Pundits continue to speculate as to the influences that led to the presidential election outcome. Theories abound and there seems to be a consensus that the prognosticators got it very wrong. Lack of faith in polling and political consultants will likely be an immediate result of the election of President Donald Trump.
Deep divisions now characterize our country. The results show that the urban west coast and northeast (with some exceptions) are detached politically from the often-rural center and south of the country. The political dissonance is a reflection of deep social and economic divisions.
One added difference appears to be education. Those with lower levels of formal education voted for Trump; those with higher levels of formal education voted for Clinton.
Education can be considered in several ways. It cannot always be reduced to the number of years of schooling or whether someone has attained a four-year college degree. These approaches do not factor in the scope and depth of a learning experience. Many Americans who have only achieved primary education are worldly and embrace a society that is tolerant and diverse. And there are PhDs who have limited views of multiculturalism and immigration.
It is what is taught that transforms a student’s worldviews, elevates levels of empathy, promotes civic engagement and raises the willingness to experience and adjust to global change.
Today 45 percent of U.S. undergraduates — 7.3 million credit-earning students — are enrolled in American community colleges. Nearly 1,200 institutions are found in every community — rural, suburban and urban—in the U.S. For many, these are the only avenues for a higher education experience, and, in fact, many will complete their degree and never attend college again, with a smaller number moving on to four-year institutions.
Students who attend community colleges constitute the vast array of American diversity: those who are native-born and citizens, and those who are international and recent immigrants. The poor and rich attend these institutions. The full panoply of hyphenated Americans is present in community colleges. They educate those who are older, white and Christian, and those who are younger, brown and Muslim.
Most four-year liberal arts colleges and state universities can’t hold a candle to community college diversity.
The Fulbright Program celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. Established in 1946, it has emerged as the premiere foreign exchange program for students and educators. Currently operating in 160 countries, some 370,000 Americans and internationals have participated in the program. The impact of a Fulbright experience is an important one, especially for educators in passing on to their students an awareness of world affairs, the impact of globalization and a better understanding of those with whome we share the planet.
But sadly, over the years few educators coming from community colleges have participated in the Fulbright program. Every year, the program awards more than 800 grants in its core program — the Fulbright Scholar program — to mostly college and university faculty, but only a handful ever come from community colleges. In 2015-2016, 17 grants went to faculty at community colleges, and of the 15 institutions represented, 11 were based in urban or suburban communities.
Of the various Fulbright programs offered, the avenues by which a community college can participate in the program are limited. Few community colleges host incoming foreign Fulbrighters as teaching assistants, and only a handful of administrators participate in the Russia Fulbright seminar, a program designed specifically for community colleges. The Fulbright Program has failed to develop models for faculty experiences that reflect the reality of community college environments where many faculty do not have tenure or receive sabbaticals. Most community college faculty do not have terminal degrees such as a PhD, which also presents roadblocks. Sometimes when faculty do receive awards, their administrators fail to support them, either because they know little about the program or because Fulbright’s purposes don’t align with the mission of the institution.
And for students just graduating from a community college, there are no opportunities. Why couldn’t a “junior” Fulbright experience be developed for community college graduates? The membership association of American Fulbrighters, the Fulbright Association, has 120 institutional members: only one is a community college.
Time for change
As such, the benefits of a Fulbright experience have not been brought to vast numbers of Americans. For members of Congress and the new administration who might assess the value of international education, they might question the benefit of a program that only serves the more advantaged, and some might say, the elites of society.
Now more than ever, we need to consider how education can bridge the vast chasm in our country. Establishing shared educational experiences is a critical strategy. Students at a local community college should receive the same benefits related to global education as those at an Ivy League institution. The advantages of international education should be available to all students in all sectors. Bridging differences in the U.S. to create a society where “E Pluribus Unum” — out of many, one — truly reflects our country requires creating pathways and strategies to advance global understanding for all students and educators, especially those in community college environments.
David J. Smith is an educational consultant working with community colleges based in Rockville, Maryland. Previously, he taught at Harford Community College in Maryland, where he was a U.S. Fulbright Scholar teaching in Estonia.