James L. Russo, Public Diplomacy Country Affairs Officer for Brazil, Southern Cone, and Cuba, writes about his work with the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs' Youth Ambassadors Program.
Twenty Youth Ambassadors (YA) from Paraguay and Uruguay met with Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon (see photo) at the State Department February 4th. These obviously well-informed high school students and future leaders held a wide-ranging discussion (in English) with the Assistant Secretary about global warming, free trade, democracy, and educational opportunities in the U.S. for foreign students. Paraguayans Nathalia González and Alhelí Aranda concluded the exciting encounter with a lovely rendition of a local folk song (Cielo de Ñanduties) with guitar accompaniment.
I have been privileged during my time as a PD officer based in Washington to witness the growth of the YA program and organize and attend some of the high-level meetings the YA’s have had. (Public Affairs Sections at Posts do most of the heavy lifting in terms of selecting the YAs and managing and publicizing the program overseas). Over the years YAs have met with First Lady Laura Bush, Secretaries of State Rice and Powell, Supreme Court Justices, and various Members of Congress.
This year, Mrs. Bush talked at length with the YAs about her life in the White House and her myriad duties as First Lady, blowing the kids away with her charm and knowledge of their respective countries. Last year, Justices Breyer and Scalia discussed some of their important casework with an international nexus and contrasted the U.S. system of justice with that in some of the countries in Latin America. The YAs actively participated in these discussions, neither intimidated nor content to simply sit back and take it all in. The conversations have invariably been lively, wide-ranging, and well-informed. The poise and sophistication demonstrated by these young leaders never failed to surprise.
In conversations with Tom Shannon and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Craig Kelly, the YAs discussed, among other topics, the advantages and disadvantages of free trade, the threats posed to democracy by income inequality, lack of economic opportunity, and lack of political transparency, and the importance of educational opportunity as the key to addressing these threats. Global climate change is a topic that comes up in almost every discussion. This issue is obviously paramount in the minds of young people as they realize the challenge their generation will have to address.
There are very few programs, in my opinion, that deliver such a large bang for the buck. The press coverage has been positive, widespread and extensive, and the kids come away jazzed and inspired. Someday some of these young leaders will be legislators, governors, business leaders, educators, and perhaps even presidents and world leaders.
U.S. Embassy Brasilia initiated the Youth Ambassadors program in 2002 for highly qualified, socio-economically disadvantaged high school students to visit the United States. As a result of the program’s success, the State Department expanded it to include students from Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. The YAs typically spend a few days in Washington D.C. before spreading out across the country to attend a local high school for a week. This year, YAs visited Minnesota, Kansas, Montana, North Carolina, Cleveland, Michigan, Oklahoma, Montana, and Seattle.
The program opens doors. Former Youth Ambassadors have received over $1.5 million in scholarships from leading universities such as the University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, and Smith College. The YA program is part of the President's broader initiative of greater engagement with the hemisphere, and Investing in People and reaching out to youth are important parts of this initiative.