About the Author: Chad A. West serves in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.
The Binational Center (BNC) in Cochabamba, Bolivia recently honored 28 of its John F. Kennedy Scholars during an August 7 workshop entitled "Manos de Desarrollo" ("Hands for Development"). The students were able to participate in group building activities, share ideas, and meet with Chargé d' Affaires, Ambassador James Creagan. The activities were all part of the BNC's efforts to recognize the efforts of the JFK Scholars to develop their English-language and leadership skills.
The JFK Scholars program is just one of many English-language programs conducted overseas. These programs have the ability to dramatically improve opportunities for their participants, and perhaps no other public diplomacy activity has such a powerful impact on improving the image of the United States abroad. In Bolivia, English programs are especially effective in reaching traditionally underserved minority communities. The JFK Scholars in Cochabamba receive English classes, course materials, and even local transportation expenses to ensure that they are able to attend their courses and complete the three-year program. Many of the students are able to access information about the United States that was previously unavailable to them. Their desire to learn more about the United States was evident during the workshop.
Speaking to the JFK Scholars, Ambassador Creagan congratulated the students for being motivated to study the English language and American culture, and then spoke about the importance of leadership, using President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as examples during momentous times in American history. From there, the ambassador moved directly into a question and answer session with the students. The students were a bit shy. No one seemed to want to be the first to throw out a question, but it was not long before the group was engaged in conversation. The discussion covered various topics from the types of food one can find in Texas to the ambassador’s opinion on life in Bolivia. The final question came from a young woman who wanted to know the ambassador’s perspective on the state of relations between the United States and Bolivia. Ambassador Creagan responded that while the general relationship is very strained at the moment, it is important for both sides to keep looking for avenues of cooperation on issues of mutual interest.
Before the workshop concluded, the students broke into small groups for discussion on a series of questions, including "What does it mean to be a young person in Bolivia?" and "What needs to change in Bolivia?" Each group made brief presentations to the larger group. Despite their youth, they had an intimate grasp of the challenges most adversely affecting Bolivia today. One group noted that "Bolivia must rid itself of official corruption to promote social and economic development." The exercise was the most successful part of the workshop, with every student showing a deep interest in the views of the other participants and a genuine appreciation for the diversity of opinions expressed.
Many U.S. embassies can point to stories like this as evidence of the impact of our English-language programs. These programs provide recipients with an important first step, whether they pursue higher education in the United States or their home countries, seek employment in the private sector, or venture to become small business owners. Learning English is a vital skill for anyone living in the modern world, and it ensures that intercultural communication continues successfully.