Exchange Matters / October 29, 2019

Bringing “Iowa Nice” to the World

By Del Christensen, Executive Director, Iowa Resource for International Service

IRIS welcomed a group of Community Connections participants to Iowa in August 2019 on the program, “Promoting Entrepreneurship in Rural Areas.” Credit: IRIS


The Iowa Resource for International Service (IRIS) is delighted to join the Global Ties Network as a Community-Based Member (non-IVLP). Founded by Robert Anderson, former Lieutenant Governor of Iowa, IRIS has deep roots in the state and continues to base its operations in Ames.

The organization’s mission is to promote international understanding by connecting Iowa to communities worldwide. IRIS has brought many international guests to America’s heartland; to date, more than 2,200 participants from 54 countries have taken part in IRIS programs. Visitors have included students, journalists, business professionals, educators, and government leaders.

This past July, IRIS was privileged to host a group of students as well as an adult mentor, on the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program. The organization worked with World Learning, a National Program Agency, to bring this talented group of young people to Iowa for two weeks of leadership training, teambuilding, and social entrepreneurship skills.

IRIS has a long history of working with youth. Seventeen years ago, IRIS worked with organizations in Washington, DC and New York City to launch the U.S. Department of State’s Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program. The YES Program brings over 900 high school students each year from countries with significant Muslim populations to spend one academic year in the United States. The students learn about American society, develop leadership skills, and help educate Americans about their countries. IRIS not only hosts students from this program in Iowa every year, but also coordinates the recruitment and selection of YES students in sub-Saharan Africa.

A group of high school students from Iraq attend a training on design and development of social entrepreneurial programs in the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship Innovation Studio at Drake University in Des Moines, IA. Credit: IRIS


In addition to youth programs, IRIS has coordinated the Community Connections Program for more than 500 adult participants from seven countries. This year, the organization is working again with World Learning to host 10 professionals from Belarus on a three-week training program “Promoting Entrepreneurship in Rural Areas.” The group traveled throughout the state to learn how rural Iowa communities approach community revival and new business development.

One of our biggest challenges as an organization is also one of our greatest rewards. When international guests hear they are coming to Iowa, they imagine a desolate area with little to offer. They are always pleasantly surprised to learn that Iowa has so much in resources and knowledge; it paints a true picture of the warmth and welcoming nature of the United States. IRIS is especially proud of our host families. The term “Iowa Nice” is not just an expression we print on T-shirts in a souvenir shop; it is a way of life with hometown hospitality and warmth ingrained in our communities. International guests find their “home away from home” in the Hawkeye state.

IRIS looks forward to even more opportunities to promote citizen diplomacy through our connections with the Global Ties Network.