The Dumbing Down of “Global Citizenship”


Traveling abroad does not create global citizens.

Let me repeat, traveling abroad does not create global citizens.

Perhaps a controversial stand, but let me explain my position.  To do so, I must provide some background.

I am an international educator and spent the better part of my professional career as a study abroad adviser or director. I have also served as an international student adviser and ARO/PDSO (to keep it simple, these are essentially titles that indicate a higher responsibility for receiving international students into a university/college setting). What this translates to is that I have worked with thousands of young people from dozens of countries and provided countless hours of support and advising on culture, academics and visa regulations.  I also facilitate webinars and live sessions on topics related to crossing cultures, global education and global citizenship. I’ve lived abroad three times and traveled to dozens of countries.  swarm200200

I’ve volunteered at home and care tremendously about “beeing the change” – so much so that I created a business called MeliBEE Global and a new (un)conference about Culture, Identity and Perspective.  I think you get the point – I really care about this subject.  REALLY care!

At some point during my career in academia, I began to notice the phrase “global citizen” popping up, often in college admissions and global education administrative offices’ marketing literature.  “Become a global citizen!” is now used in countless study abroad brochures. This trend, along with ubiquitous suggestion that our ‘global awareness is necessary to succeed in a corporate career’ (as if business success is the PRIMARY reason we should try to understand each other), only ruffles my feathers further.

While there are many definitions of global citizenship, as past Melibee team member Gerry Botchukova Farkova states in this piece, there isn’t one that is agreed upon by all circles.  However, I do believe that the common denominator of global citizenship is the suggestion of ACTION.  This is perhaps where so many who are tossing this term around like a hot potato are missing the mark.

What isn’t being effectively communicated to students and travelers is that travel and education abroad are merely one component of marching, with intention, on a path of global citizenship.  One short term academic course abroad doesn’t magically morph one into an instant global citizen. Global citizenship is not a certificate, medal or sticker that you put on your nametag at a conference.  It is a lifelong journey of self-exploration, on-going learning, reading, dialogue,  enhanced awareness, development of cross-cultural competency skills and behaviors,  etc. that is reinforced and strengthened through intentional travel and educational experiences abroad.  This variety of components are then combined with a strong dose of ACTION, otherwise they are simply words uttered by people sitting around, armchair ‘philosophizing’ about the state of our world.

Global citizenship begins with knowing oneself and one’s community domestically.  Who are you in the space you occupy? Where have your cultural norms come from? What identity do you hold or create about yourself?  How do others see you?  What injustices are happening outside your front door?  How do they shape your community?  What cultural, political and How to Build a Global Community

socio-economic factors have supported such injustices?  What has been your role (or lack of participation) in such a scenario?  How does this situation impact your community today?  How has it impacted it in the past? How will it impact it for seven generations not yet born?  Are these issues common in other places in the world?  What are the common denominators? What has affected and changed these situations in other communities?  What can we do to act and convey strength for those experiencing injustice in our world? What cross-cultural skills are required to effectively understand these issues?  These are the type of questions that someone seeking a path to global citizenship asks.

One does not learn those complex variables on a seven day vacation to London to visit Big Ben for a photo opportunity.  This doesn’t magically happen on a three week academic course to Lima, Peru – even if you stay with a family and participate in painting a children’s community center for a few hours.  Global citizenship is like a recipe. Without various key ingredients and spices you are not going to be able to lay claim to it.  The way the term is tossed around these days is comparable to slicing some beautiful Granny Smith apples, putting them in a pan with some cinnamon and calling it apple pie.  It simply isn’t and you can’t ‘fake it till you make it’ with a recipe as significant as global citizenship.

Global citizenship happens over time, when the synthesis of the components mentioned previously merge together to create something that moves us to action – when you begin to ‘walk the talk’ instead of treating each opportunity as an enhancement to a resume or a personal ‘win’.

When you feel yourself on the path to global citizenship, you know it. You are deeply changed, begin to lose sleep, feel a need to uncover truth and to live this new awareness.  You are moved to action.  You are unsatisfied with just sharing an article about injustice on Facebook.  You realize that there is so much more to being on this path of global citizenship and that it is a path you step onto, an entrance ticket earned with careful and distinct intention.

So, when you’re tempted to drop the term global citizen, check yourself.  When you see it flung carelessly on a brochure, question it.  When you hear it mentioned, listen carefully.  When you feel the path calling you, ACT.

Here are some resources on Global Citizenship that I feel are worth checking out:

This piece by a past study abroad student addresses the quest to be a global citizen during education abroad is impossible.

Dr. Eric Hartman’s site contains a wealth of knowledge about the search for global citizenship, especially as it relates to service abroad.

I recently attended a workshop by this author and his wife and read Glenn’s book, Indigenous Principles for Corporate Change, illustrates how one can connect culture with social change in business.

The Melibee Global Swarm will explore Culture, Identity and Perspective. It is a ridiculously affordable (un)conference and will provide a new way to examine these topics which are key ingredients to Global Citizenship.

There are several free tools at Melibee to address race, service and voice in our world.

This piece illustrates the realities of a global community.

Carrie Wagner is a speaker who talks global citizenship – and someone intentionally walking this path.



  1. Small Planet Studio says:

    Yes! I’ve lived abroad, have traveled all over, work in the field, speak another language, etc., etc., etc., and I still feel like I have A LOT to learn. I am always in the process of becoming a global global citizen.

    I find it so frustrating when I see programs and organizations promoting the idea that global = a quick and easy trip abroad, a workshop or a 3-credit class. There are no short cuts or quick fixes – it’s a combination of experience, knowledge, action, and whole lot of deep reflection and questioning. Sometimes it seems effortless, other times is super hard.

    If you really want to be a global citizen you’ve got to do the work and appreciate the process, rather than just focus on the destination – or, as you said, “instead of treating each opportunity as an enhancement to a resume or a personal ‘win’”.

  2. Cultural Detective says:

    Excellent and very timely post, Missy. Global citizenship involves knowing yourself, learning to really empathize with others, developing the abilities to bridge and leverage assets as differences, and a deep, abiding concern for the sustainability of our planet and its people. It is a competence that requires ongoing, structured practice to develop, as well as ongoing maintenance. Your cautions resonate with me. Yet, I’m very happy that global citizenship is such a popularly stated goal of education these days 😉 Better than the alternative.

    • Thank you! In our higher ed culture, we are always looking for a “one up” on the competition. Your points reinforce how important how we position global citizenship as a skill set are so valid. Thank you for sharing them!

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