Face to Face: Global Understanding Through Personal and Virtual Contact

Judith Beth Cohen, Global Education MagazineJudith Beth Cohen

Professor, School of Education, Lesley University, Cambridge, MA.

[email protected]


Abstract: Based on travel-study experiences in Ghana, Peru, South Africa and other sites, Cohen discusses the positive effects of short-term travel study immersion for students and faculty. Citing research studies that explore global attitudes of participants after such travel, Cohen makes a strong case for including travel-based courses in the college curriculum. She covers programs of Sister Cities and Sister Schools that connect younger students and teachers to age-mates in other countries through electronic means. She argues that personal connections offer powerful ways to raise the consciousness of American students and teachers about global poverty and women’s issues. The benefits of such contacts can lead to improved conditions in developing countries. However, decreasing the isolation of Americans is the primary goal of these contacts.


Key words: Travel-study, curriculum, global poverty, Sister cities, Sister schools, cosmopolitan citizens.


When presidential candidates do not know the difference between North and South Korea, think that Uzbekistan is a joke and Africa is one big country, America is embarrassed before the rest of the world. For many, such provincialism and anti-intellectualism is often celebrated; after all, are we not exceptional? National debates over teaching of evolution or global warming, as well questioning funding for contraception show the US to be out of step with other developed countries. Despite American efforts to globalize the curriculum and help students become cosmopolitan citizens (Trilling & Fadel, 2009), these goals, led primarily by women and progressives, remain quite marginalized. Educators can play an important role in changing the consciousness of their students, help them to overcome their relative isolation and become more informed global citizens. Not only will our students come to understand and respect cultural differences, they will also come to recognize the persistence of global poverty and the dangerous plight of women in many countries. In this paper, I explore opportunities for educators and students to increase their awareness of the non-western world through travel-study and other educational opportunities.

Roots of the Problem

We all grow up with invisible cultural narratives and assumptions that deeply influence us, even if we did not create them. Encounters with other cultures help us to distance ourselves, critique our own, and even create new personal narratives that encompass multiple perspectives. Thus, giving students the experience of face to face contact with people very different from themselves is one way to overcome our collective ignorance. Perhaps if we understand the roots of our American provincialism, we will be better equipped to change these attitudes.

According to historian Mark Schneider, multiple threads in US history combine to explain our relative ignorance. The religious agendas of early settlers sought to restore Godliness to a decadent world (Schneider, 2009). In the nineteenth century, President Andrew Jackson portrayed himself as a rustic, untainted by book learning and emphasized his distrust of elites. Our geography further isolated us from contact with other nations as we looked west to open land rather than east to older civilizations. Finally, the twin legacies of African slavery and violence perpetrated against Native Americans continue to reverberate in various forms of denial. Even today the US refuses to become a signatory to the International World Court. As Schneider points out, the opportunity to change our stance after the shock of the 9/11 attacks was squandered. Instead, the government fueled fear and suspicion about our “homeland” security making us wary of French fries, as well as Muslims.

Developing CoursesFor Adult Students

At Lesley University in Cambridge, Ma. I worked with a team of colleagues to develop short site-based travel-study courses for adult students in degree programs. For most of them, travel was considered a luxury due to family responsibilities, jobs and low incomes, so we wanted to make the course as accessible as possible. The pedagogical model included pre-trip reading and meetings followed by an immersion experience of seven to ten days in which the place itself became the major text of study. The culminating project, a student–designed, faculty-supervised research project, was completed a month after the travel ended. Then the class met again to hear students present their projects and wrap up the course. I have co-led and written about courses based in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Cambridge England (Cohen, 1997; Cohen & Counts, 2001). Using this same model, colleagues have offered similar courses based in Cuba, Montreal Canada, Martha’s Vineyard, The Navajo Reservation and Tepotzlan, Mexico. The experiential learning philosophy on which this model is based addresses multiple learning modalities as advocated by theorists such as John Dewey (1916) Howard Gardner (1989), John Miller (1996) and Peter Jarvis (2009). When the intellectual, emotional, moral, sensual and kinesthetic dimensions of learning are integrated, students have a more holistic experience. This allows those who may be less successful with monolithic approaches to be more fully engaged.

Since each site has its own history and culture, even a brief stay allows visitors to make comparative observations about climate, dress, economics and customs. Physical culture in the form of food becomes an important aspect of the curriculum. In Cambridge, England we consumed steak and kidney pie with pints of flat beer, and in New Mexican pueblos, we understood the importance of corn to the indigenous people. Though such corporal experiences we literally imbibe and consume bits of culture. As we make comparisons to our own culture, our critical faculties are engaged. The discrepancies or omissions we observe can raise questions for students. In course papers they may explore why toxic waste sites are so close to Native American villages, or why the British government supports both religious and secular schools. When students pursue such issues in their research projects, they further develop their critical thinking skills.

Faculty Travel-Study

In addition to my Lesley course work, I have chosen to participate in faculty travel-study seminars in South Africa and Peru led by the Council for International Educational Exchange ([email protected]). These well designed travel-study opportunities allow faculty to join colleagues from other colleges and learn from local academics and policy leaders. In February, 2012, I joined a group of local Massachusetts teachers who travelled to Ghana. The leader and inspiration for this teacher study tour offered for professional development credits is Dr. Mary Ann De Mello, Assistant School Superintendent in Hopkinton, MA who recently completed her doctoral dissertation titled: “The Impact of Study Tours in Developing Global-Mindedness Among PK-12 Educators” (2011). Based on her experiences leading short term travel-study courses for teachers to China and Costa Rica, her research showed that such opportunities result in increased reflection and learning for participants. To quantify teacher responses, De Mello adapted a scale that attempted to measure five dimensions of global-mindedness. These include:

1-Responsibility –2-Cultural Pluralism –3-Efficacy –4-Globalcentrism –5-Interconnectedness – 

(Hett, 1993, as quoted by De Mello, 2011, p.143).

Though dramatic changes were difficult for De Mello to quantify, teachers responses showed extendedthinking with respect to educational issues and global perspectives. Particulars, such as pre-tour activities, school visits and the value of reflection were noted as important. Readers interested in finding more quantitative data that shows travel study to be valuable can also consult the research of Morasi and Ogden, whose three-dimensional Global Citizenship Scale encompasses social responsibility, global competence, and global civic engagement (Morasi & Ogden, 2011). An earlier study that examined the long-term impact of study abroad by surveying 6,391 participants showed an impact on five dimensions of global engagement which included: civic engagement, knowledge production, philanthropy, social entrepreneurship and voluntary simplicity (Paige, Fry, Stallman, Josi & Jon, 2009). These researchers also conducted sixty-three interviews to gather more detailed stories about the role that study abroad had played in the subsequent educational and career choices of their subjects.

Travel-Study—Ghana, West Africa

Prior to travelling, I joined the fifteen teachers and Dr. De Mello for five sessions of pre-trip lecture-discussions led by Primary Source, a Boston based organization that provides educators with professional workshops given by regional experts (www.primarysource.org). Our group included teachers from kindergarten through high school, ages twenties through sixties, fourteen women and one man. We learned that Ghana was the site of a number of ancient kingdoms that included the Ashanti Empire. Trade with other African states flourished prior to European contact due to the gold wealth. Today, Ghana is the second largest producer of cocoa in the world. The recent discovery of oil resulted in a 14.4% growth rate in 2011, making it one of the world’s fastest growing economies (Economywatch.com). Today Ghana is a primarily Christian nation and has had no civil wars. Though it has been independent of Britain since 1957, the colonialist legacy endures as seen in the schools we visited. Our group was housed at the Kokrobitey Institute, a few miles from the capital, Accra, at the end of an unpaved, bumpy road near very modest villages. The institute, a collection of dorms, workshops, and meeting rooms with outdoor dining is a lovely oasis on the ocean. Founder and director, Renee Neblett is an amazing African–American woman from Boston, formerly an art teacher. The site hosts Americans and other international visitors in order to educate them about Ghana and Africa. About twenty local young people work as staff, learn about running a business, teach workshops to visitors, and sponsor a fund raising project that involves making school bags from recycled materials for Ghanaian youth.

As a bridge person between the US and Africa, Renee’s enthusiasm, candor and knowledge provided the leadership we needed for understanding all that we could in our short stay. We visited an impressive school for the deaf and taught classes in two village schools (I assisted a 7th grade teacher who offered a lesson on graphs and pie charts). At a National park, we went on a canopy walk in the rain forest on shaky rope bridges. We shopped at craft markets and took workshops in drumming, dancing, and making jewelry from recycled material like rubber tires. We rode on many long mini-bus trips to our various field visits, jostling back and forth on the rutted road to our home base. Along the roads charismatic, evangelical churches appeared one after another, with typical entrepreneur’s signs reading: “I shall not Die Motors,” “Jesus is Alive Boutique,” “Seek Jesus key Cutting Service,” or “Fear God Solutions to Your Sickness.” Ms. Neblett explained that these new religious groups provide a route to social mobility for those who consider the traditional Christian churches to be for the elite. She compared this proliferation to similar movements in the nineteenth century US.

At the Cape Coast Castle, central to the slave trade, we visited the dungeons where human beings were imprisoned before being shipped to the New World. There we silently reflected on what Africa and the US might be like today if trade had been limited to commodities rather than human chattel. Despite Ghana’s growing economy, 65% literacy rate and compulsory schooling, village life often consists of a dirt floored hut with no electricity or water, and trash seems to be strewn about. This is due, we learned, to the appearance of plastic containers about ten years ago. Since people always discarded their organic waste on the ground, they do the same with the non-biodegradable stuff.

Though locals were eager to meet the “Obranies” (foreigners), for some in our group, the hustling and constant bargaining, along with the heat and ever present trash felt overwhelming. Yet, these strong reminders of the differences in our customary environments contributed to insights gained from the experience. The experience left participants with much to reflect upon: What did we think about the widespread use of caning (corporal punishment) in schools? What about the domestic violence we heard so much about? Why can’t Ghanaians take better care of the roads, or find a solution for trash disposal? Is charismatic Christianity giving poor people more routes to social mobility or is it diluting the tribal cultures? Though these issues were presented in the pre-trip sessions, it was only through our direct face to face encounters did they become real to us. Someone wondered if we Americans had the right to raise such issues—were we simply echoing our colonialist mindset? One fifty year old teacher shared a journal reflection that captured the experience:

Looking back, the week was difficult in many ways. What I gained is an appreciation of the Ghanaian people through their history, culture, art, music and dance and, most importantly for me, a better understanding of how the slave trade changed the world. My appreciation of American history has been forever altered by visiting the slave dungeons of Cape Coast Castle and being exposed to the horrors of the slave trade. What has always been just words on a page… now has a meaning that will stay with me forever. As a teacher, I hope to encourage others to travel as extensively as possible as I believe that it is only the personal experience that allows us to truly understand and move beyond a “single story”

(as quoted in Adichie, 2009).

In a post-trip meeting teachers reported the concrete ways in which they had connected their own students with Ghana. A first grade teacher had carried with her two puppets that her students knew well; then she photographed them doing everything we did so her kids could see Ghana through the eyes of their beloved creatures. Another first grade teacher quoted a six-year old’s response to learning about Ghana: “I knew they had tribes and stuff but I didn’t know they had colleges and stores and cars, just like we do.” A second grade teacher’s students each created a “Welcome to Ghana” brochure to attract visitors to the country. A special education middle school teacher made a video about a young man she met in Ghana who’d overcome poverty to become an international youth ambassador. First, she showed her students only his photo, then asked students to reflect on his life. A sixth grade teacher’s class created power points about their school which were sent to Ghana; in turn the Ghanaian students made similar presentations to send to Weymouth. Inspired by the drums she brought to class, the Spanish teacher’s advanced students studied African influences on Latin American music, while the high school librarian added African authors to her book collection.

The trip arrangements for Ghana were made by Education First, a travel company based in Cambridge, Mass (www.ef.com). In addition to the other organizations I noted (Primary Source, Fulbright, Council for International Educational Exchange), all dedicated to faculty-student study and travel, recognition should be given to other, often invisible efforts to connect students and community members to remote global communities. These include: Sister Schools, Sister Cities, Rotary Clubs, and projects initiated by women, religious leaders or immigrants, all of them primarily grassroots efforts initiated by one individual who recruits others to join her.

Sister Schools

The National Sister Schools Organization, together with the San Diego and La Jolla California Rotary Club, support a school in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, a project inspired by an Iranian immigrant woman who was concerned about American’s failure to understand Muslims. The school now has 700 students who connect with their counterparts in California through the internet, and visits by adults (stevebrownrotary.com). Chicago, which has a large immigrant population from Morocco, has been involved with a Sister School in Casablanca, Morocco since 1982. Inspired by one drama teacher, this exchange involves American students writing plays in French, the language they are learning, and Moroccans doing the same in English. They then view each other’s plays via the internet. The arts likewise provide the vehicle for student contacts between Fargo, North Dakota and Yangzhou, China, which has students sending paintings of their home towns to their partners. Very creative connections can be made between students via the internet even if schools lack funding or support for face to face travel.

Ironically, though the increasing dominance of electronic communication in our personal and professional lives may easily connect us with people across the globe, it can also have the opposite effect, making us feel more alone (Turkle, 2011). When people communicate with those who agree with them through blogs and websites, they’re less exposed to other cultures and worldviews. An exception may be the recent viral explosion amongst the young following the YouTube film on Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, made by the advocacy group Invisible Children (Kony, 2012). This video has certainly inspired increased public awareness of the continent of Africa. However, it has also misinformed viewers by presenting a distorted picture of the situation since Kony is no longer in Uganda, and the number of children abducted has been exaggerated. Given that the Invisible Children campaign sells merchandise to raise money, the use of these profits has been questioned by critics. Ugandans have responded to the film, arguing that such misinformation discourages visitors from coming to their country and gives the impression that only white activists can solve this problem (Kony 2012). The internet can be an amazing tool for connecting diverse people, but we should, nevertheless, be cautious about its potential misuse.

School connections can be made in so many ways. Using sports as the theme, the Walter Payton College Preparatory High School in Chicago and the Ben M’ Sick Secondary in Casablanca share a program in which basketball coaches from Chicago run clinics for 600 boys in Morocco (Sisterschools.org). Other school links have been created by teachers and students with no organizational affiliation. In Littleton, Colorado, infamous for its student assassins, a teacher has been taking high school students to a remote part of Kenya where they work side by side with local people, a project that gets no media coverage. Jessica Rimington, a student in Orleans, Massachusetts, by herself created the One World Youth Project, in which two schools in different parts of the world work together on UN millennium goals. This organization has created a unique three semester global leadership and professional development opportunity in which university students can prepare to be community leaders for promoting global understanding (oneworldyouthproject.org).

Sister Cities

Sister Cities is another national organization that promotes global connections. You may have noticed a sister city sign when driving into a new town, yet most of these partnerings are with western Europe, and too often they represent a connection in name only. However, there are exceptions; Tucson, Arizona partners with Almaty, Kazakhstan, a place most Americans have never heard of. Amesbury, MA is partnered with Esabulu, Kenya. These programs involve not only students, but families in the community as well. In the relatively small town of Amesbury, over two hundred people have visited back and forth between the US and Kenya (amesburyfor africa.org). What’s unique about these programs is they are not for the educated or affluent but involve community members from all social backgrounds.

Women Leaders

Clearly, religious organizations have long sponsored missionary and humanitarian efforts in the developing world in ways far more extensive than educators have done.So often these have been inspired by women, making me wonder why concern for global poverty has become a gendered activity.In their important book, Half the Sky(2009), (required reading for Ghana participants), authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn argue that the lack of global attention to the plight of women is the greatest, challenge in the world today. Development scholars stress the importance of women’s education to a nation’s advancement, yet governments and health professionals continue to regard women’s problems as private family matters they can ignore. In 2007, the U.S. Senate failed to pass a bi-partisan bill introduced by Senators Biden (now VP) and Lugar, (recently defeated), called the International Violence Against Women Act. Such a failure demonstrates how low women’s health and safety rank as concerns for our political leaders, despite the fact that more education and fewer pregnancies allow women to improve their family’s status, a sure way to prevent children from being recruited by terrorists. According to global statistics, more girls have been killed in the last fifty years because of their gender than men killed in all the battles of the twentieth century (p. xvii). Even in the comparatively advanced country of Ghana, 21% of women are still sexually initiated by rape.

Kristoff and Wu Dunn offer many examples of women working to change conditions on the ground. For example, The Mukhtar Mai school in Meerwalla, southern Punjab, Pakistan welcomes volunteers to teach English (Kristoff, 2009). In Goma, eastern Congo, HEAL Africa, is a hospital dedicated to repairing gynecological injuries brought on by unassisted child birth. There, Harper McConnell, an American woman from University of Minnesota, has begun a school for children, a training program for women waiting for surgery, and she is creating a study abroad project for American students who would like to spend a month at a university in Goma (www.healafrica.org). Women for Afghan Women, is a women’s human rights organization based in Kabul and New York founded in April, 2001, six months before the 9/11 attacks (womenforafghanwomen.org). They advocate for the rights of Afghan women and build programs for Afghan women in New York and across Afghanistan. Volunteer Esther Hyneman, a retired literature professor, teaches classes in New York for Afghan immigrants and has herself made four war time trips to Afghanistan. The many baby boomers, soon to be retirees like her, might be seeking similar volunteer opportunities. Cross Cultural Solutions is an organization that arranges such short volunteer stints (crossculturalsolutions.org). Another opportunity offered by Women for Women.Org gives donors the opportunity to sponsor a single woman for a year enabling her to get life skills training and learn ways to earn a living in places where the situation is most desperate such as Democractic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Rwanda and Kosovo, (womenforwomen.org). These programs are not romantic acts of charity by starry eyed western do-gooders, but rather serious, tedious, daily efforts.

Critics might argue that the presence of comparatively affluent Euro-American volunteers might be a form of neo-colonialism, especially when we assume that our more advanced solutions are superior. Western efforts to eradicate all female genital cutting without addressing its cultural significance, or outlawing child labor without replacing a family’s sole income source are problematic. Admittedly to some, our group of white teachers in Ghana might appear to be voyeurs gazing at the exotic other. However, an experience I recently had in Guatemala made me think differently. When a local activist urged my husband and me to help him distribute Christmas food packages to poor Mayan women, I asked if our presence would evoke images of colonial masters doling out scraps, but he strongly disagreed. “When they see that people like you care about them, it connects them to the rest of the world, and shows them that they matter.”

Finally, what’s most significant about American teachers and students participating in direct travel-study, virtual global interactions or volunteer opportunities is what we learn, more than what we may do for others. In their study Common Fire: Lives of Commitment in a Complex World, Daloz and his colleagues (1996), interviewed a hundred adults who had dedicated their lives to working for the common good. When they tried to identify a thread that linked these very diverse participants, they found that early in life these people all had had direct personal experiences with people from backgrounds, or nationalities very different from their own. As educators, we should advocate for such opportunities, not as a glamorous add-on, or the one required Global Studies course, but integrated throughout the curriculum in all subject areas. It may be many, many years before global poverty or the plight of women become part of America’s discourse, yet such global encounters are a sure way to change the consciousness of future generations. We can contribute to this transformation through our students, who in turn spread the news to their friends and families. Face to face, one by one, people begin to see the world in a different way: we’re no longer disconnected actors who must make it on our own, but part of a global system that impacts our environment, our health, and our security.


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This article was published on September 15th: International Day of Democracy,in Global Education Magazine.

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