In recent times, a number of key societal debates have been subject to increasing polarization. As discussions frequently appear depicted as black and white, its debaters are all too easily branded as part of diametrically opposing groups: right- vs. left-wing, Brexiteer vs. Bremainer, pro-life vs. pro-choice, and more. These classifications typically leave little room for interpretation or nuance, risking instead to become instruments of paralysis: rather than to embrace dialogue with dissenting opinions, individuals find themselves unable—perhaps unwilling—to transcend the boundaries of their respective ‘groups’.
Clearly, such a divide spawns important obstacles to mutual understanding within one and the same nation. Subsequent to the Brexit vote, a clash of generations was apparent as various news outlets reported family rifts as well as bitter conflicts between Britons young and old. In the US, the recent appointment of an Associate Justice to the Supreme Court further exposed a deep societal divide. Simultaneously, decisions and tendencies within one nation generate rippling effects across the globe. Escalated trade conflicts between dominant countries do not solely engender internal consequences, but impact many other regions in the process. Inevitably, taking into account this globalized reality, an understanding of interests held by different groups within one’s own community must be complemented by an open-minded appreciation of viewpoints in other nations.
Educational exchange is an excellent tool to further such cross-border appreciation. It may be difficult to comprehend why citizens of one’s own or a foreign country vote in a certain manner, as illustrated by recent elections and referenda, until curiosity and tolerance give rise to conversations with stakeholders beyond the personal bubble of the like-minded. As fewer and fewer have lived to experience the world wars and the devastating consequences of a lack of mutual understanding, a fresh focus on the latter emerges as essential for peaceful coexistence. In a fast-paced society, unlike any other medium, education provides a framework to pause and reflect.
Certainly, cross-cultural exchange of education enables international students to delve into the peculiarities of diverse subjects, ranging from a year in secondary school to higher studies in journalism, law, or engineering, as facilitated by a wide variety of hospitable institutions around the world. Yet, it encompasses much more. Educational frameworks assume an important role as catalysts for the freedom and exchange of speech, serving as a ‘marketplace of ideas’ and providing a stabilization mechanism. Flawed or questionable ideologies obtain a forum to surface and are subjected to public scrutiny, rather than erroneously gaining in power underground.
Indeed, to study or conduct research abroad effectively means to gain a deeper understanding of other approaches and cultures, likewise exploring how others perceive the idiosyncrasies of the exchange student or researcher. In his 1983 speech to the Council on International Educational Exchange, founder of the eponymous fellowship program and visionary senator
J. William Fulbright highlighted that “[e]ducational exchange can turn nations into people, contributing as no other form of communication can to the humanizing of international relations”. In an era where reports on humanitarian and other crises flood the news feeds of the masses on a daily basis, dehumanizing one another has, perhaps, grown into a collectively applied coping mechanism. By advancing communication and erecting layers of empathy, educational exchange holds the power to shape unity and connection between people. As such, it serves societal integration itself.
Excellent multilateral fellowship programs have spawned and expanded over the years, supporting those who aspire to study abroad. In 2018, the European Commission has proposed to double current funding for the Erasmus program to €30 billion as part of the new long-term 2021-27 EU budget. This increment aims to boost the number of beneficiaries, increasingly engage disadvantaged backgrounds, and build stronger mobility vis-à-vis non-EU countries. Success stories likewise exist on the (bi)national level: for instance, the Belgian American Educational Foundation, a leading independent philanthropy, continues to attract miscellaneous donors to support US and Belgian students, scientists, and scholars alike.
By virtue of fellowship programs such as Fulbright, Harvard Boas, or Erasmus, I have been fortunate to pursue higher education at foreign universities. The experiences were invaluable on so many levels and the impact, at whichever age, immeasurable. Nonetheless, diverse scholarships fight against financial drainage. As but one instance, despite the significance for hundreds of thousands of past grantees (and, indirectly, likely many more) as well as long- standing bipartisan support in US Congress, federally appropriated funds for the Fulbright Program have generally declined over the past few years.
At the time of writing, existing budget proposals suggest a destructive 71% cut for Fulbright in fiscal year 2019. The Program faces an uncertain future, as do numerous other national and international scholarship programs struggling to retain vital government support. This approach towards educational exchange, underestimating its importance in promoting peace and improving intercultural relations, is nothing short of a mistake.
Inclusive growth is among the biggest challenges of our century: to progress, on so many levels, yet steering clear from neglecting particular groups and communities or leaving them estranged. Exchange programs deserve our utmost support as they catalyze a continuous and informal flow of communication between nations, enabling individuals of various backgrounds to burst from the bubble of their own conceptions. In times of international turmoil, they are needed more than ever.