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Young people must strive for a more complete skill set

Posted: Tuesday, September 22, 2009

In a period of uncertainty, rapid change and economic disruption, it is more important than ever to plan for the future. Strategizing is especially urgent for America's young people, who already face the most difficult job market in decades. To compete in the global marketplace, they must assemble a carefully selected basket of skills.

Fortunately, many educators and policymakers I have addressed across the United States understand the need and are looking for guidance, especially in terms of international components.

For ideas, I turned to Gillian Sorensen, senior advisor at the United Nations Foundation, and a former high-level official under two U.N. secretaries-general, Kofi Annan and Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

If we are going to educate a new generation of informed, responsible Americans who are ready to work in an increasingly interdependent world, Sorensen says, we must start with a basic grounding in subjects such as history and political science. In addition, she promotes the teaching of foreign languages, so each student reaches a point of fluency in at least one of them. Later, as students move into the university, Sorensen believes they should take one or more courses in economics, and develop as broad a base as possible in world literature and culture.

How does one accommodate such needs in already crowded curricula at the secondary-school level?

These are hard choices, and to teach something superficially may be worse than not offering it at all, Sorensen advises. At the same time, it is not necessary to devote an entire year to global topics and issues. She recommends at least a class or two on international organizations, including the United Nations, and a larger series of classes on America and the world. What it comes down to is setting higher standards, she says, and we have an obligation to do that.

We simply cannot afford to ignore global issues, particularly those that cross borders without passports, Sorensen insists. Whether the topic is the economy, health, safety and security or the environment and climate change, we are affected directly, locally and personally. "If we are indifferent about or ignorant of those matters, we are simply floating downstream," she adds.

What else should students learn to develop an international edge? Sorensen is a big fan of presentation skills - the ability to stand before a group, speak clearly, make a well-organized and convincing statement, and demonstrate confidence - and suggests students take debate to hone this talent.

Young graduates also should have an area of expertise, she says. What is it that moves them? They must truly deepen and broaden their knowledge in that area so as to stand out.

In addition, she is enthusiastic about internships. "They give you an inside look at organizations, provide an opportunity to see what the real working world is like, help you to acquire experience and, for a select few, can lead to jobs," Sorensen points out.

Next, she turns to writing. To write clearly and succinctly, what Sorensen calls "lean prose," is critically important. The ability to produce a memo, research report, speech, persuasive letter, statement or other item - and to do so quickly and accurately - is absolutely essential, she says.

Finally, Sorensen urges, students should get into the habit of reading, on a daily basis, the news of the world. One of her personal preferences is her hometown newspaper, but she fully understands young people gravitate toward the Internet, where they can find similar information - and electronic versions of many newspapers free of charge. She cautions, though, they should consult serious sources of news and more than just one. If reading the news of the world becomes a habit over time, you build your knowledge base, awareness and ability to question and challenge, she says; it is a form of continuing education.

In a period of uncertainty, rapid change and economic disruption, I cannot think of better advice for young people.

• John C. Bersia is the special assistant to the president for global perspectives at the University of Central Florida.



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