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Commentary: D.C. Students Need International Perspectives

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Eddie Mandhry, who directs the Washington program for the nonprofit Global Kids. (Photo by Joe Delano)

Many of us in D.C. never forget our role in the world. It's there every time I walk by the World Bank, drive down Embassy Row, or get trapped behind security when a foreign dignitary is arriving.

As a Kenyan of Ethiopian and Omani heritage educated around the world, I have always valued the opportunity to interact with different cultures, people and languages.

Yet, for young people who live in Southeast D.C., these international perspectives don't exist. They see very little business activity, let alone flags from around the world, and there are serious consequences.

The European Journal of Communication asked people in Britain, Denmark, Finland, and the U.S. to answer questions on international affairs. The British, Danes and Finns all scored in the high 60s to mid 70s when they were asked to identify the Taliban. Only 58 percent of Americans managed to do the same, even though the U.S. is leading the coalition in Afghanistan.

These results are more troubling when you realize that the parts of the U.S. government involved in international affairs lack diversity at the top. Hispanic Americans make up 15 percent of the U.S. population, but they only hold 6 percent of the officer positions in the military. The State Department and other parts of the foreign affairs corps also need to look more like America.

Changing this will take new approaches. Drilling factoids into the minds of young people will turn them off. More testing is not the answer. We need to bring international affairs to life for students. We can do this through role playing, where they take part in simulated world situations and imagine how they would solve the issue. We can educate them about current dilemmas and have them find a solution for adults to consider. A spark will be lit and students' young minds will race from topic to topic as they seek greater understanding.

We can also encourage more online learning and blend it with traditional classroom instruction. Imagine what understanding could occur if a teenager in Ward 7 or 8 was able to Skype with an Afghan teen in Kabul.

Imagine if we told students that even if they don't want to be Secretary of State, the U.S. entertainment and gaming industries are increasingly dependent on foreign tastes and purchases.

The modern Silk Road is being formed -- let's make sure all of D.C. is a part of it.

Eddie Mandhry directs the Washington Program for Global Kids. His commentary came to us through WAMU's Public Insight Network. It's a way for people to share their stories with us and for us to reach out for input on upcoming stories. Learn more about the Public Insight Network.

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