Alumni Advisory Board Reflections

What does global competence look like in practice? Below, our alum reflect on a component of global competence and how it's now evidenced in their lives.

Adaptability and ability to be cognitively nimble - Caitlyn Keo

As World Savvy led our American Youth Leadership Program to study climate change while fully immersing us in the Bangladeshi culture, I deepened my understanding to the importance of being mindfully adaptable.  During our experience abroad I approached everything with my eyes wide open, ready to learn about and embrace the rich culture and the perplexing environmental issue.  The underlying aspect that is so important to being adaptable in various situations is the ability to be cognitively nimble and aware.  To be cognitively nimble means that you are quick to comprehend, alert, resourceful, and capable.  World Savvy enhanced my critical thinking skills and exposed me to opportunities which encouraged me to step out of my immediate comfort zone in order to learn about the world through contexts beyond our traditional classrooms. 

As a student and as a global citizen, I am evolving through my experiences

For me, the most noteworthy feature of our trip was the fact that it elevated my global competence.  One of my favorite aspects was my homestay with a Bangladeshi family- who quickly became referred to as my Ma, Baba, and sister Rashikah.  While I have grown up in a culturally blended Cambodian/German family, knowing when and how to adapt to different customs, this was my first experience feeling fully immersed in a beautiful culture that was completely new to me.  Therefore, I sought out ways to be flexible and embrace my surroundings.  I learned a few words in Bangla so that I could say hello, introduce myself, and say thank you.  I also made intentional efforts to always try the food that was presented to me.  One of my favorite foods while I was there was parathas, a common flat bread, that I have even made at home several times since the trip.  Additionally, my host family was so excited when I went to get fitted for my own salwar kamis, a traditional Bangladeshi outfit.  I quickly realized that one of the best parts of being adaptable in relation to experiencing a new culture is that it makes others more excited to share their culture with you.  Yet, I will acknowledge that adaptability isn’t always easy, especially coming from a very privileged society where some standards are very different.  While some experiences were harder to embrace in the moment- like bucket showers and squat toilets- it retrospect they enhanced our experience completely. 

As a student and as a global citizen, I am evolving through my experiences.  My experience with World Savvy gave me a heightened awareness for global issues, the realities that others face and the importance of solidarity.  Through World Savvy I made connections and memories that will stay with me forever.  

Self-awareness about identity and culture and sensitivity and respect for differences - Molly Jansen

As an American in Europe, I hear all the stereotypes: affluent, obese, insensitive, globally dominant, and power-hungry. It’s a challenge to travel the world with any pre-determined, assigned label, and it is especially tricky to decide whether you personally embody that label.

I listen to these generalizations out of consideration and curiosity, but my response to these stereotypes is always this: my Minnesota is as different from Alabama as Alabama is to Utah. Furthermore, my identity pitted against that of my upbringing adds another layer to this discussion. For example, in three months spent in the University of Edinburgh’s student body, I have encountered only one Minnesotan student. My choice to study abroad differs from the majority of my peers, most of whom study within a ten-minute drive of their homes. Neither choice is a bad one, but it’s a choice influenced by internal as well as external forces. It’s in these conversations that I realize the magnitude of identity and culture.

I am still trying to find my balance in this complex. On one hand, I must accept and embrace all facets of another culture and those of my own. On the other, culture is not a cookie cutter concept, and I do not fit perfectly within the parameters.

This lens helped me navigate the rising tensions when I first arrived in Scotland in September 2014, a mere two weeks before the independence referendum. For centuries, the identities of Scotland and the United Kingdom at large were intertwined, if not synonymous. The impending referendum politicized Scottish pride and those that felt dual allegiance were trapped between the polarities of a very simple ballot question: yes or no. And as a foreigner, someone who also -- albeit on a much smaller scale -- was struggling to determine her identity in a new home and its relation to her past, I could relate to these discussions.

I endeavor to step outside borders to shed light on aspects of my life I never thought to see

I attended one debate on the referendum, which quickly descended into a frenzy of blame and ad hominem attacks. It was apparent to me then that the tenor of the debate was a result of a commonality between both sides. Despite their antithetical stances, both sides shared fear for the results of the vote, the division it would create, and the changes it might bring. 

We live in an increasingly globalized and uncertain world. At the heart of this world is a very basic struggle to find one’s place within it. Both Scotland and the U.S. hold people, memories, and places I carry with me in my travels like a snail shell: both are part of my home. I can’t commit myself to either, and it is easy of me to feel lost, deprived of my anchor and place. I have great appreciation for the Scots’ willingness to discuss their place, because it’s not an easy discussion.

At the end of the day, the topics of identity and culture make us feel vulnerable. Who we are is a two-fold definition, influenced by the obscure cultural influences in our lives as well as our attitudes and choices. I find the latter component the most potent in the path to global competency.  I endeavor to step outside borders to shed light on aspects of my life I never thought to see. It’s a choice that induces vulnerability and humility, often in foreign, intimidating, and messy circumstances. I see these affects as necessary to personal growth. It’s why I travel, and it’s why I live an international life. 

Finding comfort in the unfamiliar - Kerry Honan

By the end of my travels in Bangladesh, I had grown accustomed to having a full stomach all the time. Whether I was dining with my Bangladeshi family in Dhaka or on the dirt floor of a village hut, my hosts always insisted that I eat more and, over the course of each meal, I was served lavish dishes that had been prepared specially for me. Always, they shrugged off my declarations of contentedness, adding yet another heap of steaming rice and lentils to my already-full plate. Similarly, I would return home from a day out with my arms full of the gifts that my Bangladeshi mother had insisted upon buying both for me and for every member of family back home. Even my host family’s cook –a sweet middle-aged woman who didn’t speak a word of English and whose bed was the kitchen floor– would try to slip me small trinkets or coins from time to time, though I continually turned them down.

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Unable to comprehend such persistent and selfless generosity, I initially felt uncomfortable when I found myself in these situations. Coming from a country where people tend to keep more for themselves than is necessary, this giving mindset was unfamiliar to me. I soon realized, however, that Bangladeshi people’s desire to bestow gifts upon their guests and treat them like royalty is simply a cultural norm, and, in turning down their offerings, I would be disrespecting the people who were sharing their homes and hearts with me. In order to fully immerse myself in my Bangladesh experience, I had to accept and learn from a set of standards to which I was not accustomed. I had to seek comfort in situations that were outside of my comfort zone and to view every experience from a new cultural perspective.

My ability to find peace in unfamiliar or ambiguous situations has been most helpful in my college career thus far.

Perhaps more than any of the other skills I obtained while in Bangladesh, my ability to find peace in unfamiliar or ambiguous situations has been most helpful in my college career thus far. As a Bonner Scholar, I am required to spend 140 hours per semester volunteering with non-profits around the Charlotte area. Countless times, I have had to enter one of these volunteering experiences with little or no idea of what to expect, and then quickly find my place within the organization’s established routine.


Last spring my primary service site was an urban farm and farmer’s market called Sow Much Good. I showed up to my first work day at the farm alone, dressed in the wrong type of clothing, and –despite my prior experience on organic farms– with an idealized vision of farming. The first five or so times that I helped at Sow Much Good, I received little instruction or feedback on my work and left feeling disoriented and unaccomplished. As I stuck with it, however, I became capable of recognizing the tasks that needed to be completed without having to be told. Despite my discomfort with the lack of clarity in those initial hours, and the helpless feeling of cluelessness, I pushed myself to “go with the flow” for a while, and I soon became more familiar with the organization’s structures and goals. From there, I better understood what was expected of me and probably contributed more to the progress of the farm.

While the global learning that I did in Bangladesh, as well as on my gap year in Israel, prepared me well for the community-based work I do with the Bonner Scholars Program, my experiences abroad also shaped the way that I approach daily interactions and challenges on campus. Freshman year, I was placed with a roommate who, though intelligent and kind-hearted, was as different an individual from myself as any I could have imagined. Not only did our interests contrast, but we had disparate ways of studying, relaxing, eating, and communicating. In the beginning, I was often frustrated by my inability to understand or relate to my roommate, however, I slowly learned how to accommodate her needs and preferences while respecting my own. We continued to be complete opposites, but, by the end of freshman year, I was genuinely glad that we had been roommates. While I wouldn’t say that we’re friends, when I see her around campus this year, I smile and wave, taking a moment to be grateful for the insight I gained from living with her.

The success of my freshman dorm situation and my ability to go into an unfamiliar service experiences with ease, are undoubtedly results of the global education that I received on both my independent travels and those with World Savvy. While most people obtain these skills sooner or later, I strongly believe that the international experiences I had as an adolescent gave me insight and confidence that many people my age don’t possess. First and foremost, global learning has enabled me to take risks and find ease within ambiguity, leading in turn to positive personal experiences on my college campus and in the community beyond. 

Question prevailing judgment - Cole Norgaarden

Every one of us has a distinct view of the world. We are each born into a certain context that serves as a point of reference, informing this view with a set of assumptions about our surroundings near and far. We are encouraged by many forces—our education, the media, even friends and family—to accept these assumptions without thinking critically about the implications they have on a global scale. To travel beyond the limits of one’s own community, and into distant places populated by people with unfamiliar life experiences, is to inevitably challenge such assumptions. I have found this to be just as true learning from villagers in the mountains north of Chittagong as working alongside residents of south Minneapolis.

Being immersed in the completely new setting of a foreign country, however, brings one’s assumptions into sharper contrast with reality. In these situations, those of us from “first world” nations are forced to acknowledge alternative angles of the worldwide systems that make our lives possible, including legacies of colonization and the impacts of a globalized industrial economy. Being able to experience and learn from this dissonance, connect the dots, and question premises we take for granted are all essential skills for young people develop. However, there are several prevailing assumptions already in place that can prevent youth from ever taking that first step away from the comfort of their own communities.

Young people, in fact, wield a potent voice and are specially equipped to make a difference in the world

One that I have commonly encountered is the idea that young people cannot make a difference. Either because we are too idealistic, or don’t understand the ‘real’ way things work, or do not have access to adequate channels of change, there are many reasons given to legitimate this false idea. With the emergence of widespread awareness around climate change, however, young people have stumbled upon a position of power unlike that of any previous generation. We have a unique stake in this issue, which will both disproportionately affect us and require a fundamental shift in the way we perceive and employ the natural world. Young people, in fact, wield a potent voice and are specially equipped to make a difference in the world given these circumstances. Further, we are not limited to the organizing around climate change alone. Korvi Rakshand was only twenty-two when he founded JAAGO Foundation, a comprehensive educational NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) that operates free schools throughout some of Bangladesh’s most extremely impoverished districts. For me, seeing firsthand the visible impact of his organization while visiting a JAAGO school in Rayer Bazaar made the outcome of youth empowerment into a reality. Around the world, Korvi and others even younger than him (see Malala, Nabila) are actively refuting this assumption every day.

Another harmful assumption I have seen is the perception that our communities are isolated entities, which are not affected by what happens on the other side of the world. Though I sometimes found it difficult to draw connections between life in the United States and Bangladesh, events that occurred in the months following my experience abroad revealed these links to me in a painfully direct way. On April 24, 2013, I was visiting the university that I now attend when I heard about the deadly collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Savar, near Dhaka—a district we had visited while touring historic monuments in the city. I had just purchased a sweatshirt at the campus bookstore manufactured by a company that would later refuse to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. After arriving on campus in the fall, I became involved in a student-led campaign to mandate that university apparel suppliers sign the Accord at the risk of contract termination, and after months of sustained pressure, Cornell University adopted the mandate and subsequently cut its contract with the incompliant corporation. I can now see, with much more clarity, how my actions can have consequences halfway around the world; and in turn, how all of our communities face collective struggles that are intimately and inextricably connected.

Finally, I have also found that a prevailing assumption lies in the faith that NGOs hold all the answers to the assortment of challenges that face nations like Bangladesh in the global south. Certainly, I learned about plenty of amazing initiatives and technologies that were improving life for citizens in real, tangible ways; our meeting with Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank is just one example of the innovation we saw in action. Another experience I had while visiting a brick factory outside of Dhaka caused me to think more critically about how NGOs were presented. The factory was hailed as a model of sustainable brickmaking technology that retained and sequestered the carbon dioxide gas that other factories poured into the air from their tall, iconic smokestacks. During our tour, another student and I inquired about a barrel of sludge we had noticed standing off to the side. The man giving the tour indicated that the sludge was a byproduct waiting to be dumped in a nearby ditch. Surely, the factory demonstrated an alternative to conventional industry that significantly reduced air pollution, yet it appeared that a new waste had been created in the process. This experience instilled in me a determination to evaluate solutions critically for their systemic value, rather than surface appearance.

We do not choose the worldview we inherit from our parents or the community we are born into. But we each have the opportunity to expand that worldview by questioning the assumptions attached to it. When people ask me what I learned from my experience in Bangladesh, “how to think critically about my world” is always my answer. I don’t think I truly understood what this meant until I spent time living and learning alongside my Bangladeshi peers in a place completely unlike home. My friend and fellow participant Bianca Brooks calls this “reading the fine print”, and no definition of global competence is complete without it. In order to advance systemic solutions to the challenges our world faces, we must first be able to accurately recognize the root causes at play. So question assumptions. Be constructively critical. Challenge others to go beyond their comfort zones, and challenge your self to go even further. As I came to find, the more you know about the world, the more you know about yourself.

Openness to new opportunities, ideas and ways of thinking - Leah Norman

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As the bell rang signaling the end of the day, my teacher yelled out, “I have information regarding an opportunity for students to study climate change in Bangladesh, find me if you are interested”. As it turns out, the application for World Savvy’s exchange program was due in two days and I was determined to apply. I spent the next few days running from teacher to teacher, getting letters of recommendations and their opinions on my essays. All my work paid off when I found out that I’d be heading to Bangladesh in the winter of my senior year.

 Studying climate change in Bangladesh with World Savvy was the first opportunity I learned about, applied and got. World Savvy showed me that there are countless opportunities in the world; you just need to find and take advantage of them. Since my time with World Savvy, I’ve had three internships, found a school job that is in my field of interest and joined multiple amazing organizations on my campus. That being said, just because you find an opportunity doesn’t mean you will get it, and although World Savvy didn’t directly show me that, it came with the new skill set of seeking out opportunities. For example, I’ve applied for other fully funded travel abroad programs, all without success. Despite these “failures”, I still keep applying to new opportunities: I know I’ll either get them or I won’t, but either way, I’ll continue to develop and refine my skills.

Being open-minded to learning about ideas and how they came to be is an important skill to further deepen your understanding of the world.

Additionally, World Savvy also showed me the importance of being open to traveling to uncommon places. After my time in Bangladesh, I realized how much I love to travel to developing countries. Now, I’m studying international development in Uganda. This openness to travel and opportunities comes hand in hand with an openness to ideas that are different than my own. In Uganda and Bangladesh, the standards for marriage, gender equality, environmental sustainability and politics, among other things, are drastically different. You don’t have to agree with the cultural ideas from any country, whether it is your own or one you are visiting, but being open minded to learning about the ideas and how they came to be is an important skill to further deepen your understanding of the world. World Savvy showed and encouraged me to put myself in these situations.

 World Savvy teaches students to be “[open] to new opportunities, ideas and ways of thinking”. In my case, they succeeded. Not only would I have never realized that there are so many amazing opportunities in the world, I would’ve been fearful to apply. World Savvy gave me the skills to successfully find opportunities and an overall positive attitude, if I get the opportunity or don’t. Additionally, they showed me the importance of being open to ideas that are different from my own, and to examine them in a deeper, more contextualized way. World Savvy has made me more open minded to travel, ideas and cultures.