With this weekend’s Bringing the World Home Berlin summit fresh in my mind, I stumbled upon Joseph S. Nye’s op-ed piece in today’s New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/29/opinion/29nye.html). Quoting Colin Powell, Nye wrote that future world leaders who spend time studying in America and then bring the lessons of their experience back to their homelands are an invaluable asset to America. I can only agree, and after speaking to over 100 enthusiastic American students currently studying abroad about the challenges of sharing the experiences gained abroad with fellow Americans at home, I immediately linked this to the role of Americans becoming foreign students abroad. I also realized, however, that there might be a slight gap in demand. I don’t want to sound cynical, but the advantages of having foreign students in the U.S. seem more measureable than the advantages of sending Americans abroad. Exchanges in both directions lead to cross-cultural understanding, but educating foreign students in the U.S. also happens to be a $13 billion industry.

But Nye also wrote about the steep decline in foreign students enrolled in American universities. Complications in obtaining or renewing student visas has made it increasingly difficult for foreigners to study in the U.S. Nye cites the example of the Chinese student who went home for his father’s funeral and was not able to return to Harvard for another five months, and an entire op-ed piece is devoted to a Nigerian student’s difficulties renewing her visa. This will have a palpable economic effect on universities’ pocket books — indeed, many are already very worried.

The interesting thing is that there is no lack of foreign students wishing to study in the U.S. and certainly no lack of interest on the part of American universities in welcoming them. Supply and demand seem to be there, but complications in bureaucracy have introduced an imposing barrier to fulfilling that demand with the available supply (apologies to any economists out there for this oversimplification). Essentially, I think the same thing happens to American students who study abroad and want to share their experience with fellow Americans. I firmly believe that Americans — and especially students — are eager to learn about the world. If the message is conveyed too abrasively, however, many people will erect their own barriers to the unfamiliar. If one then considers that many returning American students spend their first few weeks at home struggling with the unexpectedness of reverse culture shock, the hurdles standing in the way of cross-cultural dialogue start looking higher and higher.

While these challenges might paint a grim picture, I am very hopeful that things can change for the better. It was so inspiring to speak to students whose attentiveness and critical thinking made obvious just how much they are committed to promoting these kinds of open dialogues. Young leaders should take the reins in their hands and work to pique the interest of their friends and fellow students — just as summit participants have done. Openness — toward other cultures and people as well as to one’s own countrymen — and enthusiasm for learning and exchange will be the operative factors in this effort, and I am heartened to see so much of both. I also think it’s a great sign when people of Nye’s reputation and caliber start writing about this kind of question for a public audience.

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