Going global from home

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Going global from home

 Curtis S. Chin, Athena Thomas
Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is the inaugural Asia Fellow of the Milken Institute. Athena Thomas, a recent graduate of New York University Abu Dhabi, works on Policy & Programs at the Milken Institute Asia Center in Singapore. Follow Curtis on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.


As travel restrictions have “locked” people in or out of countries where they were to pursue international studies, Korean students seeking higher education abroad and facing difficult times are far from alone. All across Asia and the world, the lived experience of cross-cultural, in-person education and the understanding it fosters cannot be replaced by a Zoom or Skype call.

Indeed. Speaking to a virtual audience during the Milken Institute’s 2020 Global Conference, Carol Christ, the chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, stated unequivocally that dependence on travel was the one issue higher education had to resolve in the coming decade.

In the near-term, however, for many of the 5.3 million higher education students studying internationally in 2019, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it hardships in areas ranging from finances to mental health.

This has included challenges for international students studying in Korea as well as Korean students studying abroad.

In one example, impacted higher education students unable to get back into China as that nation has prioritized visiting business people over returning students have even taken to a social media campaign using hashtags, #TakeUsBacktoChina and #TakeUsBackToSchool. According to the Institute of International Education, some 50,600 Korean higher education students were in China in the 2019 school year, followed by 28,608 from Thailand, 28,023 from Pakistan, 23,198 from India and 20,936 from the United States.

To be clear, there is no full substitute for studying in person via going online. This is particularly true when it comes to laboratory or field work, or medical residency programs.

Governments that have chosen to suspend student visas should err on the side of greater communication and compassion to students whose lives and education have been interrupted by travel bans.

From first-hand experience including at New York University ‘s Abu Dhabi campus and in our work across the Indo-Pacific region from the Milken Institute Asia Center in Singapore, we know that international education can be a crucial ingredient for success in our global age. So, what can be learned from home now, even as we and others push for the eventual reopening of borders to students once broad-brush restrictions are refined?

Just as technology has helped transform shopping and healthcare through e-commerce and telemedicine respectively, so too have technological advances allowed learning and cultural institutions to expand their reach and impact.

Look both to home and abroad. Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum, for example, is one of many museums offering virtual tours of their collections, allowing viewers a chance to learn more about Asian cultures and histories.

From Korea, we have benefited from exploring the digital resources of the National Museum of Korea, which has made many of its exhibitions available virtually. These offer online visitors educational and immersive experiences about Korea’s history, culture and art.

Studying abroad has also often been a chance to immerse oneself in a new language. A second language can be a valuable tool for understanding another culture. Online learning options have emerged as virtual substitutes, albeit certainly not as compelling as ordering a bowl of noodles while trying out a local language in Southeast Asia. Here, mobile apps also have made picking up a new language a little easier. Platforms such as Duolingo offer gamified language learning, and Busuu even gives learners feedback from native speakers.

But students are not the only ones responsible for developing a global mindset. Academic institutions and businesses, along with governments, can play a key role in ensuring that students have access to the necessary support. An enduring digital divide must be addressed to ensure all have access to education both during and after the age of Covid-19. Global universities like New York University in Abu Dhabi and George Mason University Korea have stepped up to coordinate community funds for students and staff who were affected by the pandemic.

Beyond an important, understandable focus on quality higher education, business leaders and policymakers also have an important role to play in pushing for access to education.

The coronavirus pandemic has made all too clear the numerous long-standing inequalities in education access, and many countries have already begun bridging this digital divide.

Teachers and students in Indonesia, for example, may draw on internet subsidies from the government, as well as free internet packages from companies including Telkomsel to facilitate their education. Similar strategies can be used to fill hardware gaps. For example, Singapore’s Ministry of Education has loaned out laptops and tablets to students in need.

The challenge today is not to propose permanent alternatives to global education while governments work to ensure health and safety as well as re-opened borders.

Rather, in Asia and elsewhere, our shared goal is to identify and scale up sustainable and resilient ways for our nations’ youth to maintain a global outlook as international student mobility gradually recovers during the next five years. Such strategies will be especially useful as we move toward alternative financial and residential models for higher education.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” Nelson Mandela famously said. “The power of education extends beyond the development of skills we need for economic success. It can contribute to nation-building and reconciliation.”

Across every sector of society — public, private and not-for-profit — we all have a role to play in ensuring we do not lose any momentum in advancing education and shared community despite the coronavirus pandemic.

International education is not just about getting on a plane. It is a mindset. And that is a lesson learned that endures in the face of Covid-19 and applies whether in Korea, the United States, Singapore or elsewhere. Even in the near-term absence of plane flights and robust study abroad programs, we can indeed each go global from home.
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