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Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024
The Observer

Senior advisor spreads awareness of education

Christie Vilsack, the self-proclaimed “storyteller” for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), spoke about the organization’s educational mission in developing nations April 16 in Carole Sandner Hall.

Vilsack, the senior advisor for international education at USAID, asked approximately 50 students and staff members to spread the message that the safety and prosperity of the United States depends on education in developing countries.

“If young people have jobs and they feel like productive citizens in their own countries, they’re not going to become security threats to us,” she said. “So, it’s in our best interest … to make sure that we consider that educating children in other countries is just as important as educating children in our own country.

“Everything that happens out there in those countries where I’m visiting … will impact kids in this country every day as they grow up. ... Our economy depends upon people in other countries and … our trading dollars are very definitely connected to the developing countries, as well.”

To that end, Vilsack said her branch of USAID seeks to increase opportunities for learning.

“The ability to function in the world today is pretty dependent upon being able to read,” Vilsack said. “If you can read, that means you can read the medicine that you get at a drugstore or from a doctor. It means that maybe you can better understand the people that you might be voting for. It means that you can start a business.”

In 2010, USAID created a three-part strategy for using education to empower people in impoverished countries, Vilsack said. She said the organization pledged to improve the reading skills of 100 million children, put 15 million additional children in school and increase vocational opportunities and access to higher education.

USAID currently is hosting “All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge,” which asks people to create technology that helps children learn to read, Vilsack said. According to USAID’s website, this international grant competition makes $2.7 million available to innovations and programs.

Vilsack said USAID is looking for software that creates open-source books, uploads them to a cloud, translates them into multiple languages and submits them to local publishers in various nations. 

As it works to accomplish its goals, USAID considers the impact its efforts will have on women and girls, Vilsack said.

“We don’t do anything at USAID without putting it through the filter of gender,” she said. “We know that one of the best ways to raise the standard of living in developing countries is to make sure girls and women have opportunities they maybe haven’t had in the past.

Vilsack told The Observer that in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, for example, USAID tries to increase the number of female teachers because girls are not permitted to attend classes taught by men.

“In every program that we do, we think about how is this going to affect girls in this country,” she said. “And in some places, in Haiti, the number of boys and girls in Haiti in school are the same, so in some places this isn’t so much of an issue, but in other places, it definitely is for different reasons.”

Vilsack said USAID asks colleges and universities to help students see themselves as problem solvers.

“It’s about changing the attitude that we have about education so that we’re not just getting degrees so that we can get a job. We are actually able to solve problems,” Vilsack said. “And sometimes if you can solve a problem at a local level, you can take that and work at a global level.”

College students with limited time can begin to address global issues by educating themselves about current events in one particular nation, Vilsack said.

“It’s overwhelming to pick up a newspaper if … you don’t feed on these things,” she said. “As a young parent and as a teacher, I’d often think, ‘I have to teach these kids tomorrow. I don’t have time to sit and read about South Sudan in depth or every country in the world that I should be thinking about.’ But if you choose one.”

Ultimately, students should aim to consider the ways in which all people are connected, Vilsack said.

“If people can think more globally, I think that’s important, and it doesn’t take any more time,” she said. “Just opening your mind … to understanding different cultures.”