Exchange Matters / February 16, 2024

A Catalyst for Exchange

By Nina Bankova, Vice President of Global Engagement & Fellowships, World Trade Center Institute 

Editor’s Note: February 16 is Citizen Diplomacy Day, a day first recognized by Congress in 2011 to commemorate our organization’s 50th anniversary and our Network’s important role in building people-to-people connections through international exchange. In celebration of this day, we asked leaders from across the Global Ties Network to reflect on how citizen diplomacy humanizes the world, both locally and globally, and why this work matters. 

An IVLP visitor from Japan (right) with Aruna Miller, Lieutenant Governor of Maryland. All photos provided by World Trade Center Institute.

As the World Trade Center Institute (WTCI) celebrates our 35th anniversary this year, I want to reflect on the profound impact that we have had on the Baltimore community, on Maryland, and on global good overall.  

WTCI was established in 1989 to serve as a hub of global trade. From the very beginning, when then Governor William Donald Shafer said, “I want one [World Trade Center]!,” our organization was destined to be a catalyst for exchanges – of ideas, best practices, business partnerships, and lifelong friendships. WTCI soon acquired the exchange programming portfolio for Maryland, making us the designated community-based member for the state. Ever since, WTCI has delivered professional and cultural exchange programming for projects sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, USAID, the Congressional Office for International Leadership, higher education institutions, foreign embassies, the World Bank Group, and many more.  

Open World visitors from Ukraine explore emergency department operations with U.S. counterparts.

Being a part of the public diplomacy efforts of the U.S. Department of State has always been one of our hidden strengths. Our organization has been known for its large network of global businesses, but today, the emphasis is on globally-minded leaders – in business, government, academia, and non-profits – at home and abroad. As a part of our efforts to reach the hearts and minds of more Marylanders, WTCI turned to younger generations through the introduction of the Albrecht Fellowships for high school and college students. The focus of the high school program is on global citizenship, while college students learn about careers in global business. Meanwhile, the Bowe Fellowship focuses on preparing mid to senior-level leaders for C-suite roles in their global organizations. Today almost 300 young adults call themselves Albrecht Fellows and over 200 are Bowe Fellows. After having gotten to know the organization and our work in a broader context, all of them have the public diplomacy bug.  

The exchange programs that we host year-round help achieve two significant public diplomacy objectives: branding and advocacy. We simultaneously brand Maryland before the foreign leaders visiting the state and brand WTCI’s role in public diplomacy before our own community. We promote U.S. culture and values to our foreign visitors, while advocating for WTCI’s role in global exchanges and why they matter. Each exchange is an opportunity to combat stereotypes, transfer knowledge, and strengthen ties. Both homestay families and visitors have commented on the transformational power of the experience, where they learned about each other just as much as they learned about themselves and their own implicit biases.  

“I was very nervous to stay with a homestay family because I believed that our [Serbian] people were the kindest. Now I know I was wrong. Your [American] people are the kindest,” said a Serbian visitor at the end of her program in Baltimore.  

IVLP women leaders in business meet with Maryland Secretary of State Susan Lee and Lt. Governor Aruna Miller.

The challenge and opportunity for organizations like ours that combine global engagement with economic growth activities is finding ways to break down silos and garner excitement in pooling internal and external resources for the benefit of all. Our corporate members get to meet our exchange program participants, while participants get to spend time within our business, innovation, academic, and community-building ecosystems. Whatever the activities are, finding ways to braid your organizational strengths into your programming can only mean one thing: a community that feels a stronger sense of belonging, participants who develop a deeper appreciation for U.S. culture and values, and an organization that’s positioned itself for sustained growth and greater engagement with the world. WTCI has a knack for innovation and as we near our half-century mark, I can’t wait to see the many new ways that public diplomacy will show up in our work.  

Happy Citizen Diplomacy Day!