Connie Schultz | Every College Student Should Own a Passport

Most of us have favorite movie scenes, for any number of reasons.

One of mine is the exchange between a mother and her son in the 1979 movie “Breaking Away,” a classic coming-of-age story about four teenage boys in Bloomington, Ind.

In this particular scene — played to perfection by Barbara Barrie and Dennis Christopher — Mrs. Stoller is trying to encourage her son, Dave, to imagine a bigger life for himself.

So she reveals a secret.

Their exchange goes roughly like this:

Mrs. Stoller: Did I ever show you this?

David: It’s a passport.

Mrs. Stoller: Quite cheap you know. A real bargain. I carry this with me all the time. Someday there’ll be a new girl at the A&P, and when I want to cash a check, she’ll ask me for my identification, and I’ll take out my passport and I’ll say, “Here!”

Her son hugs her, newly emboldened to see beyond the boundaries of his small hometown.

I was 20 when I first saw the movie, and the memory of that working-class mother’s passport has stayed with me ever since. In 1979, I was a small-town, working-class kid who had traveled only to Canada and three other states. Until that moment, that scene, it never had occurred to me to own a passport. Just because.

Because one day I might want to visit another country.

Because every day I should see myself as someone who could.

As with most life-changing moments, the biggest leap is cerebral.

This summer, one of the largest state universities in the country — Ohio State — is launching a new program to encourage every incoming freshman to get a U.S. passport. The program, “Gateway to the World,” is designed to encourage the roughly 6,600 freshmen — 30 percent of whom are first-generation college students — to get used to the idea that their community is a global one.

“A passport is their driver’s license for the 21st century,” OSU’s Dolan Evanovich told me. “We want each of them to consider studying abroad at some point during their time at Ohio State. Right now, about 20 percent of our students do that. We want to double that number with this class.”

Evanovich is OSU’s vice president for enrollment. He also was the first in his family to go to college, so he understands the reluctance of some working-class parents to embrace globe-trotting lives for their children.

“I’m from the Pittsburgh area,” Evanovich said. “It was a big deal for us to drive to Cleveland.”

Evanovich made his first trip abroad as a college basketball player. He returned a different man.

“Here I was, this little kid from a steel mill town in Pennsylvania, exposed to different languages and cultures. It changed how I saw myself and my role in the world.”

OSU is encouraging, but not requiring, entering students to get the passports. Part of the reason is cost. U.S. passports are not cheap for a lot of families. They cost about $100, which does not include the price of required photos. Evanovich said OSU is exploring ways to help those students in need, with passports and studies abroad.

I hope that OSU figures this out sooner rather than later and that other colleges and universities across the country follow suit in starting their own passport programs.

We already have a good idea of what America will look like in two decades. Diversity is a trend, and it’s irreversible. There aren’t enough fences in the world to change that.

What I’m trying to imagine is an America where, in that same time, every college graduate owns a passport and the expectations that come with it.

Barriers crumble.

Boundaries evaporate.

That’s what happens when we open our minds.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine.

Copyright 2010