Doing What We Can

By Johnson, Marlene | International Educator, May/June 2011 | Go to article overview

Doing What We Can


Johnson, Marlene, International Educator


FIVE YEARS AGO, the NAFSA conference was held in another great Canadian city, Montreal. At that opening plenary, we heard from Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai about her remarkable life journey, and about how she came to do so much for Africa and for the world. The most memorable moment of Wangari's inspiring address was her brilliant retelling of a fable of humility and activism about the tiny hummingbird and the great forest fire. As the other animals scattered and fled the flames, the story goes, the hummingbird decided it would try something else. It flew to a nearby river and gathered a beak-full of water, then flew back and dropped it on the fire. The other animals mocked the hummingbird as it traveled back and forth with its tiny loads of water, saying: "You need more than a beak to make a difference. What do you think you are doing?" And the hummingbird replied: "I'm doing what I can."

Most of us have felt like the hummingbird at some point or another in our lives, facing great odds, feeling alone, but feeling compelled to do what we can. As a community of individuals engaged in international education, we know that doing what we can is fundamental to our ability to shape the future of the world we're living in and to ensure that the values we uphold will prevail. Embracing the notion that we must do what we can inherently means that we do not have the luxury of choosing to stand on the sidelines, or of turning away in hopelessness or disillusionment. This is no easy task, but day after day, we must stay engaged and keep moving forward.

Facing Challenges

We're living through a politically ugly time in the United States. The partisan bickering, congressional inertia, disinformation sowing, and pointless noisemaking have reached truly historic proportions. Sometimes it's hard to sort out what is fact and what is spin; it often feels like the government just doesn't work any more; and too many in leadership positions appear to spend more time trying to ruin each other than trying to work together on behalf of their constituents. Meanwhile, our economy struggles to regain its footing and move toward a better future, and political and societal unrest around the world makes the exercise of responsible global leadership vitally important. We face great challenges.

Someone recently asked me what any of us can do in this environment. My answer is simple: Do what you can, and keep doing it. As Dorothy Day famously said, "No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There's too much work to do." About six months ago, we witnessed an election whose outcomes suggested the dawning of a politicai environment that might not be particularly friendly to international education and citizen diplomacy. But each of us must stand up and get back to work. We are the only ones that can change things. Our politicians cannot do it for us - we have to do it and bring them with us.

Taking the Long View

Some people may say: "Why now? Why not wait for the tide to turn? What's the point?"

In public policy, you learn early on that influencing policymakers, influencing public opinion, and helping to bring about meaningful change is a very long road. You have to show up every day, do the hard work of relationship building, work through difficult issues, and take setbacks in stride. And when the politicai winds don't blow in your favor, you can't quit. You have to stick with it, often through several Congresses, sometimes across several administrations, before your labor bears fruit.

Sometimes this means working to lay critical groundwork even if you. figure your cause won't make it across the finish line this time around. For years, NAFSA has been planting the seeds and cultivating support for a national study abroad initiative that would make study abroad widely accessible, available, and attractive for a wide diversity of college students at all types of institutions. To some degree, the reason this effort must be a longterm one is that what we are advancing is a paradigm shift in the way we think about how to pay for study abroad, and about how we go about expanding access in a significant way. …

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