Equity & Diversity Opinion

Students Making an Impact: Global-Scholar Programs in the Midwest

By Annette Cowart — February 20, 2019 10 min read
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Editor’s Note: Across the country, states are offering high school students the opportunity to pursue a global certification along with their diploma. Annette Cowart, international studies adviser, Midwest & Colorado at CIEE, shares examples of students working toward these certifications.

For teens, exploring a new culture, language, or a unique set of traditions or researching a global issue from diverse perspectives can be exciting, even admirable. It demonstrates a curiosity for how others live, cultivates empathy, and leads to problem-solving discussions.

In Illinois and Wisconsin, high school students may select global education tracks to earn a state-sanctioned global-scholar certificate on their transcripts. This distinction is becoming a coveted feather in the caps of Generation Z students about to embark on college and career.

Beyond the recognition, the real draws for civic-hearted youths emerging on the global scene are:

  • to engage in a focused, guided global inquiry
  • to follow their passions and share their talents
  • to develop soft skills
  • to test their agency while creativity and idealism are burgeoning
  • to understand and empathize with fellow human beings or groups, especially where human rights, equity, and inclusion are at risk
  • to act with awareness and conviction on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Profiles of Global Scholars

Shorewood High School, Wis.

Seniors Lillian (right) and Lorlei (left) are Global Education Achievement Certificate (GEAC) scholars at Shorewood High School. Lillian plans to study international affairs in college, with a focus on environmental policy, climate change, and Mandarin Chinese. Returning from her first immersion experience in China recently, Lillian became interested in improving water quality in rural China, looking at how contamination affects wildlife in the Yangtze River. Her GEAC work has expanded her views of the world and allowed her to examine new places. She and her Chinese host sister stay in touch regularly using WeChat.

Lorlei began her senior year in fall 2018 after returning from a summer abroad experience in Japan, fulfilling some of her world-language and global-collaboration requirements for the GEAC. The experience ushered in a new awareness of global issues in Asia, allowing her to immerse in a language not offered by her high school and inspiring creative thinking about how she could contribute to the world.

Post Japan, Lorlei tutors her teacher’s daughter in Japanese and leads the critical-thinking component of her literary book circle at school, recently choosing Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick for discussion.

“Without my study abroad with CIEE in Japan, I may have stayed purely academic and decided to major in engineering,” she said. Now, she plans to major in political science and focus on the global implications of artificial intelligence in her studies and civic action.

Fednise (second from right), a junior originally from Haiti, was adopted at the age of 7, before the earthquake in Haiti. In 2017, she and her younger sister went back to see their older sister and mom. The damage and suffering that persisted seven to eight years after the earthquake greatly affected her family and others. This saddened her and spurred her to hold this conviction:

“I will work really hard to help fix the lasting effects of the earthquake. I will not stop at Haiti, though, because I know there are other countries out there that are poor. I will make sure to help them in any way I can.”

Fednise chose to work toward the certificate because of her love of languages and travel. Currently, she is studying French and went to France in the summer of 2017. She says as long as she is working in an area where she can help people—possibly in the health-care field as a physician for Doctors Without Bordersshe will be happy.

Plymouth High School, Wis.

In his global-studies class, Owen and his classmates covered topics such as global poverty, homelessness, U.S. genocide, and World Toilet Day, which examines sanitation. These classes are designed “to make students more culturally and socially adept,” he says. For example, a visiting nurse spoke about her experiences working beside terrorists and paramilitaries in Iraq, profoundly touching Owen.

This past year, in fulfilling the GEAC community-service component, Owen has been teaching English to refugee families from Myanmar in Sheboygan, Wis. With his family, he organized a semester abroad in Latvia, living with his grandparents, exploring his heritage, practicing his second language, and making new friends.

Owen plans to study physics and minor in Spanish. He’d definitely like to study abroad in college and is fascinated by countries in the Arab World—specifically Egypt and Morocco.

Naperville Central High School, Ill.

Inspired by her own, rich service-learning experiences in the Dominican Republic, senior Laasya (second row left) chose to research the effectiveness of service-learning volunteer organizations in Haiti to culminate her work for the Illinois Global Scholar (IGS) Certificate.

Laasya’s capstone project centered on identifying implementation shortfalls in NGOs doing community development in Haiti. During the research narrative preparation, Laasya explored context around this issue, including socioeconomic and geopolitical as well as environmental factors. Like her classmates, she worked on evolving iterations of the narrative, was coached one on one by her capstone teacher, received regular peer feedback, and enlisted the guidance of two global experts. A significant influence on her capstone journey was Haitian journalist Jonathan Katz’s perspective and book, The Big Truck That Went By, about the negative unintended consequences of global aid.

Laasya’s artifact (a required deliverable of the Illinois Global Scholar Program) is a website called AID COMPASS, a navigator tool for high school students looking for ethical service opportunities in Haiti. In addition to providing cultural context, volunteer tips, and a chat box, Laasya rates NGOs on their learning, transparency, sustainability, cultural integration, and level of community participation.

A key conclusion came from her growing understanding of what many have called “The Western Savior Complex.” She says, “There is complexity to [a given community need], and working on one issue might require working on many others first. For example, instead of building a health clinic first, work on the infrastructure—the road, the well, building and engaging community, and an organization mission.” This will enhance the effectiveness of the clinic. Laasya hopes to study economics, with a focus on foreign aid and a minor in sustainability. If she could study a new context, she’d choose somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.

The capstone topic for Olivia (center) addressed barriers for South Sudanese girls to enrolling in and completing their secondary education. Her research first reviewed South Sudan’s fragile state context and examined gender-gap factors, including lack of female teachers, early marriage, reproductive rights for women, and sanitation.

Narrowing her focus with the help of her teacher and global experts, Olivia landed on sanitation discrimination against girls, who may simply never enroll, or, if enrolled, may miss up to a week of school per month due to lack of adequate facilities, funding, or products for girls during their periods. Improving sanitation options for girls was the area where Olivia felt she could contribute the greatest impact with her video artifact.

The goal of the video is to help girls prevent interruption of their education by instructing girls how to make a homemade pad and sharing menstrual cup product alternatives. Excitingly, Olivia’s video will be deployed to girls served by over 200 grassroots local, national, and international NGOs as part of an upcoming forum put on by the Women’s Advancement Organization in Juba, South Sudan.

Olivia wishes to study either international relations or public policy with a focus on education or post-conflict development.

Building Agency

Whether through study, active listening, perspective sharing, immersion, or active membership in a new community, global scholars can expand their networks and contexts by which to experience the impact of their ideas and actions.

In Illinois, the actionable artifact in the capstone class helps students develop agency. As part of their research and engagement, students practice real-world cross-cultural communication toward understanding their chosen global issue. They experience the obstacles and misunderstandings that can occur and learn to navigate the field to see who responds to them and what might bring fruitful collaboration. They experience rabbit holes as they wrap themselves around their inquiry; they might run with an idea straight into a brick wall, change course, fail again, and regroup several times before settling on their final artifact. They face deadline pressure, critical feedback from global experts, and growth through reflection writing and sharing. Laasya and Olivia admitted to sweating out the stages leading up to their final project artifacts and were rewarded in the end, they said, by sharing their challenges, discoveries, and successes in their final presentations.

School Adoption for Global Scholar Tracks/Certificates

Since 2013, the GEAC curriculum has been adopted at over 85 schools with close to 100 certificates earned to date in Wisconsin. 2018 was the first year Illinois graduated global scholars at four high schools: Naperville Central, Naperville North, Belleville West, and Belleville Township East. Nine more Illinois high schools will start new cohorts during the 2019-20 academic year, with a goal to have 25 school adopters by 2022.

Schools that want to consider adopting the program in Illinois or Wisconsin usually form global-scholar committees consisting of teachers, administrators, NGOs, and sponsoring organizations that take about a year or so to collaborate and create a working-group process. They explore feasibility, build from existing globally focused curricula, contribute to online teaching modules, create student-tracking interfaces, leverage global student clubs and local NGOs for community-service projects, partner with study-abroad organizations, and investigate components unique to their community, such as the literary circles at Shorewood, the high school portfolio system at IGS - Libertyville High School, and IGS - Vernon Hills High School, the spring activism fair at Vernon Hills High, and the global-issue conversations with schools in the U.K. and Ukraine at Naperville Central. Statewide projects such as the Illinois Waterway Cleanup program, which includes this toolkit, also promote group solidarity toward the SDGs.

Resources to Get Started

To learn more about global-certificate programs:

  • See this piece on why states, districts, and schools should implement a program.
  • Visit GlobalEdCertificate.org to see if your state or district may already offer one.
  • To grow student interest and buy-in, check out the Asia Society’s mapping tool for state and local data on global commerce and jobs.
  • Asia Society also provides talking points on the importance of global education.
  • This recent TED Talk on SDG Progress with George Green and his Social Progress Index can also be helpful to reveal trends and spark further reflection and resource generation.
  • For your classroom, this Teach the SDG Link can be a great starting point for global conversations.

Connect with CIEE and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.


  1. Photo Credit: Annette Cowart
    Caption: Shorewood High School Students Lorlei and Lillian share GEAC Feedback with Annette Cowart
  2. Photo Credit: Amanda Paule
    Caption: Fednise and her friends on exchange in Rennes, France.

  3. Photo Credit: Seth Brady, Illinois Global Scholar Program Co-Founder/Social Studies Teacher, Naperville Central High School

    Caption: Students share progress in their capstone class at Naperville Central High School.

  4. Photo Credit: Seth Brady, Social Studies Teacher, Naperville Central High School
    Caption: Students in their capstone class at Naperville Central High School.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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