By Dr. Noaquia Callahan
“The challenges of the 21stcentury can only be met by combining many skills from people with many backgrounds. America’s diversity is a clear competitive advantage if we use it.” - President Barack Obama, 2008
It all started when I entered my German language classroom my freshman year at Long Beach Polytechnic High School (one of few high schools that offers German in the U.S. today). Frau Alasti decorated her classroom walls with German newspapers, brought classic German Prinzenrollecookies, and required that only German be spoken in class. I was hooked.Equipped with two years of language instruction and keen curiosity, at the age of sixteen I flew on a plane for the first time, to Germany for a year-long academic exchange. I returned to the U.S. advanced in a foreign language and with a new sense of self as a young African American woman navigating the world. I would return to study in Germany for another two years – as an undergraduate, and again while finishing my PhD.
What I didn’t realize at 16, was that I had given myself a unique competitive advantage that would set off a domino effect toward exclusive opportunities and networks that I continue to benefit from today. Fast forward almost two decades, I’ve earned $200,000 in scholarships, finished an international internship, was selected as the top candidate in the nation for a U.S. Fulbright to Germany, led a Black History Month speaking tour for the U.S. Embassy Berlin, and was selected as 2018 German-American Young Leader.
How Students of Color Can Prepare
The reality is that the ability to speak a foreign language and confidently navigate a society outside of North America’s borders are the kinds of skills essential to competing for well-paying jobs in the twenty-first century. For many students of color, the road to an international exchange opportunity may seem not only “less traveled by,” but an unknown possibility altogether.
A 2015 study by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans reported that only 5% of African American students’ study abroad, and reasons included lack of funding, mentorship, and anticipated racial animosity abroad. Rare opportunities such as President Barack Obama’s 2016 Executive Order, which made U.S. international exchange alumni (e.g. Fulbright) competitive for federal jobs, underscore the “gateway to success” selective programs afford. Figuring out how to break systemic barriers of access to such opportunities is important for both underrepresented ethnic minorities entering and graduating from college, as well as having a workforce representing U.S. companies abroad that reflect the nation’s diversity.
Key skills & competencies students of color can develop to increase their competitiveness:
1. Intercultural engagement
2. Foreign Language
3. Problem Solving
10. Course/Major Knowledge
Why Global Workforce Preparation
With people of color projected to comprise 43 percent of the U.S. workforce by 2024, students of color are positioned to be important contributors in sustaining global connections between the U.S. and the rest of the world. A more dynamic and diverse workforce will require fresh perspectives and innovative ideas … and students of color must be ready.
In the past decade, the role of higher education in workforce development has emerged as a key issue around the world. Leading authorities inside and outside of academia have begun questioning whether colleges and universities are preparing graduates with the competencies and skills necessary to compete in a dynamic global economy and whether U.S. higher education is sufficiently helping to enhance national competitiveness within this new global economic context.
U.S. employers have identified the link between international experience and workforce development. In a 2009 Institute on International Education (IIE) study, 60 percent of senior management reported including study abroad experience in the hiring and promotion strategy for their companies. Within the context of today’s global economy, most students will transition from student to new professional by acquiring jobs in which their focus is work with or for an international company, as well as work with diverse colleagues. Accordingly, the global workforce skills gained through study abroad can be increasingly influential toward career success.
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