Among the traits of a good leader is empathy—being able to appreciate or identify with another person’s situation. In a global economy, that could mean needing to empathize with someone from a different culture who speaks a different language and has had a very different life experience.
In 2012, Chris Buccella, a software developer for IBM, volunteered to share his experience working in Africa with high school students in the United States. “My experience definitely had an impression on me as it changed my view of Africa and emerging markets,” says Chris. “Talking with businessmen in South Africa opened my eyes to the fact that globalization isn't a US-branded product.”
Public schools in the United States, such as Arlington High School—about seventy miles north of New York City—are increasingly offering courses that emphasize globalization to better prepare students for jobs and careers in the world market.
It was at Arlington that Chris talked about what he saw and learned in Africa. “IBM’s Corporate Service Corps program has enabled many local people to have ‘far out’ experiences,” says Chris. “Bringing these people and their experiences into the classroom provides students with personal first-hand accounts of what a different part of the world is like.”
Among its various objectives, IBM’s Corporate Service Corps (CSC) program helps a select group of employees enhance their world view while providing pro bono consulting services to local government, businesses, schools and not-for-profits, mostly in developing and growth markets.
During his CSC assignment in 2009, Chris was joined by IBM employees from seven other countries, including Uruguay, Taiwan and India, to help an economic development agency in South Africa attract foreign investment that creates local jobs.
Books are good, real-world experience is even better
A few years after Chris’ overseas experience, IBM’s local corporate citizenship manager asked Chris and several of his CSC colleagues to meet with the regional chapter of the World Affairs Council—a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization in the United States dedicated to educating and engaging the American public on global issues. “One of the goals of the World Affairs Council is to open young people's minds to the diversity of places and cultures outside the United States,” says Chris. “A typical classroom may do this through books and videos, but those methods can be two dimensional.”
Together the team developed a pilot program designed to bring real-world international experience into the classroom using CSC alumni as the messengers. Their approach was intended to satisfy both faculty and students. Teachers have a lot of required material to cover during the school year, so the team wanted to make sure that what they delivered was valuable to the educators and fit within their curriculum.
However, teenagers may be the tougher audience. Chris jokes, “For the students, my goal was to ensure they didn't fall asleep!” His true objective was to give them a more personal classroom experience.
A more peaceful understanding of the world
Arlington High School was chosen because one of the World Affairs Council members used to teach there, and his contacts were receptive to the idea. Two teachers at the school agreed that their World Cultures class would be a good forum for Chris, who reviewed the class curriculum to understand the topics they were covering.
“I had done presentations on my CSC experience before, but always to a business audience,” says Chris. “So I came up with a new presentation tailored to what high school students might find interesting—places, people, food—and then tucked-in some serious information about economics and political issues, with a lot of time for questions and answers.” Presenting to two classes in one day, Chris had the students try to speak Xhosa, an official language of South Africa distinctive for its clicking sounds. He also related his own education with his time traveling abroad so students could connect their current social studies education with the future.
The sessions went well and Chris was asked to come back to present to the school’s advanced economics class. “The teachers told us that they struggle with students not understanding the value of courses like World Cultures,” Chris says. “Showing the students, through personal experience, that they can identify with people of another country and maybe even travel to these places one day, makes their coursework more interesting.”
The teachers at Arlington look forward to continuing the program with volunteers who have been to other countries.
Chris believes that many IBM employees, whether they’ve participated in CSC or not, have international experiences that would be interesting and insightful to students. He says that if they’ve had real exposure to the culture of another country, sharing it with young people and making it relevant to them is important. “Learning about life in other parts of the world makes other cultures seem more familiar and less foreign, which ultimately leads to a more peaceful understanding of the people of the world.”