Students abroad return with a broader understanding

ORLANDO, Fla. - Three images - the weathered, twisted limbs of a wheelchair-bound, homeless man in Orlando I treated to lunch, the scarred body of a former slave from Sudan who told me of his dream to attend college, and the anguished face of an Iraq war veteran I counseled - stayed with me one week ago as I gave thanks with family members for the bounty, safety and security we routinely enjoy and often take for granted.

Poverty, human trafficking and war - just a few of the 21st century's troubles - are hardly unique to this era. But because they tend to happen on a larger scale, and technology speeds them to our eyes and ears almost instantaneously, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, to believe that those and other problems defy solution.

They do not. In fact, they should rouse our humanity, inspire our creativity and motivate our sense or urgency.

Yes, I can already hear the skeptics rising to inform me that troubles as old as society itself will not fade away, no matter how many do-gooders wring their hands in worry and throw themselves into the effort.

I disagree. At the very least, we bear a responsibility to try. And an excellent - indeed, essential - place is start is with the basics: to increase Americans' understanding of the world and its possibilities.

Consider educator William DeLauder's plan to saturate other countries with a million U.S. undergraduates by 2016. It reminds me of another call to action in one of America's earlier centuries: "Go west, young man, and grow up with the country."

Today, one might well urge: Go global, young men and women, and grow up with the world."

Although most people probably do not know it, 2006 has been designated the "Year of Study Abroad" by various organizations, including a bipartisan group, The Commission on the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship Program (www.lincolncommission.org), which DeLauder serves as executive director.

As one who has studied, lived, worked or traveled in dozens of other countries - from the Americas to Europe to Africa to Asia - I can attest to the infinite contributions those experiences make to developing the awareness and skills that the modern age and a global society require.

More than 200,000 U.S. undergraduates, about 1 percent of those enrolled, reap the benefits of learning in overseas environments each year. That may sound impressive, but it barely registers against the vast array of U.S. global interests. In a world that is increasingly interdependent, shrinking or flattening, depending on one's perspective, American students cannot afford such a minimal presence.

What specifically do U.S. students stand to gain from venturing overseas to study?

Plenty, starting with a broader knowledge of other cultures and - as counter-intuitive as it sounds - their own. It is enlightening to learn the realities of other cultures instead of myths and stereotypes, to understand how the United States appears through the eyes of others and to contemplate this country critically from the outside.

Those who embark on such journeys will no doubt still see America as a shining city upon a hill, whose light guides lovers of freedom everywhere. But they also will appreciate better the shortcomings that insularity masks or minimizes and hopefully endeavor to correct them.

Beyond that, study abroad builds foreign-language capabilities, deepens thinking, enhances maturity, points toward new career options, promotes national security and strengthens U.S. economic competitiveness.

Bolstered with study-abroad skills, American students will be better equipped to take the hands of the homeless man, the former slave and the veteran, and walk with them to resolve the age-old challenges of poverty, human trafficking and war.

John C. Bersia, a special assistant to the president for global perspectives and University of Central Florida professor, can be reached at jbersia@orlandosentinel.com.