John Smart

Exchange students offer a connection to the global community

By - Sep 3rd, 2010 04:00 am
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John Smart and his global student/son Rahim Tura, from Tajikistan.

(Front cover photo by Carolyn Tiry of Amherst, WI – Courtesy CC License on Flickr)

I’ve led an interesting life, traveling the world both for business and for pleasure, capped off with three years in the late nineties as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan, Central Asia. When I retired and returned home to Wisconsin after my service, I vowed to continue to be involved in “internationalism.”

The more I’ve traveled, the more I’ve wished that there was some way to give my fellow Americans a better sense of the global community in which we live.

Governor Doyle helped this endeavor considerably by appointing me to the Governor’s Commission on the United Nations, a Wisconsin original, and the only body of its kind in the nation.  It was instituted in 1959 by Gov. Gaylord Nelson and charged with assuring that the people of this state are informed about the goals and responsibilities of the U.N., and to coordinate state celebration of important international holidays, like U.N. Day on Oct. 24 and International Human Rights Day each Dec. 10.

It’s no secret that the U.S. is more parochial than most, owed in large part to our geography: a large nation, we only border on two others, and Canada is very much like the U.S.

Students in Switzerland, as an example, are multi-lingual for obvious reasons — it’s a relatively small country bordered by Germany, Austria, Italy, Liechtenstein and France.  Most of the students I taught in Uzbekistan spoke at least three languages and many spoke four or five.

You know the joke: what do you call someone who speaks three languages?  Tri-lingual.  Two languages?  Bi-lingual.  One language?  An American!

Three years ago, a friend from the Peace Corps who is now at the State Department in Washington, asked me to help find host families for exchange students — particularly those from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union — and I jumped at the chance. I was able to place some students and ended up taking one in myself, a bright and very personable young man from Tashkent (the capital of Uzbekistan) who changed my life.

Last year, I welcomed a delightful young fellow from Tajikistan, and this year I have two — one from Russian Siberia and the other from Kosovo.

I say that these bright young people are changing my life and mean it.  They amplify my experiences in other countries and keep me in touch with changing circumstances in parts of the world  I care about very much.  It is also a powerful experience for these students to spend a year in an American high school and with an American family, and it has the potential of putting them in a unique position in their home countries when they return.

But, perhaps the major beneficiaries of this program are the students in our schools who come in daily contact with these kids from the other side of the globe.  Timur, my Siberian “son,” comes from fourteen time zones away from Wisconsin!  Three of my students are Muslim and Timur is a Buddhist, and I am convinced that the locals who have come in contact with these boys will have a different attitude towards Muslims because of the experience, especially in a climate when Islam is equated with terrorism.

We hear, over and over, about the “new globalism,” and this is how we will equip our nation to take part in it.  We must all take part in it.

I urge everyone to check out American Councils for International Education to take part in this glorious program. I truly believe that it will be a rewarding challenge for you, just as it has been for me.

John Smart is retired in his hometown of Park Falls, in Wisconsin’s northwoods, and is involved in many activities, mostly revolving around schools, libraries, international education and progressive politics.  He is a frequent contributor to Wisconsin Public Radio and, as well as several newspapers and periodicals.

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