A new generation of do-gooders?

Imagine you’re in a tent in the heart of the Africa. With you are three prostitutes, a couple of local businessmen and a two-time Pulitzer winner, whom you have to thank for bringing you along on this surreal trip.

For a third year in a row, New York Times columnist Nick Kristof is offering U.S. college students this rare opportunity. One lucky winner will get the chance to accompany Kristof on his travels through the developing world and gain first-hand exposure to some of its tragedies, including extreme poverty, famine and war, to name a few.

As I excitedly read about the contest, I reached a quote by Bill Gates that made me stop: “I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world,” Gates said in a 2007 commencement address. Thousands of dollars and four (or five, maybe six) years later, have most U.S. graduates fallen victim to what Kristof labels “one of the failures of the American education system?” Have we really learned next to nothing about the vast world that lies outside these borders?

Yes and no. On the one hand, it is all too easy to obtain a degree in the U.S. without hearing about the tragedies mentioned above. It is as if the U.S. isolationist dogma of yesteryear has infiltrated American schools and minds (if not our actual foreign policy).

It may be true that while most students abroad learn at least two languages, U.S. students are generally complacent with a basic knowledge of English. It’s also known that even though traveling is a habit for foreigners with similar means as ours, less than a third of Americans even own a passport—but this does not mean that our generation is comprised of inward-looking dimwits.

At Tech, President Clough hoped to increase the proportion of students who study abroad to over half—a realistic goal given current participation rates—and despite being a technical university, we offer a terminal degree in international affairs, a diverse environment at International House and a holistic global experience through the International Plan.

In fact, our generation is part of a growing “internationalist” movement, a direct result of the powerful forces of technology, globalization and what I hope is also a shift towards greater public responsibility. While this movement marks progress, one of my fears is that although we will know more about the rest of the world, we will not do more.

All in all, is Generation Y really willing to look beyond the materialism, individualism and isolation that were so in vogue last century? Can we lead the transition into a new world order in which real change (to use the word du jour) is possible?

In the past few years, for example, the spotlight has been shined on the Darfur crisis. My guess is that most people in our age group are familiar with the genocide taking place and want the U.S. government to help make it stop. I see this issue pop up in Facebook profiles, celebrity interviews and movie theaters, but I don’t want Darfur to just become a pet cause for young America if we’re not going to do something about it. I also don’t want to see other crises be relegated to the back burner because they failed to reach the same iconic status in our popular culture.

But what to do? Maybe it’s just me, but there is a certain futility in passing out flyers, attending rallies and listening to lectures that I find both frustrating and disheartening. This futility can lead to cynicism (and inaction), but there are many things that our generation can do to make a palpable difference.

From joining the Peace Corps to choosing a career that touches others’ lives (the developing world is in dire need of technological, scientific and engineering know-how), the possibilities available to our generation are boundless.

If making a big commitment seems like too much, sometimes just becoming a mentor to a child, going on a short volunteer trip abroad or writing elected officials about neglected issues can achieve great results (and from experience, I can affirm that the personal payoffs are often greater than what you put in). Or, as a fun alternative, you could even enter Kristof’s contest.

I’m not arguing that the U.S. should be the watchman of the world. But as privileged, educated individuals, we should stop being so shortsighted and measuring our success by how far along we get on the rat race. The world—and its injustices—are ours to change.