This spring, leaders in international education at Drake University invited the Center for Citizen Diplomacy to give an undergraduate workshop on the theory and practice of citizen diplomacy. Afterwards, one student evaluation offered the following definition:
“Citizen diplomacy is the right and responsibility of all people to engage in cross-cultural, person-to-person interactions that create some greater shared understanding.” I was thrilled to read this response because it so closely reflects how the Center talks about citizen diplomacy as a tool for global engagement. It was exciting to see undergraduate students at my alma mater not only embrace the concept, but also feel empowered by it.
The workshop, designed for undergraduate students with internationally-focused majors and held at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, was called “Citizen Diplomacy: How to Be More Relatable, Likeable, and Employable.”
The workshop sought to deliver big ideas in engaging ways to university students in a single afternoon. Learning objectives for the workshop were threefold: create an understanding of citizen diplomacy and its value to personal and professional development; connect students to resources, particularly on campus, to be engaged global citizens; and inspire a higher level of student empowerment to act with purpose as globally fluent citizen diplomats.
Through ice breaker activities, story sharing, short lectures, videos, and other interactive exercises, we spent four hours with about two dozen students exploring what it means to be an engaged citizen of the world, and how concepts like citizen diplomacy and global fluency are powerful forces in building and sustaining a secure, economically sound, and socially interconnected planet.
These ideas matter at both a macro and micro level. For example, presenting statistics about how dependent the U.S. economy is on global demand is all fine and good, but what soon-to-be college graduates really want to know is how they are going to get jobs after graduation. Young ears perk up when you mention that employers like Google, Apple, and the State Department want to hire globally fluent individuals who thrive when collaborating with colleagues from diverse backgrounds and different ways of operating.
When exploring concepts of engaged citizenship and citizen diplomacy, it’s vital to realize these aren’t just “nice ideas” that make the world a better place but have practical application in terms of finding and retaining employment. That message resonates with college students who want to know how to succeed in the global marketplace. These students want careers that are not only personally satisfying, but that also pay the bills and allow them to support themselves while putting the skills they learned in school to use. All soon-to-be college graduates want to make sure the walls on which they’ll hang those expensive diplomas aren’t in a guestroom of their parents’ basement.
Returning to the evaluation forms from this pilot run workshop, I again look at the reflections of the student who summarized her definition of citizen diplomacy so well. That same participant rated her understanding of citizen diplomacy as a “2” on a scale of one to five before the workshop started. After the workshop, she rated both her understanding of citizen diplomacy and her feeling of empowerment to engage as a global citizen at the “5” level.
Her responses—and those of the other students from Drake—reinforce what we believe to be true: college students can be extraordinarily effective citizen diplomats.
With opportunities to study abroad and interact with international students on campus, as well as a nearly constant use of social media platforms that connect them to information and peers around the world, college students have the potential to be globally engaged every day. We simply need to show them the benefits of operating in a globally fluent community, and inspire them to act with purpose.
One of my favorite activities from the workshop was the “speed dating” sessions. At each station, participants learned a traditional greeting from a different culture, practiced a word or phrase in another language, were invited to an event on campus where they could continue to engage with peers from other countries, and were presented with a small gift as a token of this interaction.
In one session we practiced the correct angle to bow to a new colleague in Japan, learned how to say “nice to meet you” in Japanese, were invited to a tea ceremony, and were presented with a small origami crane. Every few minutes the speed dating bell rang and participants engaged with new peers who taught them something about life in Malaysia, France, China, Kenya, and elsewhere.
The point of the speed dating activity was to connect students to resources available to them right on their own campus, and also to demonstrate how easy it is to engage with the world beyond our borders, even in your own backyard. Not everyone can spend a semester abroad, but there are any number of ways to become a more globally fluent individual at home.
During the fourth attempt of one student to learn the polite way to say “thank you” in Mongolian during a speed dating round, her beaming peer from Mongolia exclaimed, “There you go! You got it!” The Drake student smiled back and said, “Yeah? I got it!”
Yes, in that moment she did get it. She learned a new word, true, but she also learned how easy it is to make a genuine connection with someone who has something amazing to teach you. She experienced how good and empowering it feels to be a part of the world beyond your own little bubble.
She got it.