Let them go - because 60 seconds of world news is not enough

Our son phoned at 6 a.m. today while rollerblading through London's Kensington Park, cellphone in hand.

We've spoken frequently since the Sept. 11 disaster, once while he listened to speeches at Speaker's Corner the Sunday after the world changed. "Is Hyde Park a sensible place to be?" I'd asked, surprised at where I'd reached him. "It is; the mood's astonishing," he answered, adding: "Don't worry, there're police everywhere. And I'm being inconspicuous."

"You're talking to me!" I shouted daftly, picturing his 20-year-old, 6-foot, 2-inch frame and hearing his upstate New York accent. The quintessential American student abroad.

William's older sister, Sarah, who also is in England, working as a wall-painting conservator in Cambridge, was flying from Athens to London when the towers fell. The flight attendants, who knew but didn't tell, became teary-eyed. On the ground, a cabbie reduced my daughter's fare - his impromptu gift to an American. To America.

As a parent, I have two young people abroad in a time of crisis. As a university president, I have 205 in London, Manchester, Moscow, Madras, Venice, Madrid, Wollongong, Geneva, Kyoto - in cities with study groups led by Colgate University faculty.

Some have felt the loneliness of being away from home, the jitters that come with unfamiliarity, the cut of an anti-American slogan, an intensified sense of the fear we are all experiencing around the world. Most also have felt the care of their teachers and fellows, the extraordinary kindness of strangers, the sense of worldwide connection.

We are monitoring these groups carefully and have a clear protocol in place should we need to bring them home earlier than expected. But we also believe fervently in the value of what they are doing - most particularly in these difficult days.

Nothing can be more important now than that American students learn about the world firsthand.

Sept. 11 taught us as a people to embrace patriotism, to feel at one with those who protect our society, most painfully the firefighters who rushed into towers and upstairs, trying to save the unsavable.

But the patriotism of a serious democracy in the opening years of the 21st century requires that its citizens know the world well. That we quell our fears and engage in world travel. That we teach our young people the centrality of world history, geography, and politics as we have not in the recent past. That we not settle for 60 seconds of world news.

A visiting Australian professor expressed astonishment when, except for a shootout with a madman, he'd not seen a single piece about his country on television during a semester's stay in the US. None of us would share his surprise.

It is not a cliche to call this a pivotal moment in our nation's history. As we vow to fly across country, to celebrate and see the riches of New York, and to support the victims of disaster, we should add to our list the determination to study other countries well.

One significant measure of success among colleges and universities now is whether we afford our students the opportunity to live abroad for a semester, particularly in well-crafted study of another culture. We need to encourage them to do so, to make them less afraid rather than moreso.

The students themselves may lead the way. One of ours sent a message home to Colgate: "I feel perfectly safe here and am doing my best to enjoy my abroad experience despite the current crisis we are all facing. I felt it appropriate to share this with you because I know you must all be very concerned."

As a parent and a college president, yes, I am concerned. But in neither role will I be paralyzed.

Jane Pinchin is the interim president of Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.

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