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Opening doors with a global mind-set

By Jessica Russo

For young people entering a 21st century workforce, a global mind-set is not only important. It is vital to their healthy, happy development.

What is a global mind-set, and how do we cultivate this in young people who, like adults, gravitate towards the familiar?

Gupta and Govindarajan describe a global mind-set as an awareness and openness to diversity combined with a tendency and ability to integrate new knowledge and experiences across cultures. I like to think of a global mind-set in terms of the doors it opens. A global mind-set allows for healthy encounters with others representing diverse cultures, races, ages, gender, religions, lifestyles, and viewpoints. And a global mind-set allows these encounters to penetrate our experience in a way that encourages us to expand the way we think and act, combining old and new ways of going about the world.

For young people (or anyone, for that matter) to develop a global mind-set, they need the opportunity to wrestle with and challenge their own cultural understanding. Along the path to that understanding, they acquire or hone the ability to empathize, suspend judgment, and either accept or adapt to cultural difference. Empathy, suspension of judgment, and acceptance/adaptability are keys to developing a global mind-set. But developing these abilities in a homogeneous environment is challenging.

In the business world, an international assignment is argued to be best way for people to develop the skills to be an effective global leader. For young people, a culturally immersive experience may be the best way to develop a global mind-set. Providing them the experience of working with others of varying backgrounds is essential to digging deep enough into their own cultural understanding to be able to develop the empathy, suspension of judgment, and acceptance/adaptability requisite to a global mind-set.

In the Urban Youth Development Office (Urban 4-H), we developed a program model and curriculum called WeConnect: An Opening to the World (Skuza, Russo,& Hurtado, 2009) designed to help show youth that they are participants of a global society, inspiring a sense of understanding and confidence in relating and connecting to other people. And using this philosophical base, we provide cross-cultural integration points for the youth in our programs, through experiences such as a leadership retreat, campus visit, showcase event, and service learning groups involving youth from multiple types of clubs across rural, suburban, and urban areas. These inter-cultural experiences are most successful when we:
  • Employ a process that emphasizes habitual reflection and active listening
  • Engage youth in authentic conversations about issues they care about
  • Tackle any emerging conflicts head-on
  • Focus learning on helping young people understand their thinking about cultural difference
  • Insist on a youth-centered, community-centered learning environment
  • Surround the youth with caring, trained adults who can engage them in conversations about their viewpoints
  • Provide experiences that appropriately challenge youth to practice what they are learning about accepting and adapting to cultural difference with grace

We find that with this deliberate approach, we are helping our young people develop a global mind-set. One barrier that we encounter is resistance from families based on prejudicial outlooks that have been cultivated in the young person's home. We use a group mentoring model in some of our programs in order to provide a variety of adult viewpoints, and Extension's research on the role of race and ethnicity in mentor relationships is a helpful resource.

What are other ways that you find effective in developing a global mind-set? What are some challenges?

-- Jessica Russo, assistant Extension professor and director, Urban 4-H Youth Development Office

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  1. I definitely see this as one of our key goals we need to be working toward in the Center for Youth Development as we work with youth. One of the challenges--and opportunities--that we face is in how we cultivate that same mindset in the adult leaders, who may have grown up in a very different environment or may not have had that broad exposure. Ultimately, these leaders will most likely learn more from the youth about this realm, since young people today generally understand themselves to be intrinsically part of a global context. How can we cultivate that kind of preparation for adult volunteers and staff?

  2. Kathryn, I agree that is a challenge. I think it's interested that working with young people is a wonderful way for adults to expand their thinking and strengthen their ability to adapt in challenging situations. That on-the-job training goes a long way to cultivate the kind of mind-set that is receptive to a more global perspective. There are many wonderful trainings out there that are geared specifically to adults wanting to come to a better understanding of cultural difference, including the Youth Work Institute's Culturally Responsive Youthwork Matters []
    Besides training, I think that reflective practice is one of the most fundamentally important ways to prepare the mind to open up to new ideas. Reflective practice, of course, is that process of studying and thinking about how we go about our work. People go about this in different ways, but for me it involves a combination of writing, talking/sharing with others, changing the parts of my practice I don't like, and then re-evaluating the changes. Through this process, I learn more about my own thinking around a certain topic, and it keeps my mind agile.
    What are other ways to help adults develop a global mind-set?

  3. A youth's self concept, social connections, and perception glasses are critical fundamentals. In my opinion, the fundamentals are more important than the presence or are absence of support programs. Thus the goal is not to create a program but to facilitate social and personal growth.
    Nature is a most solid teacher once it is appreciated that one is a part of nature. At that point Nature becomes familial and much is and can be learned. To the receptive, Nature will impart: clarity, structure, belonging, and meaningfullness.
    The trick for teachers/adults is to help kids become receptive and discover nature's instruction.
    Nature's experiences offer discovery/creation of mind sets, and thus perspectives that can facillitate positive growth.

  4. Tom, I love your comments. How true that developing a relationship to nature can help young people develop a global mind-set! As they learn to be stewards of the land, they learn how their actions can affect the environment, and people in that environment. This helps instill a sense of global responsibility to the environment and to others.

  5. Jessica,
    I also have found that an issue relating to the environment/Nature is perhaps one of the best ways to help young people develop a global mindset. An environmental education outreach program my company developed about five years ago -- called RiverXchange ( -- uses the local river or tributary as a focal point to help fifth grade students from New Mexico learn about their own -- and someone else's -- local water resources issues. Learning is reinforced by having students write about what they are learning to their "high tech pen pal class" in another U.S. state or country. The free program runs all school year, all classes follow the same curriculum, classes are connected via private wiki technology, and students are partnered one-to-one with a pen pal. The curriculum includes opportunities for classroom guest speakers and a field trip to the local river or important watershed feature. Not only must students write about what they are learning, they also must read and comment on their pen pal's writing.
    One of the biggest challenges for organizers has been to motivate teachers and classroom guest speakers to ask questions that demand critical reflection by the students. Sample questions are even included in the curriculum. When the adults actually remember to ask such questions, the students' writing goes beyond mere "parroting" of information presented, to include a sense of empathy and solidarity.
    BTW: I turned over RiverXchange to one of my contractors, as I recently sold my business.

  6. Katie, what a great example of fostering that global mind-set! It sounds like the program not only allows young people to reach out literally across the globe, but also allows them to think at a higher level about what they are learning. The Urban Youth Development Office also has a program focused on environmental stewardship called the Big Urban Woods 4-H Club ( We see every day concrete examples of them developing that sense of empathy and solidarity that you talk about because of the team effort it has taken for them, along with other schools and organizations, to restore their local "Big Urban Woods" forest area right in the middle of the city of St. Paul. I love the idea of incorporating pen pals as a way for them to connect to others doing similar work.
    The writing must also allow them to reflect on those values that they are gaining as they learn about the water resources. New Mexico and Minnesota are on opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to availability of water. It would be interesting to connect young people from those two states around that issue. Exposure to and participation in healthy, respectful discussion of issues is another wonderful way for young people to learn to both form their own values, and develop their skill in listening and suspending judgment of others' perspectives.


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