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Global Citizenship Through a Global Lens

In the wake of a pandemic that has fundamentally and forever changed the landscape of international education and mobility, what does it mean to be a global citizen? International educators from around the world offer their perspectives.
Photo: Shutterstock
 

For many colleges and universities in the United States and throughout the world, a centerpiece of their overall mission calls for developing “global citizens” prepared for engagement in an increasingly interconnected world. The concept of global citizenship is a vague one, and people have a wide range of ideas about what it encompasses: cross-cultural understanding and dialogue, inclusion, appreciation for diversity, and adaptability, to name a few goals. 

Before the pandemic, many definitions would have included an element of mobility—that traveling to and spending time in different places are essential to becoming a global citizen. But as the spread of COVID-19 compelled higher education’s transition to online learning in March 2020, institutions got creative in developing ways to continue intercultural education. 

“The pandemic has starkly illustrated the interconnectedness of our world and has made the notion of citizenship even more crucial,” says Emilienne Baneth-Nouailhetas, PhD, vice president for international relations and professor of literature at Université PSL in Paris.

In the wake of a pandemic that has fundamentally and forever changed the landscape of international education and global mobility, what does it mean to be a global citizen? International educators from around the world weighed in with their perspectives, including their thoughts on the limitations of the term “global citizen.” 

What Does Global Citizenship Really Mean?

Over the past decade or so, a growing number of people worldwide consider themselves to be global citizens more so than citizens of their own countries. A 2016 poll conducted by GlobeScan found that more than 50 percent of the people surveyed in 18 countries viewed themselves as global citizens—marking the first time since tracking began in 2001 that a global majority expressed this perspective. These results were fueled primarily by citizens of large emerging economies that are not part of the Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development (OECD), including China, India, Nigeria, and Peru. Conversely, identification as a global citizen dropped among the people of seven OECD countries that have been tracked in the same surveys. 

Given that the concept resonates widely enough for more than half of the survey participants to identify as global citizens, what does the term “global citizen,” or “global citizenship,” really mean? Is it just an empty buzzword, or does it have significance and impact? 

In the essay “Global Citizenship: What Are We Talking About and Why Does It Matter?” Madeleine F. Green, PhD—then a Senior Fellow at NAFSA and the International Association of Universities—writes, “National citizenship is an accident of birth; global citizenship is different. It is a voluntary association” that people make based on their personal experiences with different countries, people, and cultures.

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Though the concept of global citizenship is compelling, it has limits, says Cory Owen.

When asked what “global citizenship” means to them, international education professionals from around the world say the term encompasses ideals such as cultural empathy, civic responsibility, passion for engaging with people from different backgrounds, adaptability, and appreciation for diversity. The concept also includes a commitment to solving the world’s collective challenges, such as climate change and interconnected financial markets. 

“For me, global citizenship refers to understanding our place within the world around us,” says Cory Owen, EdD, associate dean of students at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. “It provides a space to explore other experiences, ideologies, and cultures while recognizing our own nationalities and cultures.”

While Owen finds the concept “compelling,” she believes it has limits. Though learning about other cultures is a positive step, she says, becoming a true global citizen requires deep immersion in the experiences, traditions, languages, and daily life of people in other parts of the world.

“True global citizenship takes time, commitment, and a willingness to re-examine our own cultural lens as we learn.” —Cory Owen

“For example, the rise of voluntourism can have some benefits; however, a 1-week visit to build a house in another country only provides a peek, and perhaps a skewed peek, into the lives of others,” Owen says. “True global citizenship takes time, commitment, and a willingness to re-examine our own cultural lens as we learn.”

Takehito Kamata, PhD, an assistant professor by special appointment at Sophia University in Tokyo, adds “inclusion” as a key component of global citizenship.

“From my perspective, being a citizen of the world refers to being committed to make continuous efforts to understand various factors and perspectives that would influence our lives and shared resources across nations around the world,” Kamata says. “It will be significant to think [of] inclusion as the first priority whenever we communicate with individuals and treat each other with respect and dignity all the time. I also do believe it will be our shared responsibility to respect people from different cultures and collaborate together for others, with others.”

Above all, global citizenship seems to be a choice people make. It is a way of thinking about and respecting others in our local communities and beyond.

“I genuinely believe that global citizenship is, among other things, a state of mind of a highly aware, open, and curious mind,” says Gordana Vlahovic, MSc, head of international affairs at the University of Novi Sad Faculty of Sciences in Serbia. “One must be open-minded at heart to comprehend and embrace the idea, while the world must become as borderless as possible to sustain the entire construct.”

The Shortcomings of the Global Citizenship Concept 

While defining oneself as a citizen of the world seems like a desirable goal, the notion of global citizenship has some negative connotations. Hala Dimechkie, MA, says the concept can be exclusive to people from certain regions of the world. She points out that having a U.S. or European passport, for example, offers greater access to travel by making it easier to secure a visa for travel, employment, or education than having a passport from Lebanon or Iran or Afghanistan.

“Global citizenship is, among other things, a state of mind of a highly aware, open, and curious mind.” —Gordana Vlahovic

Global citizenship “is subject to a wide array of interpretations; while it works as an aspiration or concept, it does not take into consideration limitations and privilege ‘on the ground,’” says Dimechkie, director of the office of international programs for the American University of Beirut (AUB). 

“[Passports] are not equal in their power to grant access or mobility to other countries,” she says. “So while universities across the world may be working to provide global education for their students, they are not all equally able to implement this. [AUB] can receive students from North and South America, Europe, Australia, but our students struggle to obtain visas for those same countries and have to go through a grueling visa application process and are sometimes denied.”

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Some aspects of global citizenship have to do with access to education and travel opportunities that can be limited by country of origin. Illustration: Shutterstock

For many people throughout the world, limited resources hinder access to global citizenship. 

“Being a global citizen would encompass access to resources that equip us to become a global citizen,” says In-Sook Choi, regional manager for Australia, ASEAN, Japan, and South Korea in the department of research, science, and the arts at Baden-Württemberg International in Germany. “These resources are unequal in access and distribution and include persisting real-world struggles, such as access to education or future-relevant skills, [and] bare necessities of humanity, such as the possibility to live in a peaceful, nonviolent society [and] access to food, water, and health care. The disparity regarding access to these conditions is simple and obvious, cruel and crucial—and often undermined by the optimistic coloring of the term.”

Johannes Dingler, director of the international office at the University of Konstanz in Germany, adds that the concept “can be considered a countermovement to tendencies of re-nationalization, populism, anti-rationalism, and racism.” 

“Being a global citizen would encompass access to resources that equip us to become a global citizen. These resources are unequal in access and distribution.” —In-Sook Choi

Teun Dekker, DPhil, a professor of liberal arts at the University College Maastricht in the Netherlands, agrees. 

“The global [portion of the term] suggests that it is all about engaging in democratic conversations with people far away, while we also need to do so with the people in our neighborhoods,” Dekker says. “The term ‘citizenship’ suggests a defined political community that one is a citizen of, with legal rights and duties. It also has associations with anti-nationalism, which can be divisive. I actually prefer the term ‘civic virtue,’ but…global citizenship is good at communicating how connected we all are; every choice we make here affects people elsewhere.”

The Pandemic’s Effects

When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged last March, institutions across the globe were forced to bring home study abroad students, send international students back to their countries of origin, and cancel other international experiences. For many international education professionals, this new way of life sparked new approaches to maintaining global citizenship within their personal lives as well as in the experiences provided for students.

Vlahovic, for example, stayed connected to the world beyond her home by participating in virtual tours of world-famous museums, nature parks, exhibitions, concerts, and more. Doing so indulged her appetite for cultural experiences and belonging to the world, she says.

“Even though I felt deeply frustrated because of the inability to travel and abrupt cancellations of everything I thought was vital for my ongoing projects, I admit being comfortable with my newly found adaptability and resilience,” says Vlahovic. “I accepted that I would have to remain global without being physically mobile, and so I did. I embraced the virtual and continued to practice my global citizenship from my home office.”

“[Travel] is important and valuable but not necessary—especially given that it is not accessible to all. Traditionally, it was one of the main tenets of internationalization, but this is no longer the case.” —Hala Dimechkie

As travel came to a halt at the onset of the pandemic, the question of mobility’s role in global citizenship emerged. The past year has brought to light a new, viable approach for international education. For many in the field, travel limitations highlighted the case that mobility is not a requirement for a global citizenship. In fact, some argue that virtual opportunities help level the playing field when travel is not accessible.

“[Travel] is important and valuable but not necessary—especially given that it is not accessible to all,” Dimechkie says. “Traditionally, it was one of the main tenets of internationalization, but this is no longer the case….The pandemic has accelerated the move toward a more comprehensive and inclusive definition of internationalization that encompasses virtual experiences and a more intentional form of internationalization at home.”

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“The immediate and long-lasting effects of the pandemic showcase clearly that global citizenry is shaped, restrained by, or divided across economic, material, and technological dispositions,” Choi says. Illustration: Shutterstock

Choi adds, “The COVID-19 crisis reflects on the realities of unequal access to global citizenship” in many ways. “The immediate and long-lasting effects of the pandemic showcase clearly that global citizenry is shaped, restrained by, or divided across economic, material, and technological dispositions,” she says. “The pandemic shifted our perspective from the idealistic concept of being a global citizen to the barriers to being or becoming [one]. The significance of mobility in the knowledge economy underlines the gap between the ideational state of being a global citizen and its reality.” 

Promoting Global Citizenship

For the most part, international educators share a common vision of developing students into global citizens who are prepared to make positive contributions to society. A few themes emerged when they were asked about how to best help students and others in the academic community become citizens of the world.

First, think locally.

Engage students working to understand and solve local problems and scale these issues through the lens of global citizenship. Provide opportunities for students to reflect on their own values and their place within their own communities. 

“I believe being a global citizen starts at home, with an understanding of oneself and one’s surroundings,” says Samia Chasi, PhD, strategic adviser for the International Education Association of South Africa and a research fellow at the University of the Free State. 

“I believe being a global citizen starts at home, with an understanding of oneself and one’s surroundings.” —Samia Chasi

“Students and staff can spend more time reflecting on and actively engaging with the communities immediately around them—be that on campus or at home,” she says. “This includes promoting an understanding of and engagement with difference, for example, by actively seeking out people from different backgrounds, cultures, and countries and creating opportunities for dialogue and collaboration.”

Leverage technology.

Students from underrepresented populations, including low-income or first-generation students, often are less likely to study abroad due to costs, family responsibilities, or other circumstances. Technology has opened the world to a broader range of people and places. 

“Virtual mobility may be an alternative for those students, so they can have some of the benefits of international education,” says Maricy Schmitz, deputy education attaché at the Embassy of Brazil. “The pandemic has brought a reset and presented us with an opportunity to be creative. But on the other hand, it has magnified the disparities. So there is the need to address diversity and inclusion [and] foster sustainable, global engagement and access to technology for connectivity.”

Revamp internationalization efforts on campus.

Collaborate with campus administration to develop an interdisciplinary, global curriculum. Advocate for world language programs, which often are cut from academic offerings, and promote regional, national, and international partnerships that connect students across the globe.

“Studying abroad is only one instrument promoting global citizenship,” Dingler says. “The concept [of global citizenship] can be integrated in different structures of a higher education institution. For example, the values of global citizenship can be integrated in the vision of the institution, in teaching, research, internationalization at home, in virtual teaching, and specific international seminars like Collaborative Online International Learning.”

“Studying abroad is only one instrument promoting global citizenship. The concept [of global citizenship] can be integrated in different structures of a higher education institution.” —Johannes Dingler

Set a positive example of the ideal global citizen.

An important component of global citizenship is the ability to engage in “democratic conversations” with people from all walks of life, sharing common challenges and honestly exchanging perspectives, Dekker says. 

“Teaching is also a matter of setting a good example, in this case of setting a good example of having democratic conversations,” he says. “So we should try to engage in those special kinds of conversations in the classroom, but also in the community and in administration. We should always try to engage as free and equal members of a community and try to synthesize our perspectives to achieve the common good.”

Focus on the journey.

Finally, Owen emphasizes the importance of simply enjoying the ride. 

“I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a true citizen of the world—I view it more as a journey rather than a final destination,” Owen says. “There is just so much to learn about others, and while we should strive to become a citizen of the world, I believe that the moment that we think we’ve actualized this concept is the moment that we stop learning and therefore stop growing. Part of this journey means listening to the stories of others to see the beauty of how varied all of our experiences are and leaning into the complexities of the world.”  •

 

Editor’s note: All quotations and ideas presented in this article represent only the perspectives of the individuals quoted, not their employers or governments.


 

Paris to Washington, D.C.: Global Citizenship in Action

While global citizenship is generally an elusive notion, some institutions facilitate programs they feel make the concept more tangible.

At Université PSL in Paris, for example, faculty leaders encourage students to participate in Students Reinventing Cities, a sustainable urban development competition launched by C40, a worldwide network of megacities collaborating to address climate change. The initiative was designed to bring students and universities throughout the world together to share their visions for reviving rundown or polluted neighborhoods in major cities. PSL reached out to its global partners and created international teams of students. A group of New York University PSL students created a plan to rehabilitate a South Paris neighborhood. At the same time, another PSL team was paired up with peers from George Washington University to develop a case study for improving areas of Washington, D.C.

Because travel was not possible during the pandemic, students located within the cities became “feet on the ground” for those working virtually on the projects, says Emilienne Baneth-Nouailhetas, PhD, vice president for international relations and professor of literature at Université PSL in Paris.

“This was a true international experience, combined with peer-based learning and service-learning,” Baneth-Nouailhetas says. “The remote discussions and work on common projects allowed the students to develop their collaborative skills, their intercultural skills, their organizational skills, while applying themselves to a global challenge with a global team.”

About International Educator

International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

From in-depth features to interviews with thought leaders and columns tailored to NAFSA’s knowledge communities, IE provides must-read context and analysis to those working around the globe to advance international education and exchange.

About NAFSA

NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA's 10,000 members are located at more than 3,500 institutions worldwide, in over 150 countries.