By Margaret Pfeifle, Communications Intern, Global Ties U.S.
From October 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022, the USA Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai provided a window into the United States, introducing Expo attendees to U.S. culture, values, and innovation through citizen diplomacy. Global Ties U.S., in collaboration with the U.S. Department of State and our Network of citizen diplomats, led the recruitment campaign to identify these “Faces of America:” Youth Ambassadors and Cultural Performers, representing all 50 U.S. states at the USA Pavilion.
The USA Pavilion Youth Ambassadors served as greeters and guides, sharing knowledge on exhibits about U.S. history and culture while building people-to-people connections with all who visited. This was the most diverse USA Pavilion Youth Ambassador cohort on record, with the 75 Youth Ambassadors representing 37 states and the District of Columbia, as well as 79 colleges and universities worldwide.
The Youth Ambassadors collectively spoke 25 languages — including Arabic, Hindi, Korean, Mandarin, Spanish, and Urdu — and were experts in everything from sustainable design and public health to broadcast journalism and mechanical engineering. Many Youth Ambassadors were also alumni of other U.S. Department of State exchange programs including the Fulbright Program, the National Security Languages for Youth Initiative, the Critical Language Scholarship, and the Boren Scholarship.
Youth Ambassador Vishnu Rao reflected on his experience: “Learning to deal with different personalities through the many interactions with guests will help prepare me for my future career as a medical professional [and] interacting with patients.”
Added Eleanor Harlan: “I’ve become more confident in myself having been here—particularly regarding public speaking to high-level people in a foreign language. As long as you’re making an effort to speak someone’s language to them—it shows!”
While the Youth Ambassadors worked to educate and represent the United States to USA Pavilion visitors, they were also exploring and sharing other countries’ pavilions, all while sharpening crucial skills and evolving into future leaders.
“I have always loved travel as an escape, but my time in Dubai taught me that instead, I could use this experience to create a new reality as the best version of myself,” said Youth Ambassador Tarek Meah. Youth Ambassador Alyssa Kristeller added, “…coming to a place with so much ‘contagious ambition’ really made me realize that I didn’t have to wait to do things.”
Youth Ambassador Michael Amatulli agrees that his experience at Expo 2020 Dubai allowed both professional and personal growth: “I’m more able and willing to do things that others would see as impossible. Anything feels tangible, like the idea of coming to a new country and just diving in.”
Alongside Youth Ambassadors, Cultural Performers worked to bring the pavilion to life. Across six months, the USA Pavilion welcomed 323 individual performers and speakers representing 40 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. These cultural performers included subject-matter expert speakers, chefs, athletes, spoken word artists, musicians, dancers, and acrobats who all offered a unique perspective and display of cultural significance.
One of the first USA Pavilion performers was the Harrisonburg Kurdish String Ensemble, which is made up of U.S.-born fiddlers and newly arrived Kurdish American immigrants, who gave a dozen concerts at the USA Pavilion in October. Their fusion of Appalachian/Country music with the unique sounds of Kurdish classical traditions exemplifies the depth of fusion while also demonstrating the United States’ inclusiveness and multiculturalism.
“Because of my experience traveling to and performing at the Expo, I have become much more aware that the U.S. is only one entity in the global picture,” said Michael Williams of the Harrisonburg Kurdish String Ensemble. “I have believed for a long time that we are all in this together and actions by our country as well as others affect the whole. My eyes have been opened by this experience.”
The Cultural Performers felt motivated by the way they were able to share U.S. ideals via their performances and actions of citizen diplomacy. “Once we arrived, the impact of being at the same place, same time, same reason as people from all over the world really hit home,” said musical group The Western Flyers. “The music we play — Western Swing — is the Official State Music of Texas, and to share what we do with listeners from all over the planet was meaningful on many levels.” The Western Flyers, a western swing trio from Texas, performed multiple times at the pavilion throughout early December.
Both the Youth Ambassadors and the Cultural Performers had a direct influence on the success of the USA Pavilion. It allowed the pavilion’s 1.2 million visitors to not only discuss and express their own cultures, but also to experience the culture of the United States.
As Albert Allenback of musical group Tank and the Bangas (a community-partner of Global Ties Alabama) shared: “The team at the USA Pavilion at Expo 2020 is top notch. We are being taken care of by wonderful youth ambassadors, the sharpest 19-29 -year-olds in the world. I think we are being handled by future presidents here! We have gotten to exchange food, music, ideas, and joy. The program is working because everyone, American and Emirati, is better for knowing each other.”
This sentiment was shared likewise by Youth Ambassador Achim Harding who noted that, “This is the first time I’ve been a part of a group that is so diverse and so unique, and yet all from the same country—my country.”