Why Getting Americans Out of the Country Will Save the Earth

Few Americans get to venture beyond our own borders. A pitiful 10 percent of Americans speak a second language and fewer than 30 percent hold passports. U.S. students have the lowest geography scores in the developed world. How can we expect our country to address global problems when so few of us have seen the globe?

I am lucky. I spent two years traveling, mostly by bicycle, first crossing Latin America and then the United States. As I traveled, I used my journey to raise awareness of global warming by giving talks at schools and going to the media. But when I talked to U.S. citizens about the plight of subsistence farmers in Honduras or coastal dwellers in Venezuela, I often received stares of confusion. I was more frequently asked, “Where is that?” than, “What can I do?”

Last week I shared lunch with Wil Keenan, an employee at Global Citizen Year. Each year, Global Citizen Year selects a Corps of high school seniors, and supports them through apprenticeships in Asia, Africa and Latin America during a “bridge year” before college. Students spend this year in a Peace Corps-like service project in a developing nation.

It’s a brilliant idea. Traveling and living in abroad is the best way to understand another culture, learn a new language, and grapple with the consequences of global poverty.

About a dozen students, or “Fellows,” are participating in Global Citizen Year’s first year. The organization hopes to expand next year to 50 students and then continue to grow. High school seniors can apply for 2010-2011 by March 15th.

Reading over the blogs from this year’s students, I find myself inspired and deeply envious. These students are learning far more in their 19th year of life than I did during my freshmen year of college. Living with a family in a developing nation opens eyes in a way that classrooms never can.

Consider Gaya, who grew up in Hingham, MA and decided to postpone attending Princeton to take a Global Citizen Year. Gaya is living with a family in Senegal and volunteering at a local school where she teaches basic computer skills and provides support for classes that have one teacher for every 45 students. Gaya is also gaining a first hand understanding of Islam. She writes:

“The topic of interest for this monthly meeting was Islam, an extremely relevant topic here in Senegal, and one that I knew surprisingly very little about considering I am exposed to concrete manifestations of this religion every hour of every day here in Senegal. It’s fascinating to think about the ability of human beings to cultivate and spread faith…Every day, five times a day, the Muslims of Senegal are united in their thoughts, in silent contemplation of God. I thought about faith and doubt, about order and society, solidarity and unity. I thought about how big the world is…and if religious ideas and faith can cross borders, can span continents and can connect people of different ethnicities, nationalities and races, why not others?”

Michael, from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is spending the year living with a family in Guatemala and working at a social enterprise that sells products such as low cost water filters, fuel efficient stoves, and reading glasses. His most recent blog post describes his exploration of water distribution in his community:

“Have you ever thought about where your water comes from and how many people are involved in bringing it to your faucet? Don Omar is a pretty successful businessman in Santo Tomas; he owns a small farm and also owns a water delivery service…Recently, out of curiosity, I headed off with Don Omar in his water truck. We drove through the Municipalidad de Magdelana Milpas Altas, heading out one of the only roads leading toward the mountain…before we finally reached the colonia and we began delivering water house by house. Don Omar seems to be the perfect example of small scale entrepreneurship. He saw that communities desperately needed water and were willing to pay substantial amounts for it…[so] he created a business to [deliver] an essential service for a reasonable price. Never did I think I would learn so much from riding a water truck all day!”

In another excellent piece about environmental opinions, fellow Laura Keaton, who is staying with a family in the mountains of Guatemala, writes about her surprise when she found out that her host family is concerned about climate change.

When I returned to the United States after crossing Latin America, I was amazed by our relative wealth. Most people in the U.S. live on more than 50 dollars a day, a number that is many times the world’s average. This affluence didn’t make me feel guilty; it made me feel empowered. We have the resources to meet global challenges. If we choose, we can use this wealth to invest in clean energy and solve climate change. Likewise, we have the ability to address health crises and the challenges of poverty.

But if our citizens have never traveled or lived internationally, how can we expect our country to rise to these global challenges?

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Global Citizen Year is moving forward as part of our new, larger brand: Tilting Futures. New name, same mission, expanded programs and impact.