01/17/2012 10:50 am ET Updated Mar 18, 2012

Out of the Streets and Into the Classroom

There are places you will go in your life where you can close your eyes and walk the streets in your dreams. As you look up at the mountains in the night, the city lights of the surrounding hills twinkle like fallen stars punched out of the darkness. Over cobblestones you pass, beneath the shade of trees, in the shadow of Spanish arches, under the watchful eyes of ancestors. Step after step, paso a paso, until you are walking the path of someone else's life.

For me, Cochabamba, the garden city of Bolivia, is one of those indelible places, burnt less into my memory than into my understanding of the world. Nestled at the foothills of the Andes, halfway between soaring peaks and tropical jungles, Cochabamba's year-round warm climate enables a vibrant street culture that teems with life as it wrangles with the discontents of modernity. By far, the most alarming of these are the young children who wander the streets late into the night, many working or begging with even younger siblings in tow. In Bolivia, as in many low-income countries, children make up a large portion of the population and are all too often the face of poverty.

The prospects of a nation lie in its youth. A bellwether of any country's development lies in its ability to provide opportunities for young people. In the fight against poverty, educating every child is one of the best investments a country can make. Education is the key that unlocks the true wealth of nations by enabling a future generation to lift up themselves and their communities. As I made my way from the green plazas of Cochabamba into graduate school and beyond, my experience as a student of World Learning led me to a career working in global education policy.

At its core, education is the opening up of one's world view. It enables us to think critically, to bravely imagine new worlds. My time in Bolivia and lesson in global citizenship allowed me to witness first-hand the transformational power that can come from investing in people-centered development. Around the planet, the opportunity to access and complete a quality education helps empower individuals and whole societies. The United Nations estimates that if all children in the developing world were able to read, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty .

In the past two decades, international movements such as the UN Millennium Development Goals have helped get an unprecedented number of children into school, many of them girls and members of other vulnerable groups. But as the clock ticks down on the 2015 deadline to achieve universal primary education, 67 million children still remain locked out of the classroom, many of them the poorest and most at-risk, like those who wander the dusty streets of Cochabamba.

The challenge ahead for us is to find ways to better work in global partnership, so that all young people may have the opportunity to learn, grow, and become their own agents of change.