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Published August 27, 2013, 10:09 AM

Creating global thinkers

For the first four months of this year I voyaged around the world with 600 college students as part of the Semester at Sea program. The experience of traveling with so many young, optimistic and inquisitive adventurers was an amazing opportunity.

By: John Girard, Prairie Business Magazine

For the first four months of this year I voyaged around the world with 600 college students as part of the Semester at Sea program. The experience of traveling with so many young, optimistic and inquisitive adventurers was an amazing opportunity. For many of these young people, this was their first major travel experience. For some, it was even the first time they had left their home state. For all of them, it was a transformative experience. Perhaps the most exciting part of the trip was watching these young people metamorphose from novice travelers, at best, into global thinkers convinced they can make a difference.

Virtually all of the students were Generation Ys, those born between 1980 and 2000, often called the Millennials or even the Facebook generation. Interestingly, most of them were college juniors or seniors, which meant most days it was someone’s 21st birthday. More importantly though, almost daily throughout the voyage, these Millennials would disprove the many myths associated with their generation. Case in point was their reaction to their immediate disconnection from Facebook and other social media when we set sail. Many of us expected there to be a major revolt. How could they possibly survive without posts, pokes and tweets? Ironically, the Millennials did very well, but unfortunately, I cannot report the same for the baby boomers onboard, many of whom battled the extremely low bandwidth of the ship’s networks to make their posts. The Millennials found an easier solution, they talked to each other, face to face. After all it was a very small ship.

Traveling to foreign countries with college students is an eye-opening experience. One of my favorite examples was during a visit to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam (Saigon for the old timers). I was with a group of students on a city tour where we were learning about Vietnam’s rich history, her people, their culture and so much more. Our guide walked us from the Notre-Dame Basilica, which was built in the late 19th century, toward the Central Post Office, an exquisite example of early 20th century French architecture.

As we approached the main entrance our guide stopped and pointed to a statue. As I looked at the statue, I thought to myself, “That’s two VCs or Vietcong soldiers.” Our guide described them as “Our Heroes.” He shared that the heroes had fought during the “American War.” Of course none of the students were alive during what most of us called the Vietnam War, but all of them quickly picked up on the very differing perspectives of the same conflict. The very distinctive, even opposing, viewpoints on the same war were the catalyst for great dialog when we returned to the ship. This is just one example of the dozens I witnessed as these amazing young people earned a global perspective.

Ghana is another example of a wonderful country that provided excellent learning opportunities for the students. During a tour, our guide shared with the students that when he was a young man the first thing he did when he got up was turn on the radio. That seems reasonable for someone growing up in 1970s. But he did not turn on the radio to listen to the latest one hit wonder sing a song. He turned on the radio to see if there had been a coup. Most of the students could not imagine a world of such uncertainty. The most powerful part of his story was his sharing a question his daughter had recently asked him. She said “Father, what is a coup?” Our guide was almost in tears as he explained how happy he was that his daughter did not even know what the word “coup” meant. He was so happy his daughter’s childhood had been so different from his own. He told the students that America played a big part in the stability of his homeland and for that he was extremely grateful. His story ended just as we arrived at one of Ghana’s infamous slave dungeons, Cape Coast Castle, the same site that President Obama and his family visited in 2009. Touring the dungeons is another experience the students will never forget.

The Vietnam and Ghana stories are exemplars of the global lessons students learn during authentic study aboard experiences. These are the real-world experiences that cannot be easily replicated in a traditional classroom. As a professor, I strive to bring high fidelity learning experiences into the classroom, but as passionate as I might be, I simply cannot fully reproduce the experiences students gain while studying abroad.

When we ask high school seniors about studying abroad, most of them seem interested in the idea. Only about six percent say they are absolutely not interested. After four years of college, only about five percent of American students have completed a study abroad program. Unfortunately, North Dakotans are underrepresented in most study abroad programs. In North Dakota the number of college students who complete a study abroad is less than one percent per year. Other states in the region are better represented. The study abroad rate in Minnesota, close to two percent, is more than double the North Dakota average and well above the national average. South Dakota, about one percent, is higher than North Dakota but slightly below the national average. On my voyage there were a total of 622 students with just one North Dakota student, 11 from Minnesota and none from South Dakota.

Whether you are a parent, an educator, a policymaker or an employer, I encourage you to think about how studying abroad can impact young North Dakotans and your organization. Imagine if your daughter/student/constituent/employee was as worldly as some of the students I described. Imagine if they had the experience of learning from others around the world. Imagine if they heard the words of wisdom from eminent people in other countries. Imagine if they learned just how much people around the world appreciate the great work America is doing for them. Imagine if they had undergone the near magical transformation from hometown sage to global thinker.

Just imagine … and then make it happen.

John P. Girard, Ph.D. is an adventurer, author and professor of business at Minot State University. Learn about his Semester at Sea voyage at, visit his website at or follow his adventures @johngirard.