THE BLOG

Every Student Needs to Have a Meaningful Cross-Cultural Exchange During Their Education

02/27/2015 03:13 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2015

GNG director Chris Plutte recently brought together Jordanian high school students to talk about their impressions of Washington, D.C.

The Aspen Challenge -- launched by the Aspen Institute and the Bezos Family Foundation -- provides a platform, inspiration and tools for young people to design solutions to some of the world's most critical problems by engaging with leading global visionaries, artists and entrepreneurs. District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) will send teams from several schools to compete with each other to present their solutions at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Here, international development expert Chris Plutte shares the Aspen Challenge he's given to students in Washington, D.C.

Every student needs to have a meaningful cross-cultural exchange during their education. Every student needs to learn to value life differences as deeply as similarities. Because for our youth today, interacting, living and learning to thrive with someone who is different is the norm and is the future. Virtual exchanges are the vessels that can make this happen.

Virtual exchanges are technology-enabled, sustained, people-to-people education programs. Live videoconferencing, online platforms and more are utilized to connect real human beings directly with each other from anywhere in the world to anywhere in the world. Any and all topics for study and greater cross-cultural understanding can be examined and explored. We are only limited by our imagination on who and how we want to engage, learn, and grow.

Across every continent, thousands of youth are going online and connecting with each other, and not simply to share the latest viral video or to tweet the latest craze. Thousands of our young people are harnessing technology to take their cross-cultural education into their own hands. Together, these brave young souls reach beyond borders and seas to break apart the news broadcasts of misrepresentation and misinformation -- face to face through virtual exchange. This is good news; for our future, this is necessary news. But it is not enough.

With virtual exchanges, every student, every young human being can have a direct relationship with a peer in a country and culture different than their own. That experience, that direct relationship, that empathy building, research has shown, holds a direct correlation to the reduction of conflict and violence. Once I get to know you, regardless and inclusive of our differences, in short, I am less likely to harm you. I am more likely to make peace with you. This is the power of connection and peace.

We live in an increasingly cross-cultural world. Exponentially the world for our young people today is more cross-cultural than ever imagined. It is and will continue to be the norm that our youth will be challenged to interact with peers who come from cultures quite different from their own. Those with the skills and understanding of how to be curious of others, how to ask questions, how to listen, how to explore and value differences and similarities, and how to articulately communicate their own lives to those variant from themselves, will thrive.

Through the Aspen Challenge, I am turning to the students of Washington, D.C., and calling them to this timely and necessary task. How can we use virtual exchange to provide every student the opportunity to connect with and build peace with students abroad?

Virtual exchanges are currently being used to build bridges between the West and Muslim majority countries. Over the past year, we have seen Islamist extremists challenge freedom of expression in France, abduct young women in Nigeria, and murder school children in Pakistan. With our culture of 24-hour news cycles it can be hard for us in the West to remember that the minority of extremists do not represent the majority 1.6 billion Muslims. On the flip side, it is easy for those living in the Muslim majority countries to think that the recent exposure of the CIA's torture of Muslims represents American values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

These cultural misunderstandings are being fueled by the media and are pushing both sides into islands of isolation. What we need to do is bypass the nightly news, show fierce compassion for one another, and engage in authentic ways like we have never done before.

The traditional way of engaging in global educational exchange and international peace building has been through physical exchanges, such as semester abroad programs. No one can understate the value of these important experiences. Yet physical exchanges are expensive and difficult to scale. Despite the US government allocating nearly a half a billion dollars towards physical exchanges annually, less than 1 percent of American students will go abroad. And when they do, they go to Paris, London and Rome. They are not traveling to places with the greatest cultural gap, with the greatest need for peace building -- Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Somalia and Iraq.

Global Nomads Group currently reaches several thousand students in these essential regions and connects them with students in the US through virtual exchange. It is not enough. It is not every student. And every student today deserves and needs a meaningful cross-cultural exchange. Every student today deserves and needs to engage their right, their power in global peace building. How can we leverage technology so that every student gets what he and she needs and deserves? That's my Aspen Challenge.