Exchange Matters / January 2, 2014

International Exchange at the Center of Diplomacy: Five Takeaways from the 2014 National Meeting

I made my way to and from the Global Ties U.S. 2014 National Meeting in Washington, DC via train, and it struck me that train travel offers a completely different perspective than traveling by car. Train travel is a social experience, and car travel, unless you are carpooling, is a solitary one. On my train rides, I met a Russian woman from Siberia going from Miami to a job in New York, an Egyptian student with an encyclopedic knowledge of the United States, and an up-and-coming 18-year-old R&B singer traveling from her manager’s house in New York to visit her parents in South Carolina.

Chatting with this diverse and international group of strangers on the train offered perfect bookends to three days of networking and workshops with 700 other professionals, volunteers, and diplomats who, like me, believe that exchange programs and citizen diplomacy are at the center—not the periphery of—good foreign policy.


Exchange programs and citizen diplomacy are at the center—not the periphery of—good foreign policy.

While talking to people from all different places on the train, I reflected on the meeting. The awe-inspiring success stories of international partnerships resulting from people-to-people exchanges, coupled with occasionally dire projections about the state of the world and what’s to come, made me realize the importance of international exchanges. Engaging with people different from ourselves, and facilitating that experience for others, is absolutely essential if we’re going to survive and thrive this century on planet earth.

There was so much information provided and so many connections forged at the meeting that many of us will be processing the event for quite a while, and hopefully fulfilling the meeting mandate of “Integrate, Innovate, Impact” for years to come.

In the meantime, here are 5 general themes that stood out for me at the meeting:

1. International exchanges change the trajectory of a person’s life.

The real world impact of exchange programs is undeniable. Examples abounded at the meeting, including:

A 2012 Haitian delegation visit of social entrepreneurs led to a partnership between Baltimore-based Taharka Brothers Ice Cream and De La Sol Haiti, the 2014 Citizen Diplomat Award honorees. The partnership resulted in the introduction of vanilla crops to Haiti and employment for Haitian chocolate producers.

Evan Ryan, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said her life wouldn’t have taken the course it did had she not been an exchange student.

There are 350 current and former heads of state who have participated in the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitors Leadership Program.

2. While there are a mind-blowing number of government agencies, they are staffed by real people who really care.

As a new participant, I found the number of government agencies, bureaus, departments, and offices that deal with international programs staggering. At a panel designed to instruct international exchange programming officers on how to work with government agencies, one panelist from a federal agency confided that even they use Google to find out which bureau of what agency handles what.

However, it is easy to forget that real people with real lives populate these usually faceless government bureaucracies. I found the many government agents I encountered to be friendly and approachable, especially those from the U.S. Department of State, several of whom went out of their way to be helpful.

3. Everyone is expected to do more with less.

The world is currently undergoing rapid and irreversible transformation. Even the President during his State of the Union address spoke about the vital importance of international exchange programs. Yet, the federal budget that funds exchanges has been decimated, leaving community-based organizations that organize official visits strapped for cash.

There was a big push at the meeting to educate Congress about the important role international exchanges play in support of U.S. foreign policy. Buses took meeting participants to Capitol Hill where they met with their individual senators and representatives and shared the value and impact of our collective work.

There were also many workshops that highlighted potential partners and funding sources, including public-private and corporate partnerships as they tie into international exchange.

4. Old systems are breaking down and the way forward requires new partnerships and forging paths through uncharted territory.

A week before the National Meeting, the National Council for International Visitors announced its new name: Global Ties U.S. They also showed a commitment to reinvigorate the traditional programs that have been its hallmark for 50 years and to broaden its scope to strengthen the capabilities and capacity of its member organizations.

Engaging with people different from ourselves, and facilitating that experience for others, is absolutely essential if we’re going to survive and thrive this century on planet earth.

There was an acceptance that the United States’ role in the world has shifted, but an uncertainty about what that role can or will be in the future. Thanks to changes like social media, people no longer form communities solely based on nation, ethnicity or religion. Community is built by a host of other factors such as political ideology, vocational interest, or hobby. These common bonds unite people, often virtually, regardless of geographic location.

A panel on global challenges in the year 2035 provided sobering projections on how the world might be transformed over the next twenty years due to seven drivers of global change: population, technology, resource management, information, economics, security, and governance. If participants hadn’t already realized how the world will continue to change at breakneck speed, this session was a pail of cold water in the face.

5. More than half the world is under the age of 30: we ignore this fact at our peril.

The youth explosion isn’t just about slacker activism, it translates into geo-political transformation.

The average age in countries that have seen recent popular uprisings is 27.

A mix of factors—from global connectivity and fluid identities, to economics, to sheer population growth—contributes to the millennial generation differing in tangible ways from preceding generations.

It also means: as goes the millennial generation, so goes the future.

Quite a lot to think about on a train ride home to North Carolina.


By: Joan Conwell

Joan Conwell is founder and president of RTP Global Intercultural Solutions.