Teach for the World

Nicholas Kristof highlights Global Citizen Year as a model for engaging young Americans in global issues.


A drumroll, please. In a moment, the winner of my 2010 “win-a-trip” contest.

But first, a message from the sponsor — that’s me. A generation ago, the most thrilling program for young people was the Peace Corps. Today, it’s Teach for America, which this year has attracted 46,000 applicants who are competing for about 4,500 slots.

Peace Corps and Teach for America represent the best ethic of public service. But at a time when those programs can’t meet the demand from young people seeking to give back, we need a new initiative: Teach for the World.

In my mind, Teach for the World would be a one-year program placing young Americans in schools in developing countries. The Americans might teach English or computer skills, or coach basketball or debate teams.

The program would be open to Americans 18 and over. It could be used for a gap year between high school and college, but more commonly would offer a detour between college and graduate school or the real world.


The host country would provide room and board through a host family. To hold down costs, the Americans would be unpaid and receive only airplane tickets, a local cellphone and a tiny stipend to cover bus fares and anti-malaria bed nets.

This would be a government-financed effort to supplement an American public diplomacy outreach that has been eviscerated over the last few decades. A similar program, WorldTeach, was founded by a group of Harvard students in 1986 and does a terrific job. But without significant support from the American government, it often must charge participants thousands of dollars for a year’s volunteer work.

Teach for the World also would be an important education initiative for America itself. Fewer than 30 percent of Americans have passports, and only one-quarter can converse in a second language. And the place to learn languages isn’t an American classroom but in the streets of Quito or Dakar or Cairo.

Here’s a one-word language test to measure whether someone really knows a foreign country and culture: What’s the word for doorknob? People who have studied a language in a classroom rarely know the answer. But those who have been embedded in a country know. America would be a wiser country if we had more people who knew how to translate “doorknob.” I would bet that those people who know how to say doorknob in Farsi almost invariably oppose a military strike on Iran.

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(Just so you don’t drop my column to get a dictionary: pomo de la puerta in some forms of Spanish; poignée de porte in French; and dash gireh ye dar in Farsi.)


American universities are belatedly recognizing how provincial they are and are trying to get more students abroad. Goucher College in Baltimore requires foreign study, and Princeton University has begun a program to help incoming students go abroad for a gap year before college.

The impact of time in the developing world is evident in the work of Abigail Falik, who was transformed by a summer in a Nicaraguan village when she was 16. As a Harvard Business School student two years ago, she won first place in a competition for the best plan for a “social enterprise.” Now she is the chief executive of the resulting nonprofit, Global Citizen Year, which gives high school graduates a gap year working in a developing country.

Global Citizen Year’s first class is in the field now, in Guatemala and Senegal, teaching English, computers, yoga, drama and other subjects. Ms. Falik is now accepting applications for the second class, and in another decade she hopes to have 10,000 students enrolled annually in Global Citizen Year.

Getting young people more engaged with global issues is also the aim of my annual “win-a-trip contest,” in which I take a student with me on a reporting trip to the developing world. And without further delay: The winner this time is Mitch Smith, a 19-year-old from Overland Park, Kan., who is studying journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He’s a terrific writer who has never been outside the United States, so stay tuned for his blogging and videos from Africa later this year. (One possibility is an overland journey from Gabon through the two Congos to Angola).

Congratulations as well to the runner-up, Saumya Dave, a medical student who took a leave from Drexel University so that she could study writing at Columbia University. The other finalists are Kate Eaneman of the University of California at Berkeley and Matt Gillespie, a recent Stanford graduate now at the Hunter College School of Education. And thanks to the Center for Global Development for whittling down the pool of 893 applicants for me.

And for those of you who didn’t make it, ask President Obama to create a Teach for the World so that you can win your own trip.


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