"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."
I often recall those words that Atticus Finch offered his daughter, Scout, in Harper Lee's American classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. I am mindful of Atticus's advice on occasions when I meet groups of foreign exchange students and hear them talk with each other about their experiences. Gaining a greater understanding about -- and an appreciation for -- others is one of the reasons why I believe exchange programs are so powerful.
I recently saw the impact of one such program at an event for participants in the Global Undergraduate Exchange (UGRAD) Program. The Global UGRAD Program is sponsored by the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs with support from our embassies and consulates overseas. The UGRAD participants whom I recently met represent some of the best and brightest students from a number of countries throughout the East Asia and Pacific region, including China and Malaysia. These students, who otherwise would not have had the resources to study in the United States, came to attend American universities during the 2012-2013 academic year.
By the time I met the UGRAD students, they had already completed more than a semester at their U.S. host institution. As I sat with the students to watch a video of their travels in the United States, it took me back to when I was in their shoes as an exchange student in China, a country that was initially unfamiliar to me. I remember Chinese people from all walks of life were excited to greet me, a foreigner. They almost always went out of their way to show me hospitality and make my time in their country special. In turn, I, as a foreigner, exposed the people I met to a glimpse of another part of the world. From the discussions around me, it sounded as if the UGRAD students were having similar experiences here in the United States.
Recently, I was fortunate to hear Secretary Kerry speak to the Fulbright Foreign Student Enrichment Seminar. He told them, "Understanding what someone else thinks is...important... When you open those doors, you realize they're really not that dissimilar." Echoes from the Secretary's speech rang true at the UGRAD gathering. I listened to students marvel at the contrasts, and similarities, between different parts of America and their home countries. I sat next to students from Indonesia and Thailand at the event. During the course of our conversation, we found common ground on everything from opinions on the cuisine in Washington to views on public expression of religion.
As an intern at the State Department, I have found that one can become lost in the broad scope of diplomacy and wonder how its many connections affect people. I discovered it is at the micro-level of people-to-people exchange that one quickly realizes the richness in extending such ties.