What Happened to Global Citizenship in a Pandemic?

It’s time for international educators to truly contemplate the work we do, and in turn spark conversations and actions to better our efforts.
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With the impending New Year bringing us almost 2 years into the COVID-19 pandemic, this is an opportune time for international educators, myself included, to take stock of our work and look forward. For many years, I have been mulling over the concept of “global citizenship,” and my skepticism has intensified with the pandemic. In my opinion, notions of global citizenship can be more humble and realistic. Instead, the field might consider global awareness and engagement.

What Is Global? What Is Citizenship?

Rather than provide a historical and scholarly treatise on global citizenship, I attempt to engage with the phrase “global citizenship” at face value. The phrase naturally invites us to contemplate the two words: “global” and “citizenship.” According to both Oxford Languages and Britannica, “global” refers to the world.

Tang Heng

On the other hand, “citizenship” is, arguably, more complicated. Oxford Languages defines it as “the position or status of being a citizen of a particular country,” and Britannica as a “relationship between an individual and a state to which the individual owes allegiance and in turn is entitled to its protection.” The latter points to an obligation to the state; a responsible citizen fulfills this obligation, whether or not the citizen desires it.

Beyond dictionary definitions, global citizenship, as Madeleine F. Green observes, departs from national citizenship; while the latter occurs by accident of birth, the former’s association with the world is voluntary.

Yet, it is in this voluntariness that, I argue, lies the problem with the concept of global citizenship as is commonly bandied about in international education.

Global Citizenship in International Education

Global citizenship is an amorphous buzzword in the field of international education. It can be associated with anything from attitudes (e.g., open-mindedness, empathy), to skills (e.g., intercultural communication, cross-cultural collaboration), mobility (e.g., holding different passports, studying and working internationally), and commitment to solving worldwide challenges (e.g., tackling climate change, reducing poverty), among other qualities.

The global citizen concept is often marketed to attract students to institutions with the promise that upon graduation, they would acquire skills, attitudes, and experiences necessary for plugging themselves into the world. This can be achieved via, to name a few, interaction with students from all around the world, study abroad programs, or overseas service experiences.

Where Is Global Citizenship in a Pandemic?

Other than being acquirable, it is often portrayed as something to be desired. Some of us may be more easily impressed by someone who introduces him or herself as a “global citizen” who shares allegiance with not one but the many countries where he or she has traveled, worked, or volunteered.

Yet, this pandemic has dimmed my perspective of “global citizenship.” I read about countries with might out-bidding others for medical equipment and supplies, hoarding vaccines, and shutting down borders (even to their own citizens), in addition to the rising xenophobia worldwide and countries disregarding World Health Organisation’s warnings against easing COVID restrictions. Learning that despite half the world’s population not having received one dose of the COVID vaccine, rich countries are rolling out boosters or throwing out unused vaccines further dampened my hope for global citizenry. What are “global citizens” doing in response to their governments’ decisions or other countries’ disasters and needs?

To be clear, my skepticism of global citizenship was not solely catalyzed by the pandemic. Over the past 15 years, living and working in different countries, interacting with self-proclaimed “global citizens,” and critically looking inwards, I have come to question what it truly means to be a citizen. My (perhaps limited) observation is that, oftentimes, “global citizens” see themselves as being able to transition smoothly from one country to the next and having access to the resources they desire (be it jobs, schools, services, and so on). However, the difficult questions are what they would give up or contribute (beyond taxes) for the different countries or communities they are residing within, or what happens when hard times set in.

Therein lies my discomfort with the voluntariness associated with global citizenship. In my opinion, a citizen is not only entitled to rights and privileges, but also expected to put up with the inconveniences, compromises, and disagreements they have with the country or community they are living in. This is in addition to being responsible and making contributions and sacrifices so that all citizens live equitably. It is akin to getting married: Through thick or thin, one weathers life with one’s spouse. Except with citizenship, one’s “spouse” is the country or fellow citizens. Thus, a global citizen cannot voluntarily choose to enter or exit the contract with the world at his or her whims and fancy.

More Humble and Realistic Concepts: Global Awareness or Engagement

In this pandemic, I cannot help but ask: What happened to global citizenship, to cross-cultural collaborations and commitment to solving global challenges? What sacrifices or contributions have we made for other countries? What are these “global citizens” who we, international educators, have claimed to graduate doing in response to this pandemic? Have we been overly ambitious or even deluded in thinking global citizenship is possible? Are we ready politically, administratively, culturally, and humanly to support global citizenship to begin with?

I recognize that these are controversial questions with no right or easy answers. Some may argue, for instance, that the pandemic has revealed how we have to work even harder to create greater awareness of global citizenship and make it a reality.

I beg to differ and offer my opinion that it is timely for us to rethink the notion of “global citizenship.” I argue that rather than “global citizenship,” it may be more humble or realistic to talk about “global awareness” or “global engagement.” These terms convey cognizance that there is a world larger than the country or community in which we reside, which we are curious about and engage with. Yet, we simultaneously recognize the limitations of the engagement and in doing so, manage our own hubris.

Before we aspire for global citizenship, we will first need to enhance our global awareness or engagement. Global awareness or engagement need not always necessitate travel to another place. Instead, it is about expanding our consciousness and living as ethically as possible when interacting with differences.

Building Global Awareness

For a start, here are some ideas of how global awareness or engagement can be nurtured: Reading and listening to news sources beyond those of one’s country can help broaden perspectives of the world. Reading books set in different time and space and watching international movies beyond the mainstream fares can open one’s eyes to other ways of living and doing around the world. Better yet, learning a different language is powerful, as culture transmits via language, and it can help one see and think differently. Learning a different language also helps to build empathy, humility, and patience.

Immigrant communities are present in most countries. Finding opportunities to connect with or contribute to these communities is another way in which we can engage with people and perspectives that may (or may not) be different from ours. We would do better to truly understand and enact citizenship in our own countries as well as we can before we contemplate a concept as lofty as global citizenship.

These are nascent ruminations on the concept of “global citizenship,” and by no means do I think they are superior to what other scholars have mooted. To some, this reflection may seem like a regression, but history has shown us that knowledge and societal progression are never linear, and we would do ourselves a disservice thinking otherwise.

As we look toward a new year and all that will come with it, I hope we as international educators truly contemplate the work we do, and in turn spark conversations and actions to better our efforts. It is hard to ask difficult questions, search within one’s soul, and recalibrate our actions. But to not even engage in this contemplation would be an injustice to the millions of lives lost and livelihoods devastated by this pandemic.  •

Tang T. Heng, EdD, is an assistant professor at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore.

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