“Painfully enough, traveling still seems to be a privilege for the few—but two messages from Reach the World (RTW)’s mission have the power to change that: First, we can leverage technology to give people access to lessons from traveling, without the need for them to physically relocate; and second, travel is not quite as inaccessible as people think—especially through initiatives such as scholarships.”
This powerful statement was written by a twenty-year-old Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholar who volunteered to connect her study abroad journey to a K–12 classroom through Reach the World’s virtual exchange program. The US Department of State’s Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship is a grant program that enables students of limited financial means to study or intern abroad. However, these grants are limited—and her remarks are true: travel is sadly the provenance of the few, instead of the many.
This lack of access to global knowledge, skills, and networks is a serious barrier to self-determination for less advantaged youth. How can institutions of higher education confront this critical global gap?
This student’s statement can actually be understood as a “Eureka!” message for higher education institutions. Higher education can easily provide so many more students with authentic opportunities to engage beyond the local. How? Through virtual exchange.
Virtual exchanges—sustained, technology-enabled, people-to-people education programs—can vastly expand the number and diversity of young people who have access to profound cross-cultural experiences as part of their education. As former president Barack Obama said, “Simple exchanges can break down walls between us, for when people come together . . . their common humanity is revealed.” Virtual exchanges can be complex, but they need not be; they can be as simple as an exchange of stories. Human storytelling has been the glue that has bound us together since the dawn of time. Present-day communication technologies have radically changed how humans communicate with each other—and in some ways, have weakened our communities by diminishing human-to-human storytelling. Virtual exchanges confront these more negative impacts of technology, connecting us to each other via the oldest human tradition.
When higher education students participate in virtual exchanges, three main outcomes occur. The first is that students are exposed to and interact with a culture that may be “other,” allowing them to engage in deeper and more consistent reflection and synthesis. As one RTW Gilman Scholar remarked, “Through RTW, I was asking locals questions about the country’s history and culture, information that I would want to know either way, but might not have asked if not prompted by virtual exchange.”
The second outcome is that students gain a sense of autonomy, agency, and global identity, along with a profound feeling of being of service. As one RTW Gilman Scholar explained, “In the beginning, I didn’t always think that this type of adventure was possible for me. When I was younger, I was in foster care, and I even spent several months in a shelter when I didn’t have a home. I believe the experience of travel not only opens the mind and heart, but also opportunity. Youth deserve to know that their options are so much broader than they can imagine and that there is a big, beautiful, and diverse world beyond their city limits. I think I can help deliver that message by sharing my journey.”
The third outcome is that students develop new pre-professional skills and ideas about their future pathways as well as a sense of purpose and life meaning. As another RTW Gilman Scholar shared, “I completed my Reach the World journey with a group of sixth graders in Brooklyn around December of 2017. I absolutely loved the experience, and after returning home from India I decided to apply for a tutoring job through AmeriCorps.”
Reach the World’s virtual exchange mechanism adds value to any study- or intern-abroad program, benefiting K–12 youth and higher education travelers in equal measure—with particularly salient learning and well-being benefits for underserved students, who otherwise face systemic barriers to this type of high-impact practice.2 Indeed, higher education institutions are sitting atop a virtual treasure trove of potential. By engaging their students in virtual exchange, higher education institutions can bring benefits to the lives of individual students while also combating the global gap that limits underrepresented individuals and many communities as a whole. To learn more about Reach the World, visit: http://about.reachtheworld.org/.
 Ursula Oaks, “President Obama in Turkey: ‘Exchanges Can Break Down Walls between Us,’” NAFSA Blog, April 9, 2009, https://www.nafsa.org/2009/04/09/president-obama-in-turkey-exchanges-can....