Student Exchanges Can Mold the Global Citizens Companies Need

One of the keys to succeeding in the global market is to find or develop staff with the necessary language and cultural skills to understand and function in international markets. Arguably, the best way for people to develop these skills is to spend time abroad at a young age. Unfortunately, both the U.S. and Japan could be doing much better in this area.

First, the good news. According to the Institute of International Education (IIE) which compiles statistics on study abroad programs, the number of international students coming to the U.S. annually has grown by nearly one-third over the last decade to 723,277 (2010-2011). Likewise, the number of U.S. students studying abroad has increased over one decade by more than 75% to 270,604 (2009-2010).

Sadly, student flows between the U.S. and Japan are not driving this growth. In 2010-11, 21,290 Japanese students came to the U.S. This was less than half the number that came a decade earlier, and Japan dropped from the third biggest source of international students to the seventh.

While U.S. students in Japan nearly doubled during the same period, there were only 6,166 American students studying in Japan in 2009-10.

Beyond the benefits to society and the corporate sector, I've just had a first-hand reminder of the personal value of a study abroad experience at a young age. My family has hosted two Japanese high school students. Both are amazing kids that inspire me with their willingness to jump into such a challenge.

Our first student came through the Tomodachi Softbank Leadership Program, sponsored by Softbank Corporation of Japan and administered by Ayusa International, a San Francisco-based non-profit focused on international exchange. Our current student came through AFS Intercultural Programs, a fabulous high school exchange program involving more than 40 countries and with roots that date back almost 100 years.

I can't tell exactly what these kids will learn here, but I am confident that the experience will affect them for the rest of their lives. By putting themselves in a new family, school and community, they are building many new relationships. They are also strengthening their communication skills, creativity, resourcefulness, independence, as well as their persistence and ability to overcome challenge and adversity.

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a year in Hokkaido as an AFS exchange student myself. The experience introduced me to Japan and created a life-long passion for the country and its people, not to mention the foundation for my current livelihood. It also gave me friendships that enrich my life to this day. Now I hope that my family and our exchange students have an equally rewarding experience.

Because exchange programs have such powerful benefits that extend from the individual through the whole society, I wish there were more students traveling between the U.S. and Japan. While it's not easy or quick, hosting an exchange student or sending one's own child abroad is a wonderful way to create global citizens with a unique set of skills and capabilities. If you haven't already done so, I encourage you to give it a try!

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