bouts of depression related to having few friends and acquaintances. The language barrier was difficult to overcome to have any meaningful interactions with the native Polish people.

Joe discussed his community college experience and how having a certificate did not prepare him for his international experience. He told Pam how he never really anticipated doing much traveling and that he preferred to drive to locations in the United States, rather than living abroad for a year. It was difficult not having his basic needs met as well as being so far away and lonely. He now has a new appreciation for the idea of a global workforce. He stated it is critical for everyone to have some idea of how to live and work and in another culture. The community college he attended never even discussed this concept. He also noted that it should have been the responsibility of the company he worked for to help prepare him for this time abroad.

Preparing Students for Global Work

Joe’s situation and story is not at all uncommon in the global world we live in. In thinking about Joe’s story, what is the responsibility of higher education to prepare students to work and potentially live in a foreign land? Do we have an ethical and social responsibility to prepare every student for these opportunities? I would argue yes and that it is not that difficult even in the brief amount of time we have as we work to certificate students. Clearly some institutions have a stronger international footprint than others. For example, many four-year colleges or universities have the infrastructure to support international education as part of the organization.  However, helping students understand that importance of international and cross-cultural experiences does not have to include a trip abroad.

There are many avenues to help students understand the importance of what it means to be a global citizen without ever leaving campus. Here are two ideas for on campus programming to increase student understanding of global citizenship. Ideally the student affairs divisions should work collaboratively with the international affairs and study abroad offices to maximize the reach and impact.

Global Competency Workshop

This workshop would be designed to explore the idea of what it means to be a global citizen. The United Nations has a series of goals, named The Global Goals, that cut across disciplines. The goals are international challenges that require action and impact. The workshop could be designed around these goals with the objectives designed to help participants understand and begin to appreciate that being a global citizen requires a shared responsibility in solving problems.

Global Communications Workshop

This workshop would be designed to look at issues of communication across cultures. The objectives could be designed to offer students tools they need to be successful in engaging with people of diverse backgrounds and outlooks. The workshop would include three elements to effective intercultural communication. The first is awareness. If we want students to change anything about their own communication styles, they need to be aware of the nuances of how they communicate with others. The second step would be self-analysis. During this step, students spend time reflecting on their own communication styles in order to understand how to best interact with others. The final step is to expand ones repertoire. This includes offering students multiple communication tools to use and experiment with. When one technique is not working, try another tactic.

Partnerships and Collaborations

Many colleges and universities struggle to connect students to the resources they need to experience study internationally. Offering workshops on campus provides the opportunities for students to explore and exchange ideas about global citizenship. It provides a venue that is accessible for all students and if done effectively could build powerful partnerships across campus with international and domestic partners. Additionally, given our perpetual engagement with social media platforms, colleges and universities could easily connect with international partners to help facilitate and engage with participants without being on site.

Joe would have benefitted greatly from attending a workshop when he was a student at his community college. If he was given the opportunity to explore how to engage and communicate across cultures his comfort level may have increased during his time in Poland. Navigating across cultures can be exciting, but also difficult. The fear of making a mistake is ever present, as well as the threat of offending someone because of one’s own ignorance regarding differences. As student affairs professionals and educators, part of our responsibility should be to provide students the tools they need to be successful global citizens. We have both an ethical responsibility to the students earning an education, and an ethical responsibility to the employers who are hiring our students.

Going back to Joe, I do believe that his company also failed in helping prepare him to live and work in Poland. The company had an ethical responsibility in making sure Joe was ready for that experience and they failed in doing so. While this is a shortcoming of his company, this is also an opportunity for corporate America and colleges and universities to partner to meet this challenge. The focus on career readiness is ever present across higher education; preparing someone to work across borders is critical. Leveraging the skills and talents available on college campuses with the needs of corporate America should begin to meet the ethical responsibilities I argue are important for global citizenship.

Within higher education we strive to address big questions and give students the tools to solve complex problems. As we think about Joe and our responsibility to educate and prepare students to live within this complex global world, I reflect on the question I posed at the beginning of this article: is it our ethical responsibility in higher education to prepare students to be global citizens? I have offered some ideas to begin to ponder this question and challenge those reading this article to think about other ways to give students to the tools they need to be responsible global citizens.

Discussion Questions

  1. The term global citizen can be defined in many ways. How do you define global citizen within the work you do?
  2. We often talk about shared responsibilities on our campuses regarding personal and professional development. Think about ways to work collaboratively on your campus to create global conversations about skill development. What offices will you partner with to create these programs?
  3. What is the ethical responsibility of student affairs professionals to facilitate global engagement on their campuses? Whose responsibility is this on your campus?

About the Author

Anne M. Hornak is an Associate Professor and Chairperson of Educational Leadership at Central Michigan University. She teaches courses in student affairs and higher education administration, ethics, and social justice. Her research interests include ethical decision-making, transformational learning and international education, and community college students. She has been involved with ACPA as a Directorate member of the Professional Preparation Commission, where she coordinated with the ethics committee. Her most recent book is entitled, “A Day in the Life of a Student Affairs Educator: Competencies and Case Studies for Early Career Professionals” [Stylus, 2014] co-authored with Sarah Marshall.

Please e-mail inquiries to Anne M. Hornak.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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