The U.S.-based "Asia Society" recently released a report on the status of international studies in the U.S. Its conclusion: most U.S. students are poorly informed about other nations, languages and cultures, putting them in danger of lagging behind in an increasingly integrated global economy. The news is cause for concern among educators, policy makers, parents, and of course many students, but you can still find young people across the U.S. who are committed to studying international relations.
This teleconference, linking U.S. Embassy employees in Quito, Ecuador with a class of about 20 graduate students at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Washington, D.C. is a learning experience.
Transnational concerns, including everything from environmental degradation to illegal sex trafficking, are laid on the table here just as they would be among professional Foreign Service officers. The intent is to train these young people for careers in international relations.
The Georgetown class is a subset of a much larger group of young people who are passionate about careers in International Relations. In October 2005, hundreds attended a graduate school fair in Washington sponsored by APSIA - the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs.
Jason Smith, an admissions officer with Harvard University, said, "Well obviously I think everyone in this room is trying to make the world a better place. That's pretty much in a nutshell, whether it be dealing with security issues, or development issues."
Gwen Smith of Pennsylvania once taught school in Western Africa - now she wants to do more.
"Having an international affairs/international relations degree will help me to understand the policies, the economics, the politics of government and be able to help the society," said Ms. Smith.
Admission officers from 29 APSIA member schools including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Georgetown and Syracuse handled questions about admissions requirements, course offerings and career opportunities from students from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Among them, Pakistani-American Usman Ahmed says international studies are important. "International studies and diplomacy are really important I think, and it's gaining momentum because people don't like the way the world is going," he suggested. "For example in Pakistan, Pakistan and India are fighting over the Indus River basin, and that is something that needs to be resolved through cooperation. If it's resolved through conflict, everybody's going to suffer."
"I've been struck so far at this fair at the number of young people who are very much interested in International Relations in the developmental area, wanting to go back to their own countries and work in a meaningful way to make things better there.," said Alvin Snyder, a Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy.
Mr. Snyder said the degree program is the only one of its kind anywhere. "We've come to the conclusion that that's a subject of great interest these days, and how to better communicate information with audiences abroad," he said.
At Georgetown, this class is filled to capacity: a sign of the times, says class instructor and former Ambassador Pamela Smith. "I think part of it is because the topic has been in the news a lot, there's a lot of controversy surrounding the U.S. image overseas," she said. "But I think people are also beginning to realize that diplomacy can't get done without a public dimension to it."
Like many other students here, Andy Halus believes part of that task involves doing a better job of listening. "I think that we are seen, the United States speaking in general, as ones that just tell people what to do, and we kind of need to sit back and understand 'Where are other people coming from? Why are they not agreeing with us right now?'" he said.
Those are questions a whole new generation of young people is beginning to wrestle with.