Published Thursday, November 14, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 4:37 pm
MIDLANDS VOICES
Midlands Voices: International education important to our economy, our diversity

The writer is dean of International Studies and Programs at UNO.

The world is a mighty big place, but it’s getting smaller every day. The more our university students can learn about it, the better they — and all of us — will be.

That’s why the University of Nebraska at Omaha places the highest priority on preparing as many students as possible to become engaged citizens of an increasingly global community.

And as our shrinking world celebrates International Education Week this week, let’s take the opportunity to highlight the important impact of international education exchange on students, the economy and the overall cultural diversity of Omaha.

There was a time when issues and ideas “on the other side of the world” meant little to us here at home. Our culture, religions, customs and politics — in short, our ways — were all that mattered. But that once-comforting distance no longer exists.

Excitement, challenge and revolution are only a Google search away. Worldwide net- works assure that events happening in Beijing, Kabul or Cairo will be shared almost instantly throughout the West, and certainly in Omaha.

This week’s special events are joining students of diverse backgrounds to learn from each other and celebrate their differences, but this is only a start.

Sadly, chances to expand the international experiences of students in our community are often missed. Studies suggest that the USA continues to lag behind much of the developed world in local and national support for international education. While nearly 400 UNO students studied abroad this past year, nationally only 1 percent of American college students participated in academic pursuits beyond our borders.

The international population at UNO now is approaching 2,000 students from 121 countries, and their presence surely enhances the economic and cultural growth of Omaha.

It’s estimated that UNO international students contributed more than $57 million to the local economy this past year alone, and hundreds of these “global diplomats” also volunteer in service-learning projects in our city and state. Their voices enliven classroom dialogues, group work and even casual cafeteria conversations. These students are an everyday reminder that the global community has come to us.

These interactions foster lifelong relationships and open communications across the globe. In a community with five Fortune 500 companies, these skills are integral to our continued economic success. To remain competitive in the global marketplace, continue leadership in world affairs and maintain national security, a stronger commitment to international education is critical. Who knows? Some of them may become future world leaders.

Policy changes, such as visa and immigration reform, will be needed to continue attracting international students to our shores. But average citizens can participate by encouraging American children to study abroad and by volunteering their time with community or- ganizations with an international focus. Everyone can welcome international students into their homes and embrace opportunities to engage with them.

The international relationships we build now demonstrate to a skeptical world what it means to be an American, beyond the limitations of our policies or stereotypes. Let it always be an America that respects and celebrates differences, listens and learns from others and forges lifelong friendships.

For more information on International Education Week and a schedule of events, visit www.world.unomaha.edu/iew.

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