Virtual Exchange Program: Geography Class for the 21st Century

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.
~ Mark Twain

What if every child growing up in the United States visited 40 different countries before they graduated high school?

This is an impossible dream I’ve had for several years, so I’ve decided to share it because it’s too good not to. It’s an idea that was born from traveling.

I’ve been lucky to travel a lot in my life. Whether it was deployments to Asia, Australia and the Middle East as a Navy Officer, bicycling across Europe for three months, spending five months in Bali or living in the bush in Africa, I’ve had some incredible experiences leaving the comfort of my home and venturing abroad. My first hand experiences are my greatest memories, and also the time when I grew the most as a person.

I learned about the relationship between Croatia and Serbia by drinking cheap wine with locals in Hvar and listening to them sing traditional songs of their country.

I got to understand what it was like to grow up in Iraq by sitting next to an Iraqi guy my age on an 13-hour bus ride through Thailand.

I sat with Tibetan refugees in Nepal and listened to them explain what it’s like to not have a country they can call home.

I sat with a Turkish hotel owner in Istanbul and although he barely spoke english we used google translate to discuss the complicated history of Turkey and Armenia, and where it is today (I’m Armenian).

Often in a thirty minute conversation I learned more about another culture than I did in years of formal education. I would always think to myself “what if all kids going through school could have this experience”? It’s not always possible for children to travel overseas, but there’s one piece of technology that’s changed all that.

The internet. More specifically, video chat.

Here’s the idea, and I want you to know that I don’t consider this intellectual property, so if you are inspired by it, please take it, run with it, share it, whatever. I would love to see this idea come to life.

Virtual Exchange Program

What I’m proposing is a program where schools in the United States partner with schools from other countries. For example, let’s say a high school in Boston partners with a high school in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The students talk on Skype once a week and their teachers give them assignments that help them discover what it’s like to live in the other country. Instead of learning facts about a country like it’s population, type of government and weather, students can also understand what it’s like to grow up there through their conversations.

They can have the same life-changing experience I’ve had while traveling, except they can do it as part of their curriculum. The best part is, this can work seamlessly into the way already teach kids, except instead of doing research online or in a library, they go to first hand sources.

For example, what would it be like for a student to give a presentation on the relationship between blacks and whites in South Africa after having made friends with kid who grew up there?

What about becoming friends with a kid in Iran and then giving a presentation on what Islam is about? Or hearing about socialism through the eyes of someone who lives in Sweden?

Not only is this a great way to expand someone’s life, it’s actually a way to get a better understanding of the world, in ways we could never do through a book.

This can continue with different schools every semester, or every quarter, and by the end of twelve years of grade school, students could have been in conversation with kids from over forty countries, all from the convenience of their classroom.

Side Benefits

  • Students will get a chance to learn a language by speaking it with a native.
  • The students in other countries will get to practice their english.
  • They will make friends and develop life long friendships with kids from other countries.
  • It will inspire them to travel and they will have people to visit.
  • It will make good use of the technology that schools are acquiring.

People in the United States are notoriously under-cultured when it comes to understanding other countries. There are a couple reasons for this. We only have two bordering countries, and we don’t encourage kids to travel the world like they do in Europe. In many European countries and Australia traveling is part of growing up, and many kids take off after high school to see the world and are gone for months, even years.

With a program like this, we could see radical changes in how we as citizens of the United States see the world in just a few generations.

I hope this idea gets out into the world. I want to repeat what I said above, I hold no ownership to this idea so if you think someone can pull this off and get it started, please run with it! And if I can help at all, just ask.

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