This year, 2015, marks the 75th Anniversary of the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). Throughout the year, the U.S. Department of State and the Global Ties network will be celebrating the profound impact of the IVLP and the role international exchanges play in building a better world. Global Ties U.S. recently spoke to Ambassador Petr Gandalovic, the Czech Republic’s Envoy to the United States, about his experience as an IVLP participant in 1991. We also asked him how the program helped him throughout his career, and about the insights he gained which would later help him as his country’s representative in Washington, DC.
WHAT SORT OF IMPACT DID THE INTERNATIONAL VISITOR LEADERSHIP PROGRAM HAVE ON YOU?
The Program had a tremendous impact on me.
I was humbled by the amount of time, effort, and funding the American Government expended on the program, which allowed me to visit the United States and really discover the country. I participated in 1991. Remember, under communism, Czechs were virtually forbidden from traveling outside of the old East Bloc states during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, when I was growing up.
HOW DID YOU BECOME AN INTERNATIONAL VISITOR?
The U.S. Embassy reached out to me at the time. Unlike many in the Czechoslovak government in those days, I spoke some English. For that reason, I found myself in contact with the American diplomatic community. I was originally a high school teacher in Usti nad Lebem, an industrial city in northern Bohemia. I took part in the 1989 Velvet Revolution and later became a member of the then-Federal Parliament, where I served on the environmental affairs committee.
WHERE DID YOU GO?
In 1991, I was invited to participate in the International Visitor’s Program [as the program was then called] and asked that my visit have an environmental theme. I was the only Czech taking part. Other participants were from Western Europe and the Central European states that hadn’t experienced communist rule. Our visit began in Washington, DC. From there, we traveled to New Jersey to study waste management. I was allowed to select a region of the United States to which I could travel, and I chose to visit a strip-mining site near Billings, Montana.
DID YOU MEET ANY MEMBERS OF THE CZECH-AMERICAN COMMUNITY?
No. We visited Houston to study oil-spill cleanup techniques. I enjoyed “home hospitality” in the company of members of your network in Minneapolis/St. Paul in Minnesota, and in Denver and Boulder, Colorado. From there, we traveled to Portland, Oregon. In fact, I will return to that state shortly, to attend a ceremony at the Lewis and Clarke College. The school will dedicate a bust of former President Vaclav Havel. However, I did not meet with members of the Czech community in the United States at that time.
DID “HOME HOSPITALITY” MAKE AN IMPRESSION ON YOU?
Yes it did. I really enjoyed meeting your network members; seeing their homes and how they lived; and talking to them in the best English I could muster-up at that time. Looking back, it seems like a dream.
DID THE INTERNATIONAL VISITOR PROGRAM HELP YOU IN YOUR CAREER OR IN SOME OTHER WAY?
I’m still grateful to the American people; to my former hosts, and to your government for the opportunity I was given. My visit had a great impact on my perception of the United States. I enjoy hosting events at my embassy which relate to the International Visitor Leadership Program. Remember, I visited your country only two years after the success of the Velvet Revolution.
IN YOUR VIEW, IS THERE ANYTHING WE COULD DO DIFFERENTLY?
I would welcome advance notice of any Czech visitors passing through Washington, DC, particularly high-level participants. Travel to communities with substantial numbers of Czech Americans might be a good idea; for example, to West Texas and the state of Nebraska. You could also consider the idea of sending visitors from my country see the Bohemian National Hall in New York City. A lot of cultural activity goes on there, and it has an interesting history.
ON A LIGHT NOTE, MAY I ASK YOU ABOUT THE FIRST TIME YOU TRIED BUDWEISER-BRAND BEER IN THE UNITED STATES? I ASK BECAUSE A CZECH BRAND EXISTS WITH THE SAME NAME. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?
I am a former Agriculture Minister in the government of the Czech Republic; as such, I had responsibilities for my country’s breweries. I respect the fact that American and Czech Budweiser brands are different types of beers. In fact, I love tasting beers and try to do so wherever I travel. It’s a great way to learn about local culture and the lives of the people you are visiting.
ANY FINAL WORDS?
The International Visitor Leadership Program is a great idea. I cannot imagine any participant being anti-U.S. upon his or her return to their home country.
By Robert Zimmerman, Global Ties U.S.