Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Rejecting the Comfort of the Familiar

I love this time of year. It's not only about the Great Awakening Springtime inevitably brings-- although I love that too! This is graduation season. It's a time when the students we have nurtured, prodded, exasperated and overwhelmed finally take what they've learned and set out on their own path. Last week, I was asked to keynote at a very special ceremony meant to honor and support students who were taking their first tentative steps in the international arena.
The ceremony took place at my home institution, The University of the Pacific, and was held to honor candidates for some of the most prestigious international fellowships--like the Fulbright and Rhodes.

I was asked to share my own experience of having completed a Fulbright and to reflect on how that experience impacted my career. After I got over the shock of recognizing I was one of "those" people -- one with a career long enough to reflect back on -- I began to consider what I would say. How did I get here? How did we get here? What possess those of us enthralled with international law to forge ahead in a world so vastly different from what we are used to?

I told those students that a successful internationalist must reject three things: the comfortable, the predictable and the familiar. There is nothing particularly comfortable or familiar about plopping yourself into a culture you hardly understand and attempting to make a worthy contribution. And when we undertake to do so, nothing is preordained; nothing is predictable. Every aspiring internationalist should have that experience. We should feel what it is like to barely speak the language, to not understand the inside jokes, to feel excluded and lonely and a stranger. We should experience getting lost and finding our way. We should feel the dawning sense of our connectedness despite language and other cultural barriers. There is something about following that path that breeds a certain openness to whatever may happen. Too many of us in the United States lack that openness.

A few weeks ago, Arizona adopted a draconian law targeting those who are different (we've posted about that here). Essentially, their difference is seen as proof of their criminality. They don't speak our language, so they must be illegal. Their hair and skin are different, so they must be aliens. The students at the Pacific ceremony will soon enough experience that sense of being foreign and alien. They are headed to such diverse countries as India and Fiji, and most of them will not blend in. But they of course will not be made into criminals by virtue of that difference.

I am so proud of these students. They are rejecting what is comfortable, predictable and familiar in favor of forging new paths to understanding. They will learn much, and they will hopefully bring back with them an increased sense of tolerance and empathy. We sorely need them.

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