diversity digest
Spring 01
Student Experience
next story
previous story
previous issue
institution profiles
recommended resources
diversity web

How Study in North America Shapes the Global Perspectives of African Students
By Stephen Appiah-Padi, Assistant Professor of Education and Director of International Programs, Northwestern College, Iowa

Since the 1960s, study abroad has been a significant issue for the formerly colonized countries of the Third World, or the South. Its presumed advantages for recently independent countries of the South are many, the most important argument being that study abroad is a mechanism for acquiring valuable technical skills and knowledge for national development. Because many countries of the South do not have the necessary facilities and/or institutions to train students at home, study abroad has become the vehicle for transferring from the North to the South those skills deemed vital in economic and social modernization.

In more recent terminology, study abroad would be considered useful and important for the goal of "globalization," as countries receive--via their returned overseas students--knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary for becoming globally competitive (Dolan 1993). From this perspective, graduates of study abroad programs are seen as having acquired the "global citizenship" values and expertise required for successful participation in the global economy and the new world order.

An alternative understanding of study abroad, however, questions these supposed benefits to countries of the South. Some critical analysts in the education and development field have argued that study in Northern countries often promotes the dependency on colonial educational systems already found in Third World or South countries. The knowledge and expertise gained abroad may not be based on a paradigm that would enable students to promote national and international development within a context of social, economic, and political justice. Consequently, skills and knowledge transferred from a Northern educational system to Southern students can become instruments for advancing traditional colonial notions of international relations and for perpetuating unequal and uneven development.

Research Study: Methodology, Definitions, and Goals

This article analyzes the results of a qualitative research project involving ten graduate students from various countries in sub-Saharan Africa enrolled in a course of graduate-level study at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. To begin to explore the complex questions raised in this research, the study utilized a qualitative paradigm, conducting in-depth personal interviews that were semi-structured to allow new questions to emerge from the discussions and interactions with participants. The final sample consisted of five students from East/Central Africa (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania), three from West Africa (Ghana, Nigeria), and two from Southern Africa (Malawi, Botswana). Students were selected from a variety of fields, including two students each from the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Engineering, one each from the Faculty of Humanities and the Faculty of Science, and four from the various departments of the Faculty of Education.

The study directly probed participants' understanding of the theory and practice of global citizenship. From a critical orientation, global citizenship is seen as the ability to view the world and its inhabitants as interacting and interdependent, to develop a concern for the survival of the human race, and to act to advance both our own enlightened self interest and the interest of people elsewhere in the world. Thus, a critical or transformative global citizen would be one who not only recognized the global interdependence of nations, but also displayed an awareness of and commitment to "societal justice for marginalized groups, grassroots empowerment, nonviolent and authentic democracy, environmental care, North-South relations based on principles of equity, respect and sharing" (Toh, 1996: 185). This was the view of global citizenship presented to participants during the interview process. The goals of this study were to explore the attitudes of this cohort of students toward this vision of global citizenship. Further, the study sought to understand the role of studying abroad on these attitudes.


The general feeling of participants was that, good as the concept sounds, in their experiences there was little to show that global citizenship was practical. Most viewed this critical orientation towards global citizenship as unrealistic. Further probing of participants showed that few could conceptualize a critical paradigm of global citizenship. Through their experiences in North America, the majority of participants had come to believe that a liberal appreciation of others' cultures and the contemporary view of interdependence advanced by economic globalization were all there could be to any initiative of global cooperation.

Most participants agreed that, through their sojourn in North America, they had acquired the ability to perceive problems facing humankind as global. But at the same time, they doubted their ability to seek alternatives to redress these problems because they did not belong to "the race that makes all the difference." While such a statement may sound disempowering coming from academics who expect to return home to occupy important decision-making positions in their countries, it also betrays a sense of acceptance of what they see as essentially wrong with current global political and economic power relations.

The participants' responses indicated that they had not gained critical perspectives on global issues through their experiences studying in Canada. There could be many reasons for this, including their own backgrounds and inability to re-orient their thoughts to a critical paradigm. However, one could also conclude, in agreement with research in the field, that the content and pedagogy of their programs at the university, as well as the not-so-international classroom and campus environment they encountered, did not fully present them with examples of or avenues for developing critical and transforming perspectives.

Participants in this study eloquently indicated their preference for a university in which international education is an important component of both administrative and academic work. They wanted internationalization to encompass all aspects of university life, so that an ethos of cross-cultural respect and a critical orientation to global interdependence would inform all university programs and policies, especially in the curriculum and in classroom pedagogy. According to the views expressed by participants in this study, current attempts to internationalize the university did not provide students with the curricular or pedagogical experiences necessary for gaining the breadth of experience and vision, the cultural awareness, and the critical orientation to global education, that they needed to be able to think and act as transformed global citizens.


While this essay represents only one small study, it provides important insights into one model of internationalization at universities in the North and its effects on international students from the Global South. The results suggest that higher education needs to examine more closely its own institutional practices and to change facets of the curriculum, pedagogy, and campus climate in order to prepare students to deal with the complex challenges of our current and future world.

Sources Calleja, James, "International Education a Common Direction for our Future." In James Calleja (ed.), International Education and the University (London : Jessica Kingsley/UNESCO (1995); Dolan, M., "Global Economic Transformation and Less Developed Countries." In R.O. Slater, B.M. Schutz, and S.R. Dorr (eds.), Global Transformation and the Third World (Boulder : Lynne Riener, 1993 259-282); Lansdale, David, "Institutional Culture and Third World Student Needs at American Universities." In Elinor Barber, Philip Altbach and Robert Myers (eds.), Bridges to Knowledge: Foreign Students in Comparative Perspective (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984, 196-206); Toh, Swee-Hin, "Partnerships as Solidarity: Crossing North-South Boundaries." The Alberta Journal of Educational Research, XLII (2), June. 178-191; Tompson, H.B. and Tompson, G.B. (1996) "Confronting Diversity Issues in the Classroom With Strategies to Improve Satisfaction and Retention of International Students." Journal of Education for Business, 72(1), Sept.-Oct., 1996. 53-57.

back to top

Stephen Appiah-Padi

blue bar
Castro Offers Free Education to Minority U.S. Medical Students
During a visit to the U.S. last fall, Cuban leader Fidel Castro criticized the U.S. for failing to take care of its poor and disadvantaged, and offered to provide low-income minority students in the U.S. six years of free medical education and training in Cuba. The Congressional Black Caucus has accepted Castro's offer and is developing a program scheduled to begin in fall 2002. High school graduates under 26 years old from any minority background are eligible, and will receive free medical education and training, in addition to free textbooks and room and board. Beneficiaries must return to their communities to practice medicine after their training in Cuba.