Thursday, December 18, 2014

Why the White House Wants You To Study Abroad

Last week the White House invited 100 travel bloggers and digital media professionals to a summit promoting study abroad. The National Security Council hosted the event, known officially as The White House Travel Blogger Summit on Study Abroad and Global Citizenship. Why did the POTUS open his home and office to a bunch of free-spirited social media strategists filled with wanderlust? Good question, one I’ve been asked repeatedly over the past few weeks.

The U.S. State Department had a surprise to share - the launch of a U.S. Study Abroad Office accompanied by an online study abroad fare in February 2015. The government, it turns out, wants more U.S. college students and high school students to travel to foreign lands to strengthen both their language skills and knowledge of other cultures, valuable assets in today’s competitive global marketplace.

A who’s who of senior administration officials and other global-minded VIPs took to the podium including White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, commerce secretary Penny Pritzker, FLOTUS chief of staff Tina Tchen, Peace Corps director Carrie Hessler-Radelet and George Mason University president, Angel Cabrera.

Yes, most it not all travelled abroad (not sure if Tina Tchen did). And it changed their lives. Transformed their lives.

Most students want to go abroad. Over half of college students expressed interest in studying abroad in a 2008 survey by the American Council on Education. Evan Ryan, a State Department official speaking at the summit, reported less than 10% study abroad at some point in their educational experience. During the 2012 – 2013 school year, almost 300,000 students completed coursework abroad, a mere 1.5% of those enrolled in U.S. higher education – and over half of those choose Europe, more than a third just three countries (Spain, Italy, UK). The State Department would like to see more students traveling to more exotic locations.
U.S. Census Bureau via U.S. State Department

Plus, the U.S. government wants students, parents and educators to know study abroad isn’t just for white, affluent art history or language majors with Impressionism posters on their dorm room wall and no solid career paths, basically the semester abroad stereotype (at least mine). The government would like this exclusive group to become more inclusive, representing more diversity in terms of ethnicity, income and college major (STEM in particular).

So let’s be honest, a large if not primary reason the stereotype persists both in theory and in practice comes down to the high price tag of taking a semester in Barcelona or Israel. Officials at the WH briefing acknowledge this reality and mentioned several government funding sources including the Gilman International Scholarship Program for college students who receive Pell Grants, surely a competitive and limited scholarship opportunity.

Angela Cabrera, President of George Mason University acknowledged the steep cost also but argued “the price of not studying abroad is significant,” a theme echoed by many others last Tuesday. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzer, no surprise, emphasized the economic value of living and studying in foreign cultures:

In this day and age, more and more employers want to hire people with a true “world view” – with the adaptability and openness that comes with having experienced other cultures. In fact, a MetLife survey found that 65 percent of Fortune 1000 executives identified global awareness as “very important” or “essential” in order to be ready for a career.

Do I wish more students could afford to study abroad or otherwise more easily go abroad? Absolutely.

As someone who has spent two decades studying and working in universities, I am well aware of the realities of higher education including 
the financial costs of education as well as the challenges of simply finishing a degree, ones not merely related to money. When 40% of full-time students in 4-year degree programs do not graduate or do so in longer than 6 years according to the Department of Education, it’s not realistic to expect a large portion to take their course work on the road. The portrait becomes even more dismal for students in 2-year programs.

Complicating the situation further, program requirements do not always mesh easily with programs abroad. If the government wants more STEM students studying abroad, for instance, then it should work with universities to make it more feasible and attractive for students with strict class requirements. I applaud schools that require course work with a global focus, an international component should be part of any major.

If you want to keep current on the White House conversation on study abroad follow #StudyAbroadBecause on Twitter.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Future of Journalism: Calling All Under-employed, Over-educated Academics

Twenty-first century journalism needs to shape up. It's no surprise to anyone at Momma Data that the news hasn't been behaving well lately. No less than Harvard's Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy has lamented the poor behavior: 

And then there is the rise of ubiquitous, frequently bald-faced, misinformation and disinformation. This phenomenon isn’t new — “[I]t seems to me that lying has reached such epidemic proportions in our culture and among our institutions in recent years, that we’ve all become immunized to it,” the late Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee said in a speech at Harvard more than two decades ago — but by almost any measure, the Web has made the problem immensely more challenging. So too has the rise of PR: There are currently 4.6 “communications professionals” for every journalist in the United States, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. And because politicians and corporations alike can use digital streams to “go direct” to audiences, more spin and half-truth than ever is being broadcast to the public. 
-The Journalist's Resource, The Shorenstein Center

Misinformation. Disinformation. The rise of PR. So it isn't my imagination that social media sometimes seems like one big publicity stunt. The Pew Center apparently forget to report the percentage of journalists who are "communication professionals." Now that would be interesting. 

But back to Harvard. So what's a journalist to do with quick deadlines and audiences with limited attentional focus in an ever-expanding web of competing often sensationalized information and misinformation?

Not consult with experts but be an expert. Go with her or his own deep knowledge.

“When reporters must file quickly, without the opportunity to observe or conduct interviews, they have no place to turn except to what they already know,” writes Thomas Patterson, the Shorenstein Center’s research director and the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard, in his 2013 book Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism. “Knowledge is the best remedy for hastily concocted, wrongheaded story lines.” 

How comforting. So in the future reporters, newsmakers and commentators, etc. will have deep knowledge of their subject matter. 

Now maybe poorly paid Ph.D.s can finally leave those one-year adjunct positions and become poorly paid freelance journalists and editors. What a relief.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Hey! Experts! Leave Those Parents Alone!

Today’s thoughts on experts and expertise come from Madeleine Morris, BBC journalist, author of Guilt-freeBottle Feeding and friend of Momma Data. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of interviewing her about the book and her insights into breastfeeding and bottle feeding. Check out that interview here if you haven’t already. Now I'm sharing her responses to the Momma Data Experteze Interview, the questions we all want to ask the experts but never do. Except here. 

A mother and reporter, Madeleine has spent much time talking to, observing and analyzing the experts so get ready for her own expert insights – including a new phrase I can’t wait to use –  the culture of expertism. In between relaying nuggets of wisdom she also manages to work in a legendary rock album by re-writing a classic Pink Floyd lyric for parents. Gonna borrow that too.

The Experteze Interview

What is an expert? 

An expert is someone who has spent a considerable time studying the relevant subject matter, and who is interested in evidence, rather than ideology. An expert is not someone who has a modem and a viewpoint to promote, fuelled by some carefully culled ‘facts’ that support that viewpoint.  

Who are the people you consider experts working in your field? 

Suzanne Barston is certainly an expert in formula feeding, and also in feeding and parenting culture, as is Joan Wolf.  My co-author Dr. Sasha Howard is certainly an expert on the comparative benefits of breast and formula-feeding, as well as in her specialised field of paediatric endocrinology. She found a gene. She’s very smart. Dr Michael Kramer of McGill University is an expert in breastfeeding, as is someone like Dr. Alison Stuebe.  There are many expert lactation consultants, I just wish we had as many experts in helping parents to formula-feed.  And every mother is an expert in her own baby - if only we would back our own expertise and knowledge in this area more.  

What are the experts getting right?      

Experts have greatly increased our knowledge about a great many things.  It’s experts who taught us it’s not a good idea to smoke when pregnant, and experts who discovered minimizing your kid’s exposure to TV before the age of two is a good idea too. Finding new ways to improve outcomes is never a bad thing, especially when they are based on robust science.  

What are the experts getting wrong?  

MM: Having so many experts makes us think that if we just can harness the right expertise in the right doses we can produce the perfect child. This is not so much a function of the experts themselves, who likely have very many sensible things to say about their area of study, but the culture of expertism (if that’s a word). 

What do you wish the media would ask you?   

I wish they’d ask me on more shows so I can keep banging the drum that we need more support for bottle-feeding parents, and that bottle-fed kids can grow up to be happy, healthy and smart.  But more importantly I wish they would ask public health bodies why they are so shit at supporting and educating bottle-feeding parents, and demand that they do better.  

Is there too much parenting news and/or advice? 

Yes!  Lordy lord. I am going to write a new song that goes like this: “Hey!  Experts!  Leave those parents alone! (I realise the hypocrisy of saying this, having written a parenting book myself, but I do feel as though my book is in one area where we could do with more information and support.) It’s a function of so many things in society though - the breakdown of intergenerational family relationships, the ease of information sharing, competitive consumerism. And it’s not just parenting that is overwhelmed with experts.  I don’t know what the solution is - just trying to tune out the noise as much as you can, I guess.

Has a new discovery about children ever truly surprised you?

I think lots about children is truly remarkable, but I can’t think of a scientific discovery that has truly surprised me of late.  The adaptability and genuine altruism of children is one of the most surprising things I find about them (though I don’t think that’s what you’re asking).

Did you breastfeed?  Did your child receive breastmilk?  If so, for how long? 

MM: I did breastfeed - exclusively for one week, then brought in formula so my child didn’t starve to death.  We continued mixed-feeding for about seven weeks until I realised that as she grew the proportion of nutrition was getting from me was getting smaller, as my milk production wasn’t increasing in line with her growth.  (I had had a breast reduction so this isn’t surprising).  I got tired of spending more time with my breast pump than my baby in my quest for a never-increasing supply, so I shut down the boobs, shed a little tear, told my daughter it didn’t mean I loved her any less and we’ve never looked back.  

Where do you get your parenting/child health news?   

Mostly via friends posting on Facebook. I read books sometimes (the latest is about technology and its effect on family life. It’s terrifying).  But honestly, now my daughter is three I’m generally learning by doing.  I trust myself and my husband to make reasonable decisions based on common sense.  I also work full-time in a very full-on job, so don’t have a lot of spare time to be reading anything at all much, sadly.  

Parenting Style: Wannabe-free-range-with-lots-of-cuddles-and-a-touch-of-the-overparenting.

Many thanks, Madeleine!

Grab her book, Guilt-free Bottlefeeding. Read it or gift wrap it for your lactating friends or those who plan on it or have ever tried, thought about it or never wanted to do it – in other words just about any woman.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The White House Wants You To Study Abroad: #StudyAbroadBecause

The White House called me to duty recently, a surreal fantasy for any girl who misses West Wing and wonders why there aren't more books or movies like All The President's Men. So I found myself nearly speechless standing in the East Wing this past Tuesday, staring up at the simple, stunning portrait of JFK. Excuse the poor lighting in my photo and the cockeyed-angle. I'm a terrible photographer and my hands were cold from standing outside on a rainy December morning inching through the Secret Service checkpoints with my fellow education/global advocates and friends. We'd been invited to attend the White House Summit on Travel Abroad and Global Citizenship, an amazing day that I'll not do justice to in this short post. To give it the full gravitas it deserves, I'll  publish a longer post next week. In other words, I will file my official brief on the White House Briefing in a few days.

For the moment, I'll just say that The White House, including the POTUS, the FLOTUS, the Chief of Staff, the Secretary of Commerce and many other VIPS want you to know the value of traveling out to different parts of the world and reaching out to people across the globe. They also want your kids to travel too. Studying abroad is not just for the affluent art history and language majors. Not anymore. According to a number of senior administration officials.....cue the serious soundtrack....cut to the WH exterior and David's valuable and accessible for just about every young person today. So go, go dig up your passport, get one for the kiddies if they don't have one. Trust me, it's easier and quicker than signing up for travel soccer and a lot more fun and dare I say, rewarding.

*Confessions: I also have watched Scandal and Veep.

As for other secrets related to my recent contact with the National Security Council's Summit, I entertained a French major first semester in college and imagined I'd be holed up in some CIA safe house interrogating foreign agents that naturally spoke French, the universal language or so I was told back in middle school in Ohio. Of course there was a need for French-speaking espionage agents! At one point I desperately wanted to go to Georgetown's School of Foreign Service but my mother got freaked out by all the security talk on the college tour. Hence, I moved to Durham and moved through public policy, public health, statistics and psychology - and find myself once more back to the call of foreign lands and cross-cultural adventure and intrigue.

#WHTravelBloggers Summit on Study Abroad and Global Citzenship: My global education advocates/friends: LaShaun Martin, Chrysula Winegar, Jennifer Burden, Anastasia Dellaccio and Polly Palumbo in the East Wing, December 9, 2014.
No, I'm not a travel blogger per se, don't ask me about the Top Ten Best Trips for Families (ideas, anyone, dying to see the glaciers in Patagonia before they melt)  but I do write about our nation's youth and education. I'm committed to turning out more global citizens.

Patent pending, Hyperactivate

Friday, December 05, 2014

Best Parenting Books of 2013 Revisited

What are the best parenting books of 2014? I'm gathering my scattered books about the house and will post my picks at the end of the month. In the meantime, I'm re-running my choices for the best parenting books of 2013. The picks held up well, namely Emily Oster's Expecting Better, still a rare gem, John Brockman's Thinking, still my favorite, and Daniel Siegel's Brainstorm. The teenage brain seems to still be the rage this year and curiously, I'd argue bullying has lost some of its appeal, what's up with that? I've chopped the original post but here are the highlights with a few of my 2014 thoughts thrown in. Happy reading.

Best Parenting Books of 2013: Momma Data's Reading List

Read a few book over the past year that might speak to parents keen on evidence and such. My annual reading list isn't meant as an exhaustive review of great parenting books, this is not the usual Best Parenting Books mainly because I can't claim to be terribly interested in reading most parenting books and I doubt you are either. I certainly couldn't read most of them. If they're not already on your Kindle or bedside table, check these out:

Expecting Better, Emily Oster

I heart this book. [I still do one year later!] Oster debunks numerous claims about pregnancy from the dangers of caffeine, ultrasounds, epidurals, amniocentesis, deli meats, exercise and gardening. Girlfriend compares being pregnant to being a child with too many well-meaning adults issuing  "vague reassurances ('prenatal testing is very safe') or blanket bans ('no amount of alcohol has been proven safe')."  She finds plenty of misinformation and observes how questionable studies quickly become accepted part of the parenting canon. An economist, she wants data, hard numbers, and she wants women to start asking questions and taking down names and numbers.

Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, Emily Bazelon

Thank goodness, we needed a book laying out the complexities and data on bullying. Not to say Bazelon doesn't give it a human face, she does repeatedly to painful effect. I'll forgive the "character" part, that word makes me nervous, because Bazelon provides a nuanced look at bullying in all its forms, complications and consequences. I applaud her courage to caution against calling bullying an epidemic, the worst problem facing kids today or even being too quick to call a situation bullying. Of course she gets into the media's role in all this.

Eyes Wide Open, Noreena Hertz

No, not that soft-porn disaster with Tom Cruise. This is an engaging spin through some of the obstacles and biases that trip up people making decisions in a complicated, hectic, information-dense world. It's like Decision-Making 101 with plenty of real-life disastrous decisions (Challenger Space Shuttle tragedy, Lehman's collapse/financial melt-down). The factors that impeded rational judgments? Everything from too many distractions, math anxiety, biased experts, lack of sleep and my favorite excuse, an empty belly. 

Anyone read it? I'd forgotten about this one.

Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, ed. John Brockman 

This is a bunch of VIP Thinkers (Daniel Kahneman, Daniel Gilbert and Daniel Dennett) on thinking. It sounds boring, terrible title, but it's a fascinating array of topics, many of interest to parents like the adolescent brain and the effects of testosterone on the prenatal brain (and its link to autism) to an infant's sense of morality - and a bit by Philip Tetlock on essentially the inaccuracy of expert judgment (though in the world affairs/political realm). This might be my favorite book of the year and not just because the Descartes' Baby authors describe three-month olds as "blobs" and "meat loafs." 

Get your geek on, this one's still worth reading even at the expense of several eyes rolls and skipped passages. This is what happens when the experts speak not to you and me but each other so some patience is required.

Still on my bedside table [now properly stowed in a pile somewhere else]
Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, Daniel Siegel
Hate to comment until I've read the whole thing but for what it' worth, I'm a few pages in and haven't tossed it aside yet. 

This year the teen brain remains deeply fascinating at at times, sorry Dr. Siegel, still totally mysterious to me especially when it walks into my front door each door.

Most Likely to Succeed in the Media and Make Americans Feel Stupid: 
The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley
Suffice it to say, the smartest kids apparently are not American. Parents worried about their children's future, please see above selection for help in figuring out to what degree you should panic.

Best Title:
Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools, Diane Ravitch

A good read doesn't have an expiration date. Put them on your holiday gift list, check them out of the library, send my your piercing reviews. Here's my original best books of 2013 post. Let me know your faves over the past year. 

Monday, December 01, 2014

#Giving Tuesday: The National Day To Give Back (Even for Grinches)

Whether you love the holidays or just hang in and try to make the best of it, I have good news for you. #GivingTuesday, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, a day that should provide some cheer and motivation even for the most jaded, is almost here! Even the Grinch might have to acknowledge the spirit of giving has always been one of the best parts of the holiday season.

Thanks to the United Nations Foundation and many partner organizations and businesses, we can come together and make all this generosity count even more on #Giving Tuesday, this year on December 2nd. Most know Black Friday and Cyber Monday and maybe Small Business Saturday. Now meet #GivingTuesday, the national day of giving that started two years ago as a response to commercialization and consumerism in the kick-off to the holiday season.

This year I’m focusing on giving children life-saving vaccines in the developing world, a cause near and dear to my heart as a parent, a Social Good Fellow at the United Nations Foundation and as many of you know, an advocate of their Shot@Life campaign. Tomorrow, December 2nd, Shot@Life will strive to raise funds to protect 40,000 children against pneumonia, an illness that kills more children around the world than any other despite the fact one pneumococcal vaccine costs a mere $5.00. Fully protecting a child is just $10.00, less than the cost of a large pizza or two Venti lattes plus tip.

Thankfully Bill and Melinda Gates believe vaccines are one of the best investments to improve global health. They continue to generously support both Shot@Life and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, in other words, the people who get vaccines to the kids who need them*. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation would like to support Shot@Life and Gavi this year by matching donations on #GivingTuesday. To reach the goal of protecting 40,000 children, they’ll match donations up to $200,000! Way cool. MAM USA, makers of bottles, pacifiers and other baby products also will partner with Shot@Life for #GivingTuesday. They generously will donate the first gift, $25,000 that will be matched by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

I’m also quite psyched about The Child Mind Institute and their #GivingTuesday campaign  Gifts That Give Back – check out the Alex and Ani bracelets, the Gund teddy bears, Michael Aram and more. This organization works to improve the lives of children with mental health and learning disabilities. From direct services, news and research to awesome social media efforts, The Child Mind Institute really brings it every day and they deserve some love.

So set aside your work, the gift lists, the winter concert dress code, the cards, the cookies, the travel plans, the colds, the flus and seasonal angst for just a moment. I will and hope you can too.


1. Join me and donate to Shot@Life on December 2nd. Even $5.00 makes a difference. If you can, wait to do it tomorrow on Tuesday because the Gates are matching gifts only that day.

2. Check out The Child Mind Institute and their gifts that give back. 
On my list: Alex and Ani. 

3. Join the Shot@Life twitter party on Tuesday, December 2nd, at 10am EST. Follow @Shotatlife, @UNFoundation and hashtag #GivingTuesday.

4. Take an UNSelfie, upload it to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram (#UNselfie, #GivingTuesday, @Shotatlife). Better yet, let your kids do it! Now they have a good reason to post a (un)selfie!

Gotta love the Gates Foundation's response to retail holiday advertising!Thanks @MelindaGates 

*Next week I'll be joining the United Nations Foundation for The Last Mile of Vaccine Delivery to learn about the barriers to delivering vaccines to the neediest children.

NOTE: My fellow Shot@Life advocates and supporters also contributing to #GivingTuesday:

Cynthia Changyit Levin, End Poverty blog.
Paula Kiger, Perspicacity blog.