Quite frequently I am asked how it is I came to be president of Salisbury University. Students are especially curious to know what career path I followed and, more specifically, what I majored in as an undergraduate student. I have a lot of fun with this, typically asking them to take a guess. Most often, students and others imagine that I must have studied business. Nothing could be further from the truth!
I began my undergraduate studies at Indiana University (Bloomington) in 1971. I had no clue what my major might be. I studied classical guitar, then for a while thought I’d major in geology. In the end, I wound up majoring in español. Spanish. My parents reacted to this decision by saying something like this: “Why in the world would you major in Spanish? What will you do with it? You’ll never find meaningful employment.” (Keep in mind that this was the early 70s, and it was not obvious at that time that by the year 2000 the Hispanic population would be the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population.)
I majored in Spanish because…I liked it! I had no clue what I’d do with that major. But I loved the language and came to love its literature and, in fact, went on to complete a Ph.D. in the non-too-practical field of Hispanic American literature. And, clearly, not only did I find employment, but those choices I made along the way have served me well. Most rewarding to me were my years living in Mexico and getting to know other countries. The most valuable lessons on my road to becoming a university president were these: Learning effective communication through the study of another language, coming to appreciate the rich diversity of other cultures, and becoming adaptable in dealing with people who may not think as I do.
Having just read Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, I am more convinced than ever that our nation’s future success and security depends upon our ability to prepare our young people to be global citizens. We simply must educate today’s youth, in the words of Allan Goodman, President of the Institute of International Education, so that they are “more effective, respectful of other cultures and political and economic systems, and willing to take a stand for the world’s welfare, not just what benefits a specific country.”
The portal through which we come to understand and appreciate other cultures is often foreign language study, which, in turn, often leads to study abroad. Many believe, for instance, that the United States would not be involved with conflicts such as the war in Iraq if we better understood Muslim society and culture.
That 2005 has been declared “Year of the Languages” by President Bush and Governor Ehrlich is cause for optimism. Perhaps soon, as in the past, the mark of an educated individual will be her or his fluency in more than one language.
Times have changed for all Americans, and the events of September 11, 2002 will forever mark our lives. Yet students today are not retreating from the world, but instead embracing it. According to the Institute of International Education, the number of Americans studying abroad has increased 145 per cent since 1991. Despite a world of uncertainties and even some degree of danger, I am proud that a new generation of students in the United States seems to be embracing the world with all its imperfections and marvelous possibilities.
Hopefully, through language study, international education, and the exploration of other cultures we will work toward human understanding and, yes, world peace.