Empathy through Practice: Why Everyone Needs International Experience

By Ryan Allen

Empathy through Practice: Why Everyone Needs International Experience

Empathy through Practice: Why Everyone Needs International Experience
Photo by Will Ockenden

New York City is one of the most international cities in the world. You can find people from every inch of the globe - not just travelers, but business owners, students, entrepreneurs, laborers, and many other people pursuing their dreams. But New York is just one example of a trend toward the globalization of major world cities.

The US Census Bureau just announced that “international migration” will soon become the driver of population growth in the country, outpacing natural births for the first time in American history. This important portion of American society is only growing, and more Americans must be able to understand, engage, and empathize with a new cultural segment. At the same time, these new arrivals from other countries must be properly prepared for cultural surprises experienced during their time in the US.  

Negativity and Misunderstanding

The negativity that is sometimes aimed at foreign residents in America and around the world can be illustrated by the scapegoat comments that stemmed from the Boston bombing attacks in April 2013. Conservative pundit Ann Coulter lamented immigration reform and suggested that foreign students have an affinity to mass killings. Additionally, some politicians, such as Rand Paul, even called for a suspension on the issuing of international student visas until better regulations can be put into place.

"If the US and other countries can foster international exchange, cultural understanding and tolerance will grow."

Holding a misinformed negative view of other countries and cultures is not confined to the US. China’s The People’s Daily online English edition began a series titled The Dishonest Americans Series. This series attempts to explain to Chinese going to the US that “not all Americans are honest, reliable, and righteous.” While a bit misplaced and myopic, there are certainly lessons to be drawn from these articles. Any view of a country that is built simply from hearsay is always going to be incorrect, whether that view is an idealized concept of a country or a bigoted view of a particular culture.

One contributing factor to the misunderstanding of immigrants in the US particularly is that many Americans have little to no international experiences. To truly gain empathy, people need to have longer and more intensive international exposure.  If the US and other countries can foster international exchange, cultural understanding and tolerance will grow. 

"Standing in Someone Else's Shoes"

The importance of the empathy and understanding gained from living in a country that is foreign to you, cannot be overstated. No matter what country a person is from, gaining international exposure and experience in another country should be a priority if one wants to keep up with today’s increasingly global society.   

International exchange programs are perfect outlets to make this happen. These sojourns of a few months to a year (or more!) can open up one’s eyes to the difficulties of daily life for foreigners. Knowing just how complicated it is to navigate through a phone activation in Italian, going to deposit money at a Korean bank, or finding out that “American” food in some places means something much different from home, will give most a perspective that they never had before. A shorter stay in a new country can allow for a digestion of smaller doses of frustrations and pave the way for a long-term stay as an informed citizen.

Start Young and Study Abroad

"Because of the emphasis on a global society today, students who develop international skills early can have an advantage later in life."

Opportunities abound for people to travel to the US or other countries for short-term stays. Becoming an au pair, volunteering at an international NGO, an internship for an international organization or company (especially if they operate in your home country), or professional development programs, like the US’s Fulbright Grant (which brings citizens of other countries to the United States for Master’s degree or Ph.D. study at U.S. universities or other appropriate institutions) are great ways of experiencing life in another country. Gaining experience through these types of opportunities will give a better cultural understanding and perceptive once a major move is decided.

Because of the emphasis on a global society today, students who develop international skills early can have an advantage later in life and schools or NGOs are recognizing this by developing more K-12 exchange programs. For younger students, camps or study tours such as those organized by the American International Education Development Council can give parents more peace of mind. Giving children important international experience that they will need in order navigate the ever increasing global society is worth investigating all the options and finding out what programs work for you.

There are many opportunities for older students to study, volunteer, or even work abroad. Every university now has a study abroad program or office, and for those wishing to study within the US, Fulbright has programs tailored for undergraduate students. These programs must be promoted and properly presented to students if the upcoming generations are to have a truly global outlook.

The US will continue to grapple over the immigration and visa debate for the foreseeable future; but, with a little more perspective and empathy through personal experience abroad, perhaps negative sentiments can be quelled. Likewise, coming to America for shorter, yet intense, periods before moving to the US long-term can better help brace for unexpected cultural confusions.  Empathy is gained through experience and people of all nations can benefit from their experiences abroad in a foreign culture.


Ryan Allen works for American International Education Development (AIED) Council. His organization helps US students, teachers, and administrators connect with their counterparts abroad, mostly in Chinese systems. The organization is also helping their partner schools place educators in foreign classrooms. You can read more about their organization on their website or connect  on Twitter - twitter.com/AIEDCouncil.

Article originally published : June 14, 2013