It’s really great to hear that York House School, one of the most prestigious private schools in Vancouver, puts resources towards supporting students by also emphasizing personal/mental health for students. Last year I had a great time sharing my experience with the inner workings of the United Nations with the School’s model UN class. So I was happy to give another talk when the counseling team recently invited me to speak to sixty Grade 12 students about how I got into the UN and the unconventional way that my life has taken. The purpose of the talk was to support the students’ personal health and planning and to highlight that there are alternative paths after high school.
“Global Citizenship in the 21st Century” was the topic and it’s quite broad… so it made sense that I would talk about my UN experience…. but I also wanted to share my experience and views on how becoming a “global citizen” isn’t necessarily a fixed path. While I’ve enjoyed the work I’ve done internationally, the most valuable thing that I’ve learned from these experiences isn’t so much the traveling and living abroad, but to be open, curious, understanding and respectful of the people and the environment. Honestly there are people I know who’ve not really traveled much and who are more “global” in their outlook… while there are some people I’ve met during my travels who are not as “global” in perspective as you might think.
I never thought of being a “global citizen” when I was about to graduate from high school (and I still don’t). I didn’t really have an idea of what I wanted to do after grade 12. I figured going to University was the thing to do since everyone else was doing it.
There’s a lot of pressure (and advice) to start thinking about and doing something about your career and/or life when it’s time to graduate high school. From the sounds of it, the current generation of students needs to be “well rounded”, with lots of volunteering and academic experiences under their belt, in order to be considered for university. I’m all for balancing high school and extra curricular/volunteering activities, but I don’t think it should be what defines whether or not you can go to university. That’s too much pressure, physically and mentally, on students… instead, why not make it mandatory that after high school university-bound students are ask to take, say, six months off and do something with this time? And as part of university admissions to ask applicants what they did with these six months and why…
Part of the process of being a global citizen is to figure out who you are, what you like and/or don’t like. And that means trying things and exploring your possibilities. It’s not possible to have all the answers from just books alone, there’s a lot that can be learned and that can help a person grow through experience. It shouldn’t be forced, but rather do things that you want to do rather than what is expected of you… All this helps not only to build up a resume but also helps with personal growth and development. It’s something I’ve kept in mind and it’s led me to spend time in the Arctic, work for a car company in Japan, join the United Nations in Asia and Europe, and even earn my Masters degree while living and working in Bangkok.
I was interested and had the opportunity to go to University. Is it the place that will help you find a job after? Not really. It’s called ‘higher education’ after all. Yes, having a university degree opens doors, but it shouldn’t be the main purpose of going to secure a job afterwards. A lot of people try to finish as fast as they can… after 4 years and then what? Work? My advice is to embrace the culture and environment for as long as you think you can or need to… it’s a great place to explore who you are, meet people with different ideas, and learn things. It’s a big jump from high school to university in terms of life experience so what’s the rush of getting it over with?
There’s no perfect way of doing things in life. I’ve learned that the hard way. It was interesting to see the student’s faces when I told them that it took me seven years to finish my undergraduate degree, which included dropping out of university. Burn out is a part of life and that’s ok. It’s an opportunity to learn from and experience these kind of challenges in life. I was fed up with university and so I decided to take time off… and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. Not only did I realize the trials and tribulations of a working life, but I learned that I wanted to do more and see the world… which led me to taking a couple years off to live and work in the Arctic and Japan. Again… I would have never expected that coming out of high school.
Relationships are as important as the stuff you learn from books. So while the UN is famously known for “global citizenship”, making the world a more peaceful, stable, safer and healthier place also requires patience, understanding, and acceptance. Book smarts helps you understand the world, but it’s relationships that helps to change it. While I got my foot in the door with the UN with academics and life experiences, it’s the relationships that I’ve nurtured that has helped me continue working on and staying connected with global issues.
Life’s a journey. Having set plans and ideas about what to do with life is great, but you also have to be ready for those unexpected twists and turns. There will be times when you feel in control, and other times when things just feel out of control. Priorities change in life and it’s important to grow and adjust with them.
So what does it mean to be a “global citizen”? It isn’t about how much one has traveled, but, rather, their perspective, outlook, and curiosity in understanding the world around them, whether it’s in one’s own community or in some village in a developing country. That means being open to exploration, discovery, learning, and empathy… and using those experiences to grow as a person and to give back to society in a meaningful way.