In the Kurdistan region of Iraq, I knew a security officer who searched far and wide for second-hand American movies. He did so not only because he liked the movies, though he often did, but also because he used them to practice his English. In Afghanistan, on a country road north of Kandahar, I knew a foreman who read hip hop magazines to expand his vocabulary. His goal, like that of my Kurdish friend, was not merely to be able to communicate in English, but to be able to participate in his own in way in what he saw as the global economy.
Global awareness is increasingly important, perhaps even essential, for career competitiveness. U.S. students to the count of 283,332 studied abroad last year, and they will bring home with them a greater understanding of global opportunities. At the same time, current correlates of globalization, including urbanization and the dispersion of power to individuals, civil society and the private sector, mean local nuances and knowledge are more valuable than ever. Those students will also bring with them an appreciation and valuable understanding of local phenomenon, from the skyscrapers of Shanghai to the alleys of the Oxford. Their chances of seeing far afield and around the curvy corners of global changes, while not guaranteed, are certainly improved.
Today, as many as 820,000 international students attend U.S. higher education institutions every year. They study in every state, injecting upwards of $24 billion into the U.S. economy. Like their counterparts who study abroad, U.S. students who study alongside international students gain an appreciation for cultural exchange, but also for global challenges and opportunities.
Boston is currently a global capital of education. Last year nearly 40,000 international students studied in the city, ranking behind only Los Angeles and New York. Once, however, it was a capital of shipping, with tall ships delivering goods from all over the world. It subsequently became a hub of the American industrial revolution. Today, in part because it attracts students from all over the world while distributing them similarly, it sits as a leading city in, among other things, finance, healthcare and biotechnology.
The American revolutionaries who founded our Republic were the beneficiaries of the so called ''republic of letters,'' a network of thinkers who exchanged letters across continents and oceans on topics ranging from philosophy to physics. Today U.S. students similarly benefit from the exchange of knowledge, an exchange that promotes not only mutual understanding, but economic opportunity.
Of course, it also comes with unpredictable benefits. “We honeymooned in San Francisco,” a short story author in New England wrote, “Here’s what it was like for me: I still root for that city’s teams.” If the same is true for studying in a city, and you studied in Boston, you probably had a very good year.
About the Author: R. Ian Klaus serves as a member of Secretary Kerry’s Policy Planning Staff.