Are we equipping young people with the skills they need to succeed in today’s interconnected world?

This was a question posed by Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations and Nobel laureate, during his opening plenary speech at NAFSA’s 2013 Annual Conference in St. Louis on Tuesday. Annan thanked international educators for their work and praised their efforts to improve understanding and foster dialogue among students from around the world.

“You are on the frontlines of these efforts to build understanding—it must be taught and nurtured,” he said. “The best way is through teaching and providing opportunities for people to learn through other cultures.”

Annan said that it’s important to encourage academic institutions to help young people learn skills to become global citizens and ensure that curricula are reflective of today’s global community. Doing so requires a focus on such areas as global development and law and human rights, and looking to examples such as the Model United Nations (Model UN), which provides students with a unique opportunity to learn how to debate, negotiate, and speak publicly without getting angry.

“A good education is about formation of character and not merely transmission of knowledge,” he said.

Annan, originally from Ghana, came to the United States on a Ford Foundation grant that enabled him to attend Macalester University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He graduated in 1961. His time at Macalester, where he was part of a foreign student leadership project, was among the most productive of his life, he said.

He stressed that the work of international educators is of critical importance in securing the future.

“You provide the best possible foundation for the new generation of leaders we so desperately need,” he said. “The challenges are great. But the more I see and hear of the younger generation, the more confident I become.”

In addition to his work with the Kofi Annan Foundation, which was founded in 2007, Annan serves as the chairman of the Africa Progress Panel (APP) and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).  He is also a board member, patron, or honorary member of several organizations, including the UN Foundation and The Elders. Annan serves as the chancellor of the University of Ghana, is a Global Fellow at Columbia University, and serves as the Li Ka Shing Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

On May 15, Annan launched a new series of conversations with young people on critical global issues called Kofi Annan Dialogues Live. The next conversation takes place June 20 on the topic of unemployment.