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Women and the Global Generation

Study Abroad is a Vehicle for Women’s Empowerment and Leadership

“Wow, there are a lot of women here!” It’s a comment we hear a lot. We hear it at our leadership summits, where top college students come together to discuss the U.S. role in the world. We hear it at our local chapters’ meetings, where members plan campus events to engage their peers in discussion on global issues. And we hear it at our office.

Our organization, Americans for Informed Democracy (AID), isn’t even about women’s issues. Our mission is to bring the world home to the next generation of American leaders. We host a variety of leadership summits, educational seminars, town hall forums, and international videoconference dialogues in which the passion of young Americans ignites community-wide discussions about our country’s relations with the rest of the world. We focus on key issues, such as the fight to end global poverty and the future of U.S.-Muslim World relations, where we believe young Americans can play a key role in fostering understanding and global cooperation.

Although the work that we do to heighten Americans’ global awareness was not intended to be led so predominantly by females, the energy and vision of young women has been a sustaining force in our efforts. In thinking about the prominence of women leaders in our organization, we’ve come to observe an interesting trend in American higher education. The typical junior year abroad experience is turning into a vehicle for women’s empowerment and, increasingly, civic leadership. We think that soon these women of the global generation will be changing our country’s foreign policy. Here’s how:

More and more young Americans, women especially, are spending extended time abroad. In January of this year the Yale Daily News reported that 75 percent of Yale students studying abroad in 2006 were female. The Dartmouth reports a similar two-to-one female-to-male ratio among students going abroad from Dartmouth College, the same as the national average. Anecdotally, students from Fordham Univ., the Univ. of Denver, the College of William and Mary, and the State Univ. of New York all report parallel experiences.

While study abroad directors and experts in international education have theorized on reasons for this phenomenon, their findings remain inconclusive. Some point to women’s propensity to view their education in an experimental manner. Others observe that the disproportionate female-to-male ratios in certain majors may be a contributing factor, as more women than men tend to study fields that make going abroad easier, such as Spanish or history. Still, statistics show that while study abroad programs are expanding to include all majors and allow for individuals with little or no language skills, the male population remains underrepresented in most study abroad programs.

The rewards afforded to study abroad participants are indisputable. Public opinion polls show that Americans overwhelmingly believe in the importance of international experience, and this is evident above all in the job market. In an increasingly globalized world, knowledge of different cultures, languages, and perspectives translates to a competitive edge.

Beyond one’s resume, living overseas heightens personal development and promotes confidence and independence. As opposed to merely taking a vacation overseas, living and taking courses abroad forces young people to overcome daily challenges in unfamiliar environments. Even otherwise simple tasks like buying a train ticket become infinitely more complicated when done in a foreign language and setting. Such experiences give women in particular a sense of self-sufficiency and capability.

Another challenge is the occasionally hostile and always curious reaction that greets Americans abroad when their citizenship is discovered. Many returnees note that their time abroad cultivated a new interest in global affairs. Indeed, our organization was founded in 2002 by a group of Americans abroad who realized that they needed a new outlet to constructively engage their peers in global issues in a post-9/11 world. Many of the globally passionate students that we have met only became concerned with international issues after the experience of studying abroad. It was through studying abroad that they connected a love of Romance languages with a desire to build better transatlantic relations, or through doing biology studies overseas that they discovered an interest in global health policy. We have found that the students who are most transformed are young women, for whom study abroad not only empowers but also awakens.

Many young women who return from studying abroad come home with both an increased awareness of international events and a mission to help educate their peers. They become leaders in advocating for the importance of the U.S. working together with the international community to help solve today’s global problems, from avian flu to international terrorism. They are powerful voices telling their communities that they want America to be a leader in international cooperation.

We have seen activism through education empower young women to be more politically aware and engaged. Young women who have traveled and studied abroad bring a unique perspective to a host of issues. After witnessing hardship in foreign countries or hearing firsthand the stories of survivors of trafficking, they seek to use America’s resources to help. As an organization, we seek to support these young women at every step of the way as they organize awareness-raising events in their communities.

The educational approach to activism that we have found so popular among women is crucial to long-term change and sustained U.S. engagement with global issues. We believe that in today’s increasingly globalized world, we are witnessing a generational change in attitudes about our country’s place in the world. And our global generation is being led by women.

You can learn more about AID and how to get involved with its initiatives or start an AID chapter on your campus at www.aidemocracy.org.

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