One of the amazing yet frustrating things about working on the cultural side of public diplomacy is that the results of our programs are often not apparent until after months, years, or even decades have passed. We know our exchanges work; for example, there are many examples of International Visitor Leadership Program participants, identified for their leadership potential, who have become heads of state. But as a cultural affairs officer, you often leave a country still wondering what impact your programs will have in the long term.
That's why a recent visit by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson to Guatemala, which highlighted the specific and immediate results of the English Access Microscholarship Program (Access), was so gratifying and so much fun.
Access is a worldwide program sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs that provides two years of English-language instruction to underprivileged youth ages 14-18. Guatemala's Access program is the largest in the Western Hemisphere: it has approximately 1,435 current students and 700 alumni. Some of these alumni live in and around Coban, Guatemala's third-largest city and an area heavily affected by narcotrafficking. Fifty of the alumni participate in a special Embassy-sponsored follow-on program, which gives them a third year of intensive English study and the opportunity to learn and practice basic English teaching skills.
Our hope when we started the follow-on program in January 2012 was that afterward, the students would be able to get jobs as primary school English teachers or private tutors. Six months in, these amazing young people have already far exceeded those expectations. On their own, they found a public elementary school near Cobán that had no English teacher and devised a schedule to teach the classes themselves. They write lesson plans, review them with their own English teachers, and then teach classes as a team with peer observers who can give them constructive feedback. As a result, children in Coban who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to learn English are doing so, and our Access alumni are getting valuable teaching experience.
Even more noteworthy was the connection we made between our Access alumni and a recent U.S. military humanitarian mission in Coban called “Beyond the Horizons.” The mission involved a wide variety of community activities, including health clinics staffed with U.S. military medical personnel that provided free medical services for the local community. Since the U.S. military personnel didn't speak Spanish or the indigenous languages of the area, they faced a significant communications barrier with their patients. Enter our Access alumni, who worked as translators over a period of months translating from Q'eqchi' to English, so that their fellow Cobaneros could receive desperately needed medical services.
Assistant Secretary Jacobson got to meet some of these students and hear about their English teaching and translation work during her June 27-28 visit to Guatemala. Witnessing that conversation was one of the most moving experiences I've had yet in the Foreign Service. She was so proud of them, and they were so proud of themselves. These young people will go on to do amazing things for their communities and their country -- but in a very real way, they already have. I'm privileged to play some small role in helping them to make that happen.