To stay globally competitive, the US needs to build internationalists beginning in K-12

“While encouraging study abroad is the right thing to do, preparing the next generation of global citizens must come earlier”

In a world with internet, video conferencing, and 95% of consumers living outside of the United States, fostering international competencies and connections at an early age is more important than ever for our future livelihoods.

Given that globalization will only increase, we must consider whether we are sufficiently preparing our young people to be successful in the workforce of today and tomorrow.

recent survey found that almost 40% of companies said they missed international business opportunities because of a lack of internationally competent personnel. I see no reason why companies should face that fate when we should be focusing on empowering students who are linguistically skilled, comfortable with other cultures, diverse in their worldview, and ready to do business across borders.

While most associate international focus as something to champion during higher education, only 1.6% of undergraduate students in the US will do an in-person study or cultural exchange program abroad. The low numbers of students with passports, language skills and, thus, the confidence to travel and study abroad mean that waiting until college misses the boat.

At the Texas International Education Consortium, a non-profit organization that promotes international efforts at 31 public universities across the state of Texas, we look at international education with a K-16 approach in study abroad, teacher training, and globally-connected classrooms.

In fact, for 19 years running, we have welcomed more than 799 Japanese high school students from Mishima Senior High School to spend three weeks in Austin every year on a cultural and immersive study abroad program. Such programs include a home-stay with local families and allow Japanese students and US students to interact, break down barriers, and learn from one another.

Recent studies show that second language acquisition alone contributes to students’ educational success through sharper listening, reasoning, and even mathematical skills. We know that building global competencies as soon as possible is crucial in fostering internationalization. K-12 programs that expose students – and their parents – to global subjects and competencies prepares us all for those meaningful exchanges.

If the price point of studying abroad is prohibitive to students, the ability to learn from a teacher who has studied abroad, or is currently studying abroad from another country, may be key. With the ever-expanding number of dual language offerings across Texas and the rest of the United States, creating pathways for foreign language teachers to spend time in US schools and for US teachers to spend time in schools abroad helps to build that international foundation.

“If the price point of studying abroad is prohibitive to students, the ability to learn from a teacher who has studied abroad may be key”

Our students can learn a new culture, language, and customs without having to leave their classrooms. My own children benefited greatly from learning Spanish in elementary school from native speakers, and exchange teachers get to take what they learn from our schools back home with them. Further, the ability to connect our classrooms to peers in other countries through virtual exchange offers students another mutually beneficial chance to interact around the globe at the drop of a hat, and without any financial restraint.

While encouraging study abroad and international education in college is the right thing to do, preparing the next generation of global citizens must come earlier. We must encourage children to be curious about, and interested in, other cultures. Studying abroad and acquiring new languages in grade school is life-changing, and we must also find meaningful alternatives to overcome the barrier of the cost associated with travel.

A small investment in virtual exchange and a short hosting of an exchange teacher are two low-cost and high impact ways to begin preparing our students to be global leaders.

About the author: Robin J. Lerner, J.D., is the President and CEO of the Texas International Education Consortium, a non-profit that represents international partnerships and opportunities for 31 public universities across the state of Texas.