Open doors create open minds

Last year, the Utah State Legislature passed the Minimum School Program Act. Sponsored by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, the act requires foreign exchange students to pay tuition to attend public schools unless they came in on a one-for-one swap for an American student.

Our state Legislature is clearly devoted to the state of education in Utah. They must be incredibly concerned about underpaid teachers, under-funded programs and over-crowded classrooms. Otherwise, why would they have passed a law slashing money for foreign exchange programs in Utah? Naturally all our problems boil down to them “furriners.”

Now the funds generated by these visiting students can offset the fact that the same family who puts 20 kids through our public schools gets a tax break for each of those kids!

If the financial obligations turn out to be a deterring factor for foreign students wanting to study in America, then we will have removed the 10 or so international students. This will alleviate our over-crowded classrooms. Good plan.

Now state legislators can sleep soundly at night knowing that they have done their part to solve the education problems in Utah. Either that, or they’ve significantly damaged the intellectual atmosphere of local high schools-take your pick.

Foreign exchange programs are invaluable to students who get to interact with teenagers from all over the globe.

During my high school years, I was friends with a boy from Italy and a girl from Spain. They got to experience life in America for a year, and the students who interacted with them got a lesson in international relations unlike any other.

Furthermore, foreign-exchange programs give regular citizens the opportunity to showcase the best parts of America to teenagers from all over the world. At a time when anti-American sentiment is higher than ever, we need to be able to show students from other countries that America is not the “Evil Empire” of the 21st Century.

The high school exchange program began in the wake of World War II. It was an international public relations campaign as the focus was on nations with whom the United States was trying to build better relations. The vast majority of foreign students who came to study in American high schools came from countries that either fought the United States in a war or were a battleground for U.S. troops.

The State Department is currently looking to continue that tradition.

Confronted with the decline of foreign exchange students studying in American high schools, it launched a $10 million program aimed at encouraging student exchanges with Muslim countries.

Around 160 students from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia attended U.S. high schools in the program’s first year, 2003. This year, enrollment increased to more than 400.

The State Department’s ultimate target is to expand enrollment to 1,000 students.

Currently, Utah is the only state with laws deterring foreign exchange students from attending school in the United States. However, it is not unlikely that other states will follow in our footsteps and add to an already distressing problem. As it is, there are not enough American schools and families willing to host foreign students.

In a speech given in 1999, George W. Bush said, “American foreign policy must be more than the management of crisis. It must have a great and guiding goal: to turn this time of American influence into generations of democratic peace.”

We need to do our part to further that democratic peace. The students who come to America don’t leave with the desire to turn their native land into the 51st state. They do, however, come away with a more positive vision of our country and leave their American friends with a broadened view of the world.

With our current state of international affairs, what could be more important?

Now more than ever, we need greater understanding of cultures around the world. The Utah Legislature needs to reconsider their decision to cut funding for these programs.

In the short run, we may save some money. But the ultimate price paid will be the hindrance of intellectual development of Utah students and the obstruction of foreign students from seeing the positive aspects of our country.

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