Bringing the world home to Missouri

“We want to expose students to the world to enhance their comfort with cultural differences and to prepare them for successful careers in a global economy”

Since its founding in 1996, Cenet, a nonprofit in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, has provided affordable study abroad experiences for American and international students, and work-based exchange opportunities in the US for young adults around the world, the organisation’s executive director Robyn Walker writes.

Having grown up in nearby southern Illinois, I was Cenet’s first study abroad student (to the sunny island of Malta), and now have the privilege of serving as the organization’s executive director.  Cenet recently revised its mission – “to inspire a safer, more prosperous and compassionate world through international education and cultural exploration” – and with that in mind, I want us to have more impact in our local area.

The southern Mississippi delta is now the poorest region of the U.S. Research from IIE (the New York-based Institute of International Education) shows that cross-cultural skills and knowledge have an impact on long-term professional success.  Many students in our region cannot afford to travel.

To bring the world to them, we created Cultural Classroom, a pilot program that provides opportunities for Southeast Missouri educators to travel abroad and learn about different cultures. Our goal is to provide these teachers with an authentic, multi-faceted experience that they can convey to their students.

Many students in our region cannot afford to travel

As a first step this summer, we sent four educators on a week-long study tour to the Dominican Republic.

“I gained such insight into the Dominican culture and way of life, providing me with a better understanding of our world,” said April Garner, principal at Franklin School in Cape Girardeau.

“The conversations with people, both among our group and from the Dominicans, allowed me to gain new insights and perspectives that will guide me in my teaching and interactions with others. I feel truly blessed by this experience.”

Our Missouri educators experienced Dominican culture and customs in the capital city, Santo Domingo, and in rural areas.  They met with local entrepreneurs and teachers, visited schools, and had supper with Dominican families in their homes.

They discussed issues as diverse as political systems, environmental challenges, the impact of tourism on a developing country, human trafficking, and woman’s rights.  Our local arrangements were made by Intentional Tours, a Pennsylvania-based firm that aims to provide genuine, well rounded experiences, allowing travelers to engage directly with local people, as well as experience the natural and historical beauty of the countries they visit.

Cenet will conduct workshops with its Cultural Classroom participants during the school year to facilitate building cross-cultural content into their lessons.  As a former teacher, I am excited to work with our educators to create stimulating lessons for their students.

Drawing on her Cultural Classroom experience, Erica Robbins, who teaches introduction to foreign languages at Jackson Middle School, has ambitious goals for her students.

“My goal is to integrate my experiences to help my students truly comprehend where they come from, view the world they live in with admiration, and motivate them to mindfully participate in society.”

To paraphrase Senator William Fulbright, we’ve made a modest start, but we have immodest aims. We want to expose students to the world, to enhance their comfort with cultural differences, and to prepare them for successful careers in a global economy.

We believe teachers can be key to this effort, and by playing that role, can contribute to our overarching goal: to inspire a safer, more prosperous and compassionate world.

About the author: Robyn Walker’s first international exchange experience was at the age of 22 when she studied on the island of Malta.  After completing her bachelor’s degree, Robyn moved to Arezzo, Italy, where she spent six months as an international intern. She returned to Malta to complete her post-graduate degree, and five years later, she relocated to Copenhagen, Denmark.  Robyn has been with Cenet since 2005 and has served as the Executive Director since 2009.