Yes We Can: The Power of International Education

When Barack Obama reached out in his Grant Park acceptance speech "to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores" -- proclaiming "our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared" -- he also reached a special group of American youth who couldn't be more excited about the world's and their future.

It's so easy to be cynical about the state of education in the U.S. (who wouldn't be, with new reports out seemingly each month on how far behind our students are compared to those in other countries, how they don't know about life outside America and how woefully unprepared they are for a global future) that to meet five smart, winsome teenagers who say things like "We are One" and "We're regaining hope in politics and finding our place in the world" -- is nothing short of Obama-worthy inspiration.

These kids are not only talking the talk; they're walking the walk in a big way. Having demonstrated an in-depth understanding of key issues in international affairs, they've gone on to propose solutions to some of the world's toughest challenges, from the effects of climate change, to the spread of tuberculosis -- solutions so innovative and creative that they've just been awarded $10,000 college scholarships from the Goldman Sachs Foundation.

Take 18-year-old Robert Ostrowski, who hails from Atlanta. Like so many of his peers, he's passionate about the environment and energy efficiency. "We're really excited about the next four years," he says, believing Obama will help "advance us into a new age of energy." But he's not waiting for solutions. In his winning essay, Robert discussed the stalemate between the U.S. and China, the world's largest greenhouse gas emitters.

His solution is a local model that "frees [parties] from the politics of who's going to act first" -- pointing to states and non-profits in the U.S. that are successfully working with Chinese provinces and universities. One notable example is Jiangsu Province, where a partnership with California led to shared best practices that allowed Jiangsu to avoid building 24 large coal-fired plants. Jiangsu, says Robert, is now being used as a model for the whole of China. His main point: there is "huge potential out there for international collaboration."

This kind of international awareness, to the point of knowing what is going on in one field in one province of China, is of course highly unusual for an American high school student. The problem, says Robert, "is a lack of exposure in the schools, not so much lack of interest on the students' part." His friends might not have known much about China, he explains, but they were curious and in fact became very interested once they read his essay.

Sarah Miller agrees. Upon her return from a trip to Nepal documenting human rights issues and covering the recent historic elections, most of her high school classmates did "not even know [Nepal] was a country." So, she made this award-winning video:

"I realized," says Sarah, that "you can put a screen in front of people and no matter where they're from they'll look at it. And my audience, which is largely the kids in see photos and news about poor third world countries, but I think it really takes being there or seeing it from the perspective of someone who's really similar to you, to really understand."

Sarah compared her life and those of her middle-class peers in Westlake Village, California to the lives of people she met in Nepal. What she found surprised her... that she was "jealous" of the Nepalese and their huge extended families and close communities, and a "happiness" that comes not from material wealth, or prescription meds.

For Shaunak Kishore of Westchester, Pennsylvania, happiness means applying his mathematical abilities (he won a gold medal at the 49th International Mathematics Olympiad in Madrid) to "an extremely practical objective that's going to help people around the world." Growing up with almost all white schoolmates, he says, it "felt like we were missing out on the cultural -- it felt like there was another side of me that I didn't get out in my normal everyday life." He found an outlet for that other side, in India.

There, Shaunak researched and and built a mathematical model for maximizing treatments of tuberculosis while minimizing its spread. (I can't possibly discuss the science more accurately or eloquently than he, so please read his winning essay here.)

Shaunak points out that the findings have increasing relevance to all countries, as the cross-border spread of disease becomes harder to battle. "These issues," he says, "show how connected the world has become."

Thankfully for all of us, these youth feel their generation is up to the task of taking on the world. "We're growing to understand our place in the world," says Shaunak. "We understand we need help and support, and we need to help and support other countries around the world."

Don't miss the other winners of the 2008 Goldman Sachs Foundation/Asia Society Prizes for Excellence in International Education: check out this video, by 17-year-old Zane Scheuerlein showing parallels between environmental injustices in Little Village, Chicago and Mexicali, Mexico; and this essay by Imani Franklin on increasing understanding across racial and socioeconomic divides in Atlanta and Johannesburg.