The Many Languages, One World (MLOW) essay contest, co-hosted by ELS Educational Services and United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) from 2014-2017, challenged university students worldwide to write an essay examining global citizenship, cultural understanding and the role of multilingualism in fostering both. The essay had to be written in one of the six official languages of the United Nations (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian or Spanish), but not in the student’s first language or primary language of instruction. Winners of the contest were invited to United Nations Headquarters for the Global Youth Forum, where they created and presented action plans for the UN’s Sustainable Development Agenda.  

This follow-up series reconnects with the MLOW contest winners to showcase their journeys since the contest and spotlights their reflections on language learning and how it shaped their educational and professional pursuits. In this article, however, we talked to Mark Woodworth Harris, who collaborated with UNAI to organize the MLOW contest and shared his insights into fostering global citizenship among students through language education.  

Mark Woodworth Harris majored in Spanish at Oberlin College in Ohio, United States, and El Instituto de Cultura Hispánica in Madrid, Spain. He earned his M.A. in Latin American Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. He served as the President and CEO of Berlitz Corporation, a language education and leadership training company with 500 locations in 73 countries. He has now retired after 38 years with Berlitz. 

Being bilingual himself, Harris understands the importance of multilingualism in global citizenship and as such, he wanted to create an avenue for young people to engage with the topic on a deep, intellectual level. To him, writing an essay was the perfect vehicle to achieve this. He then sought a partnership with Mr. Ramu Damodaran, Chief of United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI), who shared the same passion for multilingualism and global citizenship and aptly named the contest Many Languages One World (MLOW). The now trademarked title suitably captured the essence of the contest, which was to celebrate how learning and appreciating languages and cultures can unify us. 

In its first year, the MLOW contest welcomed 1,500 essays from students around the world, written in the six official languages of the UN. In order to give the finalists a platform to network and exchange ideas, Harris raised funds to sponsor their travel to New York to present their action plans for building a sustainable future through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. “MLOW is a reflection of United Nations Academic Impact,” remarked Harris, “owing to its work to bring together scholars and their research and mobilizing them toward addressing the biggest issues facing our world.”  

When asked about the most challenging part of organizing the contest, Harris noted the financial and logistical difficulties of planning travel for students from across the world, as well as the time-consuming process of reviewing essays, which surpassed 3,400 entries in the third year of the contest, in multiple languages. However, these challenges were easily outweighed by the rewarding outcomes of the contest.  

Harris was struck by the almost instant bond shared between the contestants upon their first meeting, which he described as a “magnetism that was hard to explain.”  He recalled how awe-inspiring it was to witness students, learners and thinkers from different parts of the world bonding over their shared commitment to using their agency to create meaningful change on a global scale. Harris hopes that the MLOW experience instilled in the contestants the ability to think independently and speak to the world and use these skills “for humanity.” He also hopes that they left with a heightened understanding that “no matter their [different] cultures, their ambitions and desires for humankind are the same” and that would unite them to create a more sustainable world together.  

The invaluable connections fostered by MLOW between contestants have endured over the years, even after the last round of the contest in 2017. Harris hope to make most of these connections by building a more formal network, where students can mentor each other and benefit from a flow of information about various topics, such as courses of study at the graduate level, application processes and scholarships, among others. He also plans to organize research events to mobilize like-minded people toward advancing the Sustainable Development Goals. There is no doubt that MLOW will continue fostering global citizenship and social responsibilities among the thinkers of today, as they become the doers of tomorrow.