In the photo pictured left to right: Koketso Lesego Noe (Ubuntu Trainee, Botswana, South Africa), Tshepo Mpilo Motloung (Ubuntu Intern, South Africa), Officer Bronson Lillo (Sandusky Police Dept), Eric Wobser (City Manager), Nic Stouffer (Intern for the Week, St. Mary Central Catholic High School), Francisca Javiera Castro Montero (Intern, Chile), Vinc John Lery Bastasa Culaste (Summer Work Travel, Philippines).

A City Shows International Students its Democratic Values and Civil Society Impact

Epiphanies have resulted every time the group of international exchange students and Sandusky, Ohio, city officials have come together.  The informal sessions ignite thought-provoking conversations, resulting in new understanding and appreciation about the concepts of civil society and democratic values both in the United States and in other parts of the world.

Sandusky City Sessions Create Stronger Connections

The sessions between Sandusky city council members and international students began a few years ago, when Crystal Blunts and Zhanna Saparova of Alliance Abroad Group approached the city asking for their support of visiting international students.  What began as a casual lunchtime conversation intended to be an introduction to Sandusky city governance, has since become an important educational staple- for everyone involved.   The meetings have evolved over time and have become educational forums and exchanges that have created stronger connections between international exchange participants and their city hosts.

The open discussions about how citizens and governments interact and operate in the US and elsewhere, have revealed both similarities and chasms in practice and ideology. But for everyone involved, there has been education, enlightenment, new appreciation, and maybe even inspiration about how to influence and advocate to impact change.

The Next Global Leaders See Democracy at Work

“The international students who come to this small American town are going to be leaders and policy makers in their countries,” says Crystal. “They are the movers and shakers, and they’ll return to their homes with new insights and ideas. The education gained by their exposure to our democratic system and society will be influential.”

Sandusky’s City Manager is Teacher and Student

Eric Wobser is the forward-thinking City Manager of Sandusky, Ohio, a resort town that hosts scores of international students each year during the town’s busy summer tourism season.  In these sessions, Eric explains the role of the city government and the departments that serve the town such as the police, fire, justice, and other functions like the roadway, city parks and neighborhood improvements. Students have a chance to probe with candid questions before Eric asks the students to share their experiences with and understanding of their own native governments.

Exposure to the students has provided Eric with an incredible perspective and appreciation for U.S. democratic values, and with a new understanding about the role of government and people in other nations.

“It is exciting to engage with J-1 students who spend time in the Sandusky community. It gives us an opportunity to share with them what we do at the City of Sandusky, and also why we are proud of our community. We also appreciate having a chance to learn what makes the students proud of the places they call home. It is enriching to learn that, while there are many differences in how we manage local government, there are also universal principles such as pride of place and a desire to make our communities better places to live for all of our citizens. We receive as much benefit as we provide during these informal sessions.”

Crystal Bunts of Alliance Abroad Group attends the sessions she helped initiate and, she too, has learned a great deal about her own city government and those of other countries.

“There are countries that simply do not have the same systems in play. The idea of citizens having the freedom and right to voice their concerns to actually impact change is a very different concept for some students,” she says.  “There are also countries whose government share similar democratic values. People in those countries are able to influence and impact the way governments serve, although perhaps through different processes.”

An International Intern Shares Her Insights

Koketso Lesego Noe, is a citizen of Botswana, participating in the Ubuntu Institute’s Tourism and Hospitality Internship Program for South African Youths.  She’s currently a Food & Beverage Trainee at Kalahari Resorts in Sandusky, Ohio and participated in one of the sessions with Eric.

“The government here, compared to back home, is more hands-on with people’s concern and very quick to respond to grievances and complaints made by the local people showing that the really care about their well-being.”

Celebrating Democracy in America

July is a month that Americans recognize our nation’s birth and the formation and foundations of our independent nation.  Hundreds of years later, democratic values and civil society are making a difference in small towns across the U.S.A. that will be carried to other parts of the world.