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Global Minds: Lessons Learned at Home in the Absence of Study Abroad

Our shared goal is to identify and scale up sustainable and resilient ways for our nations’ youth to maintain a global outlook as international student mobility gradually recovers from the pandemic.




LOS ANGELES—Let's be frank. There can be neither a Tokyo Olympics nor robust "study abroad" programs without a re-thinking of some of the restrictions put in place due to the ongoing battle against COVID-19.

Speaking to a virtual audience during the Milken Institute’s 2020 Global Conference, Carol Christ, the Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, stated unequivocally that dependence on travel was the one issue higher education had to resolve in the coming decade.

Indeed, for many of the 5.3 million higher education students studying internationally in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it hardships in areas ranging from finances to mental health. This has included challenges for international students studying in Japan as well as Japanese students studying abroad.

According to the Institute of International Education, some 17,554 Japanese higher education students were in the United States in the 2019-2020 school year. During that same period, some 86,439 higher education students from China, followed by 42,083 from Vietnam, 15,329 from Nepal, 14,557 from South Korea and 7,423 from Taiwan were in Japan.

Travel restrictions have subsequently "locked" people in or out of their countries of study. Impacted higher education students unable to get back into China as that nation has prioritized visiting business people over returning students have even taken to a social media campaign using hashtags, #TakeUsBacktoChina and #TakeUsBackToSchool.

To be clear, there is no full substitute for studying in person via going online. This is particularly true when it comes to laboratory or field work, or medical residency programs. Governments that have chosen to suspend student visas should err on the side of greater communication and compassion to students whose lives and education have been interrupted by travel bans.

From first-hand experience including at New York University Abu Dhabi and in our work across the Indo-Pacific region, we know that international education can be a crucial ingredient for success in our global age. So, what can be learned from home now, even as we and others push for the eventual reopening of borders to students, once broad-brush restrictions are refined?

Finding New Approaches to Global Education

Fortunately, traveling and studying abroad are not the only ways to acquire the core skills and open minds associated with international education. Students, institutions, businesses, and policymakers can all play a role in advocating for global education and fostering the right environments for intercultural learning, even when travel restrictions seemingly limit the opportunities to “go global.”  

Just as technology has helped transform shopping and healthcare through e-commerce and telemedicine respectively, so too have technological advances allowed learning and cultural institutions to expand their reach and impact.

Look both to home and abroad. Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum, for example, is one of many museums offering virtual tours of their collections, allowing viewers a chance to learn more about Asian cultures and histories. In Japan, check out the virtual IJC Museum in the Cloud, which allows viewers to immerse themselves in the works of artists like Yayoi Kusama and Ikeda Manabu, learning more about Japan's culture and history in the process. 

International education is also about acquiring the empathy, open-mindedness, and emotional intelligence necessary for dialogue across differences. A range of organizations can again offer guidance and resources virtually.

As the U.S. celebrates Black History Month, one example is the array of helpful digital materials provided by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington D.C. to help inform discussions on race. Similarly, the online offerings of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative build on its commitment to challenge racial and economic injustice.

Studying abroad has also often been a chance to immerse oneself in a new language. A second language can be a valuable tool for understanding another culture. Online learning options have emerged as virtual substitutes, albeit certainly not as compelling as ordering a bowl of noodles while trying out a local language in Southeast Asia.

Here, mobile apps also have made picking up a new language a little easier. Platforms such as Duolingo offer gamified language learning, and Busuu even gives learners feedback from native speakers.

Supporting a Global Mindset

But students are not the only ones responsible for developing a global mindset. Academic institutions and businesses, along with governments, can play a key role in ensuring that students have access to the necessary support. An enduring digital divide must be addressed to ensure all have access to education, both during and after the age of COVID-19.

Global universities like New York University in Abu Dhabi and George Mason University Korea have stepped up to coordinate community funds for students and staff who were affected by the pandemic.

COVID-19 has also left a mental health crisis in its wake, and many institutions have recognized the toll that pandemic uncertainty and social isolation has had on students. To spur philanthropic efforts and advance lessons learned, the Center for Strategic Philanthropy at the Milken Institute has been working with key philanthropists and stakeholders to understand how to further support students’ social and emotional well-being.

Beyond an important, understandable focus on quality higher education, business leaders and policymakers also have an important role to play in pushing for access to education. COVID-19 has made all too clear the numerous long-standing inequalities in education access, and many countries have already begun bridging this digital divide.

Teachers and students in Indonesia, for example, may draw on internet subsidies from the government, as well as free internet packages from companies including Telkomsel to facilitate their education. Similar strategies can be used to fill hardware gaps. For example, Singapore’s Ministry of Education has loaned out laptops and tablets to students in need.

Yet, as much as these recommendations can help us further the goals of a global education, there is no real substitute to traveling. The lived experience of cross-cultural understanding cannot be replaced by a Zoom or Skype call.

The challenge today is not to propose permanent alternatives to global education while governments work to ensure health and safety as well as re-opened borders. Rather, in Asia and elsewhere, our shared goal is to identify and scale up sustainable and resilient ways for our nations’ youth to maintain a global outlook as international student mobility gradually recovers during the next 5 years. Such strategies will be especially useful as we move toward alternative financial and residential models for higher education.


“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” Nelson Mandela famously said. “The power of education extends beyond the development of skills we need for economic success. It can contribute to nation-building and reconciliation.”

Across every sector of society—public, private and not-for-profit—we all have a role to play in ensuring we do not lose any momentum in advancing education and shared community despite the pandemic. 

International education is not just about getting on a plane. It is a mindset. And that is an Olympian-level lesson learned that endures for Japan and elsewhere in the face of COVID-19. Even in the near-term absence of plane flights and robust study abroad programs, we can indeed each go global from home.

Authors: Curtis S. Chin and Athena Thomas
Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is the inaugural Asia Fellow of the Milken Institute. Athena Thomas, a recent graduate of New York University Abu Dhabi, works on Policy & Programs at the Milken Institute Asia Center in Singapore. Follow Curtis on Twitter at @CurtisSChin, and the Milken Institute at @milkeninstitute.

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