There is a lot of information that I am still processing from the White House Travel Blogger Summit. What an honor that experience was.
Bloggers from all over the country and the world were present. From the moment we all came together the night before, conversations on study, volunteerism, and work abroad surrounded the space around us. It was clear that despite the fact that we all came from different parts of the world, different backgrounds, and different experiences, this topic was one we all were passionate about.
Before the summit, we all had a chance to tour the White House and admire the holiday decorations. This time of year is one of the only times you can take pictures! This was with my iPhone as anything larger was not allowed.
And we were not alone. High level White House staff made the time to address us personally. Denis McDonough, Chief of Staff to the President, Tina Tchen, Chief of Staff to First Lady, Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor, Evan Ryan, Assistant Secretary for Education and Cultural Affairs, Jonathan Greenblatt, Director of Social Innovation, and Penny Pritzker, Secretary of Commerce all presented to share information like the one I wrote about in my first post, as well as to share information on what the White House is doing to increase diversity, awareness, and the number of students who study, volunteer, or work abroad.
The reason there were representatives from the Commerce Department, as well as the National Security department is because they believe, as I do, that a society made up of people educated and aware in how the rest of the world does business, communicates, operates, and learns is a society that can compete in the global market. It is a matter of social security, but also a matter of national interest and survival.
We heard about several programs that the White House has helped launch and supports to give opportunities for global citizenship. Among them are:
Young African Leaders Initiative: Sub-Saharan Africans and Americans, under 25 years old, to travel to/from the countries for mentorship and professional development.
100,000 Strong in The Americas: Between the US and Latin America, to increase the number of people studying on either side of the border.
Chris Stevens Initiative: The Middle East and North Africa. A virtual exchange program that uses the advantage of technology to provide educational experiences in areas that where a physical presence may be too dangerous. This program was especially interesting to me, because it increases the potential of greater opportunities for those who can’t travel for whatever reason, but can greatly benefit from an international educational experience.
Peace Corps which has broadened the way in which people have foreign experiences, including the ability to now choose where you want to volunteer, as well a provide assistance for those with federal student loan debt.
The message that affected me the most, that struck closest to my heart, was the communicated awareness from almost every representative about the need to diversify the study-abroad experiences, not just in where people study abroad (emerging markets such as South East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America as opposed to the traditionally, often selected European, English-speaking nations), but also in who these programs are made accessible too. Almost everyone who spoke acknowledged what I had communicated in my previous post, that the perception that these opportunities are for a select few, specifically those who can afford it, is a perception that want to end.
There is a desire and an effort to reach those who have long been overlooked and spread the message so that it is being shared in community colleges, just as it has been in private and more affluent universities, and in more high schools, especially in low-income neighborhoods.
Another question of course was how the country with the most expensive college education and highest number of students burdened by tremendous student debt was going to convince them that this was worth it.
Chief of Staff McDonough addressed some of this when he shared how the administration has been working aggressively to reduce the cost of college education through 1) a college rating system which measures what the student is paying compared to what they are getting in return (score card to roll out in 2015), 2) through making affordability of student loans more attainable and decreasing the debt of the same and 3) making sure more students have access to grants, through the expansion of the Pell Grant.
You can watch the first segment of the summit that covers these topics and a few more here:
There are many amazing programs that I learned about and people I met connected to the Minerva Project, Benjamin A. Gillman International Program, Transitions Abroad, Millennial Trains Project, Greenheart International, Institute of International Education, Global Med and Hostelling International. All eager to offer students and young adults an opportunity to discover and learn from an environment outside of their own.
I really love what the Minerva Project is doing for students and its approach to education. They have full tuition scholarships as well as other financial aid to make this accessible to anyone that qualifies.
Now that I am home, after conversations with my soon-to-be college student about my wish for him to take on these experiences, I am left wanting more. One thing I inquired about during the summit was the need to streamline all these programs, scholarships, and grants so that parents like myself and even others who don’t speak the language, know how to navigate the system, or have the time, can easily access it. I was told this was something that would be considered.
And I think about the kids I met during my time in Madison, WI when I founded Get Out! Get Ahead! (GOGA), a program which provided minority and low-income students and their families access to information and field trips to universities and other higher education programs. In this program I didn’t just reach out to the minority kids in the honors classes, nor did I focus exclusively on high school kids. I went as early as middle school. And I didn’t just seek out the kids that were showing promising signs of a college future, I also included the kids that were marked as failing, that were repeating classes and grades, that were in disciplinary status at the high school. Why? Because I believed and my worked proved me right, that those were the students that needed the motivation and inspiration the most. I learned that when I took those “troubled” kids on to the University of Wisconsin campuses in Madison and Milwaukee, their mindset changed, something was sparked, and a light of hope, however dim, came alive in them. Through my brief time in Wisconsin working with these kids, I saw how those students that these scholarship programs and grants never reach out to, finally felt considered and shown, literally shown a different option and told, “this could be your life”. I said this to them over and over. And I could see how for the first time, some of them believed it.
It’s not that everyone deserves a chance to be a doctor or scientist, or lawyer or mathematician, or even that everyone wants to work, study, or live in another country. Truth is, not everyone wants to go to college. But, everyone should be given the consideration and information to at least decide for themselves, regardless of who they are, where they come from, where they are in school, and how much money they have.
I can see why DC is such an energetic city. You walk through its streets and you feel inspired to change the world, or at least the country. Walk through the White House like I did and you can’t help but feel compelled to do something more outside of yourself. At least, that’s how I felt. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).
And this is where I am now. I am left inspired and motivated by all the conversations and thoughts and ideas that were shared at the summit. I am moved by the willingness to work harder and more for so many students and people wanting to have a broader experience in life.
But, I worry still that there aren’t enough programs that reach out to those who don’t have hope or aspirations because their reality doesn’t give them a reason to even imagine it a possibility. I worry that too many programs are being set up for the kids that could do better by them, but who would succeed regardless. A brilliant student, succeeding in school will do amazing things in a study abroad experience, but they could do amazing things even without it. A student who has been set up to fail because of their environment, their failing school, their home life, or whatever else, can be reborn from an experience like this but these programs are rarely set up with them in mind.
Tina Tchen, Chief of Staff for the First Lady was the only one who candidly spoke about these kids. She talked about how imperative it was to diversify the type of kids that get to study overseas, but made clear the challenges in attracting the kids who don’t even see college as their future, let alone travel, and with this my eyes teared up because so many of them are ignored and I was finally hearing someone voice their existence in these conversations.
Personally, I think motivating students to travel abroad at the college level is too late, and though there are many high schools that offer these types of opportunities they are often expensive, or exclusive, or both, and rarely ever, almost never, target the students who are already struggling in school and in life, and who could really use the lessons these experiences offer.
I, of course, will continue to follow the conversation, be involved in the discussions, see what comes out of the U.S. Study Abroad Office, which will fall under the Educational and Cultural Affairs and was just announced to us all during the summit as something to stay tuned for more on, and I will continue to be the voice for those few who I believe need to be considered more.
All in all, I am grateful, honored, touched, and incredibly overjoyed to be in this position, among so many great leaders in travel and government, and as part of such a great effort for global experiences and travel.
I was invited to attend the White House Travel Blogger Summit along with an exclusive group of travel bloggers as media for this day-long event. I received no compensation or directives and covered all my personal expenses to be there. All opinions are my own.