Internationalizing Secondary and University Curricula in the United States

For the last two decades, globalization has enabled the easier flow of individuals and goods between continents and countries, promoting an exchange of people, merchandise and ideas that was not previously possible and changing the world in meaningful and profound ways (Steger, 2009). This increased level of communication and exchange has brought about the need to be better prepared to interact with people, products, and ideas that are foreign but can now be found locally as well. One of the major ways that countries have to prepare their citizens for this new reality is the internationalization of education; that is, enhancing the curriculum, staff, and infrastructure in a way that promotes a better understanding of what it means to live in a globalized world (Zahabioun, Yousefy, Yarmohammadian, & Keshtiaray, 2013). American secondary schools and universities, as major players in the education of American citizens, must find ways to make their curricula relevant in this new age. In order to internationalize curricula at secondary schools and universities in the United States, the following three actions are suggested: the incorporation of area courses in the curriculum, the emphasis on advanced foreign language instruction, and the implementation of foreign internships.

Area Courses

Knowledge about the areas with which a country trades and shares a mutual economic and political alliance is critical to the fostering of that relationship (Hayden, Levy, & Thompson, 2007) and for the pursuit of the greatest possible economic, political and social advantage by both parties. Information such as how the country came into existence, how it came to have its current population make-up and where the population lives and why, the culture and values of that country, the way it interacts with other nations, and how it understands its role in the world—all of these pieces of information and more can be learned and built on through the incorporation of area courses in the curriculum.

Area courses include specialized instruction on history, music, art, political science, literature, economics and other aspects of a particular region of the world. If U.S. schools wished to internationalize their curricula with an emphasis on South America, for instance, they may choose to offer area courses such as: History of Brazil, History of Argentina, Formation of MERCOSUR (Southern Common Market), Bossa Nova and Tango, South American Artists, Economic Development of South America, U.S.-Brazil Relations Through The Years, A Diplomatic History of South America, or Portuguese and Spanish Literature in the Americas.

Implementing such a vast change in curriculum may not be possible at secondary schools due to limited funding or expertise, but some universities may have the ability to do so because all courses would not need to be offered at once. As electives in certain programs of study–and core courses in others–these area courses could enrich the instruction of students who are interested in that part of the world. In secondary schools, the curricula could be changed to include courses that are wider in their approach, such as South American Music or South American Artists.

Area courses provide the foundational knowledge that citizens need in order to understand who they are visiting or interacting with, be it through business dealings, diplomatic efforts, charitable work or simply tourism. With these types of courses, global citizens can be educated to interact with citizens of other countries in a meaningful and appropriate way that will promote greater levels of exchange between different cultures and nationalities.

Advanced Foreign Language Instruction

The second important way that secondary schools and universities in the United States can internationalize their curricula is through the offering of advanced foreign language instruction. Most schools already offer basic language courses (Spanish, French, etc.) and some even offer AP level language courses (Hayden, Levy, & Thompson, 2007). Advanced foreign language instruction would include language courses that truly lead to foreign language mastery, making it possible for students to reach speaking, reading, and writing fluency.

In an attempt to internationalize their curricula with an emphasis on South America, for example, U.S. secondary schools could offer Beginning Portuguese, Beginning Spanish, Intermediate Portuguese, Intermediate Spanish, Advanced Portuguese, Advanced Spanish, Conversational Portuguese, Conversational Spanish, and other language-specific courses that would allow the student to be truly exposed to that language. The goal of these courses would be to achieve a truly conversant student who is able to communicate by phone, email, and videoconference or in person with individuals who use that foreign language—even if they do not speak any English at all.

Advanced foreign language instruction is crucial at the university level as well because students are likely to work for companies that do business elsewhere or that have local customers who speak that language. With a strong foundation in the foreign language provided by secondary schools, university students could then deepen their knowledge by focusing on language nuances (e.g. slang) and perfecting their accent. Advanced conversational classes, literary studies conducted in the foreign language, as well as videoconferencing sessions with students in South America, could help students overcome their anxiety in using the foreign language. Upon completion of these courses, college students should be able to conduct research in the foreign language and to have a solid understanding of grammar and other aspects of that language.

Foreign Internships

Study-abroad programs are a very common offering by American universities and even by some secondary schools (Hayden, Levy, & Thompson, 2007). These programs allow students to spend a period of time—usually a whole semester, quarter or trimester, depending on how the school organizes its calendar—living in the country being studied and attending classes in English while having the opportunity for first-hand contact with the foreign culture through travel and sightseeing (Harris, Belanger, Loch, Murray, & Urbaczewski, 2011). While these programs are a great way to get to know a foreign country and experience some of its culture, they are limited in what they accomplish because many times they are not an integrated part of the curriculum: they are considered “add-ons” and as such do not carry the same academic weight as a regular semester or quarter at school (Hayden, Levy, & Thompson, 2007, p. 394).

In order to internationalize their curricula with an emphasis on South America, American secondary schools and universities should consider offering foreign internships instead of study-abroad opportunities. Foreign internships would be similar to study-abroad programs in that students would reside in the foreign country for a period of time, have classes and traveling opportunities, and would be allowed to experience the culture first-hand. However, foreign internships in South America would differ from study-abroad programs in very important ways.

First, students would not be away from their home country for an entire semester, but would relocate only for a couple of months to Brazil, Argentina or some other South American country after some expatriate preparatory studies in the United States prior to leaving for the internship. Upon their return, students would have at least two additional weeks of studies at their local school in order to provide closure for the experience and help students make sense of what they encountered. Returning students would then share their thoughts and impressions with three groups: students who also participated in the same program, students who chose not to go and remained in the United States for the entire semester, and the whole student body.

Second, classes would be held in the host country’s language and not in English. This would provide a truly immersive experience and allow students to test and sharpen their Portuguese or Spanish language skills acquired through their previous advanced language training. Preferably, classes would be held at a local school side-by-side with foreign nationals, providing a unique opportunity to experience schooling in a foreign setting using foreign pedagogy—maybe learning how others learn may offer a glimpse into why they think the way they do (Hadar & Hotam, 2012).

Third, during their stay in the host country students would have the opportunity to travel to other locations—including other countries. This would allow them to compare and contrast what they see in the host country and what they experience in other parts of the region. Textbook generalizations could be scrutinized and real-life examples of diversity and variety would enrich the curriculum. Students would understand that people are not homogeneous everywhere—even within a country. Stereotypes (“South American” or “Latino”) would likely lose their force when used to describe specific groups or populations.


The challenge of educating young Americans to become global citizens requires educators to incorporate international concepts in every aspect of the curriculum, in addition to purposely reshaping the human resources that support the educational process (Hayden, Levy, & Thompson, 2007). An internationalized curriculum can provide rich opportunities for students to become aware that they are part of a world that is rich in diversity, and that their leadership role in the world is not to be taken for granted. America’s leadership in the world may be lost if its citizens do not have an understanding of the world that allows them to interact fully and knowledgeably with it. In a globalized economy, for example, Americans must understand the regional nuances and differences that make people think and act differently in order to work together to reach common goals (Hormats, 2008, p. 43). The now common business adage, “know thy market,” comes alive in a globalized economy: if one does not know what a country prefers and how much its people are willing to pay for it, how can profit be achieved? And if profit is not achieved, how will America sustain its level of prosperity and dominance in the world economy?

Secondary schools and universities in the United States have many different possibilities in the internationalization of their curricula. Three possible avenues of such internationalization are the implementation of area courses as an integral part of the curriculum, the offering of advanced foreign language training, and the integration of foreign internships that allow for first-hand experience and observation. These three aspects of curriculum internationalization are viable for both secondary schools and universities, and may be adapted to the reality of each institution and its student body with the desired end result being well educated global citizens who understand the world and are ready to interact with it–and lead it.



Hadar, L., & Hotam, Y. (2012). Pedagogy in practice: School pedagogy from students’ perspectives. Research Papers In Education, 27(2), 187-208.

Harris, A. L., Belanger, F., Loch, K., Murray, M. C., & Urbaczewski, A. (2011). Study abroad as an education experience: Challenges, realizations, and lessons learned. Communications Of The Association For Information Systems, 2817-30.

Hayden, M., Levy, J., & Thompson, J. (Eds.). (2007). The SAGE handbook of research in international education. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Hormats, R. D. (2008). The future of America’s financial dominance. International Economy, 22(4), 40-87.

Steger, M. B. (2009). Globalization: A very short introduction. Oxford: University Press.

Zahabioun, S., Yousefy, A., Yarmohammadian, M., & Keshtiaray, N. (2013). Global citizenship education and its implications for curriculum goals at the age of globalization. International Education Studies, 6(1), 195-206. doi:10.5539/ies.v6n1p195


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