Developing real solutions to the world’s interlinked problems—to our problems—depends on everyone working together at some fundamental levels. Given these interlinkages, intercultural learning and global competence education cannot only be privileges for a few. Instead, they are practical skills that must be incorporated into our education systems as a core part of education for all,” says Melissa Liles, AFS’s Chief Global Engagement Officer for Kunvivas. Aprendiendo con el Mundo educational magazine.

Discussing the latest trends in transforming both the formal education system and the non-formal and lifelong learning programs (like on-the-job training), Liles emphasized the crucial roles that educators and policymakers play in sharing how the world continues to work together on issues of global importance. She offers five key things learners can take away from study abroad and intercultural volunteer programs, and urges global citizens everywhere to move from talking about appreciating differences and being interconnected, to taking concrete action.

The full interview (in Spanish) is available here, courtesy of AFS Spain.

Melissa Liles, AFS

AFS has a long tradition of teacher training, but are teachers and educators  ready to educate the leaders of tomorrow?

It’s exciting to see that there is growing interest by teachers, schools and “initial teacher educators” (ITE)—like pedagogical units in universities or teaching colleges—as well as policymakers and educational authorities in intercultural learning and global competence education. The OECD and UNESCO also report that there are more and more policies that recognize the importance of these in national education systems. So there is progress.

But, in order to implement these policies into real-life practice, teachers must be prepared adequately. T hey must both become globally competent themselves and have the skills to help develop global competence in their students. What we see is that there is a realization that most teachers today—and even up-and-coming ones—don’t yet have access to these opportunities. So, we need to take what AFS has been doing for many years, but often on an ad hoc basis, and systematize it. This can be at grassroots levels as well as at institutional levels: AFS can and should continue to offer trainings to existing teachers, but we must also work with teacher colleges to help them develop curricula for their teacher-trainees—and provide teacher exchanges and other ways to help them not only learn the theories, but put them into practice.

There are so meaningful projects that AFS partners plus EFIL and AFS International have been working on to do this, like the recent EFIL-led Intercultural Learning for Pupils and Teachers programme for in-service teachers. Another is one that AFS International, together with EFIL and 5 different universities with ITE programs, has proposed for Erasmus+ funding to develop a major new Globally Competent Teacher Educators initiative. One really innovative aspect of that proposal is to use virtual reality (VR) to help stimulate virtual exchanges among teachers as a way of touching them personally.


What are the key competences that learners should develop to create sustainable and peaceful societies?

There are five things I hope learners take away from AFS whether they are on an exchange program or working with a volunteer trainer in their school, or even if they are a volunteer (or staff) themselves.

First, it’s the basics: If they do nothing else from their involvement with AFS other than realize—and I mean really, fundamentally recognize and appreciate deep within themselves—that each of us is who we are because we are shaped by our environment and circumstances and that every single other person we will ever meet or see or hear or know about are also shaped by theirs which are different from ours…then that is already an important learning point.

Then, “normalizing difference” is important. That is, realizing that if each of us has different circumstances and environments, then each of us is, by definition, different. And that this is natural and good—even if we don’t always understand or like these differences.

Next it’s being careful in making assumptions and trying to suspend our judgement, especially when encountering these differences. This is where the DIVE and other exercises come into the picture and are good to challenge ourselves with.

Fourth, understanding that even though we’re all different, we’re all connected with each other is key. Everything each of us does has a consequence not only on ourselves, but also on someone else. Which is actually an overwhelming thought, so I would frame it in a less intimidating way! But the point is that we are interconnected and, ultimately, interdependent with each other and the resources and other beings on our planet.

Finally, I hope that as AFSers we walk away with the sense that each of us has a responsibility to use this learning. Getting involved in a hands-on project that works to help meet the SDGs is great—and we want more AFSers to do this—but, equally important is knowing that just by applying all of the above in our everyday interactions is a step towards being an active global citizen. Micro-transformation leads to macro-transformation and long term social change.


Could you give the educational community three tips to make education for coexistence easier and help building a more sustainable and integrated world?

Here’s the thing: I don’t think what we’re trying to do is easy. In my experience, learning to live together is actually a lot of really hard work.

It’s easy to talk about appreciating differences and being interconnected and taking action…but to really wrap our minds around these things and put them into practice on a daily basis is difficult! It takes patience and understanding and allowing room for trying (and erring) and compassion and creativity and dedication.

But, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, the cost we pay by taking the easy route and not investing in intercultural learning and global competence is one we can’t afford. For instance, when we hear that if we don’t come together to figure out climate change then by 2040—which is only 21 years from now—there will be global food shortages, underwater cities and unprecedented refugee crises—then this makes it clear that we have to do this hard, but necessary work.

But I have hope and faith that we can do this work, and that AFS is on the right track. We’ll move forward, as learners as much as we are educators, bringing others along with us until we figure it out together.


Kunvivas magazine is designed by Daniel Jara

Read the entire interview in Spanish here.