Curriculum, Engagement, Pathways

Beyond Borders: International Education and Global Citizenship

“I think it [the global ethic] is about global citizenship. It’s about recognizing our responsibilities to others.” – Gordon Brown, UK Prime Minister, July 2009[1]

What do meatballs, bicycles, and debates have to do with global citizenship? Plenty. At least that’s what I learned while studying in Sweden for a year. In the late summer of 2006, I started a Master’s program in Society Science and Technology at Lund University in Lund, Sweden. I’m often asked why I chose Sweden, and there are two simple answers: experience and cost. Wanting to differentiate myself from fellow Bachelor’s grads, I pursued graduate studies to gain international experience and improve employment prospects. As a cost-conscious student, I also wanted to get my Master’s without spending a fortune. Conveniently enough, Swedish universities are tuition-free for domestic and international students (though fees may be implemented for select foreign students starting 2011).[2] Despite several family trips to Sweden prior to my studies, nothing could have prepared me for the year-long lesson in global citizenship.

Learning in an international context had a profound impact on my understanding and analysis of issues, my attitudes towards others and their personal values, my skills development, and my sense of belonging.

My studies were merely the tip of the iceberg, as much of my learning happened outside the classroom. From understanding foreign customs to comparing Canadian and Swedish social policies, I was engaged in learning all the time. An international education, I will argue, is an invaluable experience that fosters intercultural competence and leads to greater societal involvement.

Journal Entry, Lund, Sweden, 12 August 2006: “… my Swedish is progressing nicely, and I think I am becoming keen on learning languages. I also miss home, and am eager to make friends and socialize.”

New Ways of Looking at Things

Darla Deardorff defines intercultural competence as the “knowledge of others; knowledge of self; skills to interpret and relate; skills to discover and/or to interact; valuing others’ values, beliefs, and behaviours; and relativizing [sic] oneself.”[3]

My intercultural competence developed almost unbeknownst to me during my stay. Periodically, I would think of life in Canada and question: why did we have so few bike lanes? Why did I have to pay for my university education? Why didn’t we have more female Members of Parliament? It was in those instances when I really began to see Canada in light of other countries, and myself in light of other citizens of the world. Learning in an international context had a profound impact on my understanding and analysis of issues, my attitudes towards others and their personal values, my skills development, and my sense of belonging.

Learn by Studying

As a junction for thought and discussion, the classroom was a hotbed of cross-cultural debate. When asked to offer critical insight and personal perspectives, fellow classmates often began with, “Well, in my country…” followed by an overview of the country’s position on an issue and a personal comment. Like a microcosm of real-life cross-country discussions, classmates would vehemently uphold their position, believing that their way was the right way. Unlike classes in my undergraduate career, the in-my-country statements were difficult to refute as they were often rooted in historical events or framed in a cultural context. Suffice to say, differences in opinion were common. Disputes, however, forced all of us to re-examine the strength of our own arguments in light of opposing, and often new, perspectives.

Self-examination of my beliefs and opinions extended beyond classroom conversations. While discussing a country-based case study with classmates over a meatball lunch, I argued that the strongest competitive advantage of the country in question was its natural resources. As a Canadian, I took for granted the abundance of our own natural resources, and assumed the same strategies and ideas could be applied in most, if not all, contexts. I was quickly forced to re-think my position when a classmate from a small land-locked country quipped, “The party won’t last forever.” He insisted that natural resources are finite, and the greatest asset to any country is its people. Indeed, placing myself in other people’s shoes and incorporating a people-first approach have since become personal cornerstones in addressing any issue.

Learn by Working

Like many students, I wanted to work part-time, but unlike many students in Sweden, I was fortunate enough to land a part-time job. In Canada, it was easy for me to take for granted my knowledge of the country’s official language and the abundance of part-time work available in big cities. But job hunting in Sweden was a humbling experience, and I gained the greatest empathy for newly landed immigrants in Canada who face barriers to securing employment.

I managed to land a student mediation job with the University and was paired up with a Swedish student. Our job was to minimize conflicts between international students and the housing authorities, and there was plenty of diplomacy involved. A haughty leadership style – so common in North America – had no place in an international social milieu. Notions of authority gave way to consensus-building, self-interest to cooperation, and confrontation to negotiation. It was in this role that I witnessed the simple commonality of people’s desires: respect, fairness, and equality.

The job also involved a lot of biking to and from different student residences all over town. Inevitably, my Swedish co-worker and I had time to discuss culture, politics, and life. One day I read an article criticizing the absence of tuition fees for international students and thought about the argument. After trying to place myself in the shoes of the author, I too felt that if Canada offered free tuition to foreign students, Canadian taxpayers might question the value. I then asked my co-worker what he thought about the issue. He didn’t gripe about wasted taxes but instead argued that this was a good way to gain knowledge and expertise from other countries and create an appreciation of Swedish culture. Yet again, I was challenged to look at things from a different perspective – it wasn’t so much about what the international students were taking, but what they were giving.

Learn by Volunteering

The most valuable lessons came from my volunteer work at Amnesty International in Lund. Impassioned about the promotion of human rights, I joined Amnesty because I wanted to meet others who shared the same interest. While toying with potential fundraising ideas and awareness campaigns, I suggested we organize a debate competition. As an avid debater in Canada, I naïvely thought debating clubs were common in every country, and that there would be no shortage of argument-hungry students. This, however, was not the case. In fact, the debate competition was the first of its kind, and it was an arduous struggle to sell the idea of direct verbal confrontation in a country that has been at peace for almost 200 years. Cooperation, communication, and support became pillars in the small international organizing committee. Without a doubt, the value of our six-month-long effort became obvious on the day of the event.

I, along with many of the participants, spectators, and volunteers, felt that the competition brought the issue of migration in Europe to a public level. High school and university students from over two dozen countries engaged in intelligent discussion about a topic that is often at odds with national identity. From a New Zealander studying environmental sustainability to a Venezuelan studying physics, participants created an unconventional dialogue that informed and challenged existing ideals. It was a discussion that people wanted to have but had little opportunity for. The end of the event marked only the beginning of the debate, which continued outside of the auditorium when students returned to their residences, spectators to their families, and volunteers to their communities.

Framing issues in a global lens forces people to look beyond a national scope and discuss them as global citizens who understand their responsibility to other people.

Journal Entry, Lund, Sweden, 18 March 2007: “… we [a friend and I] spoke about the event [the debate competition], and he said it was going to be a highlight for him, and that he too attributes good group dynamics to the lack of strong personalities.”

The Ambassadorial-Effect

Upon my return to Canada, friends, family, and colleagues would ask, “So, how was it?” Summing up a year’s worth of experience is hard to do in a few words, so I would simply say, “It was different.” It was different from the “one-city-per-day” Euro-trip that so many of my friends rave about, and different from the month-long language course I took abroad one summer. I felt as though I had become an unofficial ambassador for the country I lived in and the people I met. The ambassadorial-effect, as I would call it, leads one to respect and appreciate other cultures after having experienced them.

Living in a country, as I discovered, is far different from visiting a country. A complete immersion means learning how to live in a different society. This creates empathy for people that few other experiences can match. Over time I, like many other international students, began to reflect this understanding in my thoughts and actions while abroad and at home.

Recent research from Canada World Youth (CWY), an international youth exchange organization, suggests that my experience is not uncommon. A 2006 CWY impact assessment study found that past participants felt the program’s greatest influence was on their values and attitudes, knowledge/learning, and skills.[4] Respondents cited tolerance and open-mindedness as the personal values that changed the most, while communication and organizational skills also made notable improvements. Moreover, CWY hosts reported that the program’s impact on community went beyond its three-month duration. Evidently, the ambassadorial-effect works both ways and can result in a cultural legacy that most Canadians would likely see as a positive influence.[5]

Journal Entry, Hong Kong (a small vacation before returning home), 10 October 2007: “…lesson learned, take opportunities to get experiences, instead of holding out.”

A Strengthened Citizenry

To varying degrees, an international experience can contribute to the development of all three kinds of citizens that Joel Westheimer discusses: the personally responsible citizen, the participatory citizen, and the social-justice oriented citizen. [6] In my case I worked, paid taxes, and respected local laws and cultural traditions, like a personally responsible citizen; I participated in community initiatives, like a participatory citizen; and I created a socio-political dialogue on migration, like a social-justice oriented citizen. This, however, is not to say that we can only experience this kind of civic engagement while studying abroad. Living in an international context simply broadens the experience and can inspire us to do more when we return to our own country.

The more young minds are able to experience foreign places, people, and cultures, the more globally informed their future decisions will be.

A foreign experience can have a transformational impact on individuals, their future choices, and the societies in which they live. In my case, I gained a greater understanding of multiculturalism, learned about the values of multilingualism, and realized the importance of global citizenship. Deepened knowledge of these areas has informed my everyday actions, from choosing what to eat to deciding which petitions I will sign. Perhaps most important, my decisions as a voter are now based on policies and character, rather than politics and charisma. I am now able to make informed decisions based on what I feel is in the best interest of all Canadians, and not just my own.

Journal Entry, Toronto, Canada (home), 15 December 2007: “It’s still really strange for me to hear so many English conversations at once, and to see so many Canadians all in one place.


After studying and living abroad I firmly believe that Canada needs to focus on and promote international exchange opportunities. The more young minds are able to experience foreign places, people, and cultures, the more globally informed their future decisions will be. Admittedly, many parts of Canada – such as Toronto and Montreal – can toot the horns of multiculturalism, but this alone does not lead to a true understanding of global citizenship. Foreign experience is like learning about a historical event – it only becomes real when you visit the place and listen to the people. In Grade 8, the Battle on the Plains of Abraham was just another date to remember until I stood on the Plains during a class trip. A sense of place, an understanding of culture, and an appreciation for people became more real than ever. Instilling a meaningful historical or globalized viewpoint can only happen when we feel connected to other people and other places.

The quote at the start of this paper highlights our responsibility to others as part of global citizenship. I didn’t know it when I first arrived in Lund, but my Swedish teacher gave me a similar lesson on responsibility to others. Baffled at the advanced English skills of almost every Swede I encountered, despite the fact that it is not an official language, I asked why this was. She replied, “We are a country of only 9 million people – we must make the effort to learn the language of others if we are to be part of the dialogue.” Similarly, Canada is a country of only 33 million people, and we must take the initiative to think beyond borders and engage with the world around us if we are to play a meaningful role in the international community.

EN BREF – L’expérience de vivre à l’étranger peut avoir un impact immense sur les individus, au point de les transformer eux et les sociétés où ils vivent. Lors d’un échange étudiant avec la Suède, j’ai pu mieux comprendre le multiculturalisme; j’ai appris les valeurs du multilinguisme et pris conscience de l’importance d’être citoyen du monde. Vivre dans un pays est très différent de simplement le visiter. L’immersion totale signifie apprendre comment vivre dans une autre société et engendre l’empathie comme peu d’autres expériences le permettent. Au fil du temps, j’ai commencé à refléter cette prise de conscience dans mes réflexions et mes actions à l’étranger comme chez moi. D’après une étude d’évaluation d’impact de 2006 de Jeunesse Canada Monde, ce que j’ai vécu n’est pas unique. Les anciens participants considèrent que le programme a surtout influencé leurs valeurs, attitudes, savoirs, apprentissages et compétences. Plus les jeunes pourront faire l’expérience de la vie dans d’autres pays, parmi d’autres peuples et d’autres cultures, plus leurs décisions futures seront éclairées par une perspective mondiale.

[1] G. Brown, “Gordon Brown on global ethic vs. national interest,” TEDGlobal 2009, July 2009, (www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/gordon_brown_on_global_ethic_vs_national_interest.html).

[2] Studyinsweden.se, Possible tuition fees for non-EU students from 2011, September 2009 (www.studyinsweden.se/Home/News-archive/Possible-tuition-fees-for-non-EUEES-students-from-2011/).

[3] J.C. Jurgins and C. Robbins-O’Connell, “A Comparative Study of Intercultural and Global Competency Opportunities on American and Irish University Campuses,” International Education 38, no. 1 (Fall, 2006): 66-101.

[4] Canada World Youth, Canada World Youth Impact Assessment: Synthesis Report, December 2006 (www.canadaworldyouth.org/en/content/doc/SynthesisReport_EN.pdf)

[5] Environics Institute, The Canada’s World Poll, January 2008 (www.environicsinstitute.org/PDF-CanadasWorld.pdf)

[6] J. Westheimer, “What Kind of Citizen? Democratic Dialogues in Education,” Education Canada 48, no. 3 (Summer, 2008): 6-10.

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