The constant barrage of news about climate change, energy shortages, environmental degradation, disease, and war demonstrates the challenges and dangers of an increasingly interconnected world. However, in the face of these grim realities and predictions, it is reassuring to witness the real-world, international successes of MIT students. By working with communities around the world, MIT students create positive outcomes that have transformative effects. The more MIT students participate in international public service, the better chance we have of creating a world where interconnection is an asset and headlines can be positive.
Consider just a few of the outcomes of MIT students’ international public service work. First, the students gain substantial educational benefits from their public service experiences abroad. Given that MIT students often become powerful professionals, these lessons are themselves important opportunities for positive change in the world. The experiential education they gain through public service helps them learn about issues, about complexity, about problem-solving, about how to apply and fully understand their academic subjects. They learn about the cultural, geographic, political, social, economic, and technical influences that shape communities and countries. They also gain important personal insights about their own assumptions, capabilities, and strengths.
By tackling the problems of human need collaboratively with local people, MIT students also develop community capacity. When MIT students work with teachers and community leaders to establish a computer center in India or to develop a hands-on science curriculum in Tanzania, they continue to empower people long after they return home from their travels over the Independent Activities Period or the summer. Over time, the effects of MIT students’ international public service work can expand. For example, one IDEAS Competition winning project has already enabled 25,000 people in Nepal to drink cleaner water, and as communities share the technologies, those numbers will rise.
Last year, MIT began an initiative to expand experiential education and international opportunities. Institute committees were formed to assess current offerings and develop appropriate guidelines for growth. The “Global MIT” Web site was launched, followed by a “Go Global” subsidiary site for students. iHouse opened, thanks to the collective efforts of students, faculty, and administrators, all eager to see this new living-learning community empower students to become successful leaders in a global context.
We hope that this Institute emphasis on international experience will continue — and that it will enable the MIT Public Service Center to expand international public service opportunities through the IDEAS Competition, Public Service Fellowships and grants, and service learning classes like D-Lab. Through these support systems, MIT students are already working on innovative ways to regenerate coral reefs, to curb the spread of tuberculosis and malaria, to irrigate arid regions, and to enable access to communication technology to spur education and economic development. But in a world where a billion people lack clean drinking water, where smoke from indoor cooking kills thousands of children each year, and where poverty, persecution, and illiteracy are a fact of life for millions, MIT students have much more work to do.
Sally Susnowitz is the director of the MIT Public Service Center.By