As NAFSA's 2013 Annual Conference started to wind to its conclusion, Oscar Arias, former two-time president of Costa Rica and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, addressed attendees as the guest speaker during the International Plenary and Luncheon. Arias is a world-renowned advocate for peace, and in front of a crowd of international educators, he spoke fondly of his time as an foreign student in England and the powerful impact that educators can have on future generations. “In many ways, the process of forming moral leaders can only be done in the classroom,” said Arias, adding that moments of epiphany are rare once opinions and priorities are decided.
Arias then presented three moral principles that he views as fundamental for developing and sustaining a peaceful world. For citizens and countries to attain a future free of conflict, leaders must know no boundaries, governments must place people before profits, and we must recognize that leaders can come from anywhere.
Concerning his first point about boundaries, Arias stated that leaders cannot serve their people well if they only focus on their own community. “Any one that refuses to take a global perspective is not serving in the best interest of his own people,” he added. Even as the world becomes more connected through technology, ignorance about the struggles in other parts of the world and how our actions affect those issues still persists. Citizens must become more aware of their place in the world and make decisions that benefit the whole rather than the few.
Regarding this last point, Arias spoke with indignation about the sums of money spent on militaries and weapons. He called the lack of spending on peaceful, educational, and public health initiatives “nothing less than an outrage” when compared with how much is spent worldwide on things that lead to and prolong conflict. Costa Rica abolished its military in 1948, and Arias says that many decades later the plan is “one which we are not prepared to abandon, and one to which we wish our neighbors would adhere.” The money previously allocated for the armed forces has gone to benefit the country in the form of more hospitals and schools, more doctors and educators.
Arias concluded his address by reminding the audience that future leaders can come from all walks of life. People today can connect in many more ways than in the past, and access to education and other cultures is unprecedented. The role of the educators in this age is to encourage students to be deliberate in their exploration of the world and facilitate opportunities to expand their ideas of other places and other people. Arias stated that educators are the ones who guide students on the path of discovery, and although the time they spend with the students may be short, their impact may be the most powerful force in a student’s life.