There could not have been a finer day in New England to welcome our guests from North Africa and the Middle East, on the last stop of their International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). This IVLP program project focused on transparency in government, touching on federal, state, and regional governance, for mid-career professionals and journalists. Their mission was to gain first-hand knowledge of the United States, interacting with stakeholders and counterparts in four cities across America.
This was most participants’ first trip to the United States, here to explore best practices in government accountability that they can take home with them and make a difference. As I mingled among the guests, enjoying shawarma and hommus with them, it was like a homecoming, being a former exchange program participant myself in the Fulbright program, before joining the Foreign Service. Having visited every country the group represented, minus Sudan, my interaction with the IVLP participants reminded me of the power of exchanges – as did the smiles they shared on this last stop at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, in Medford, Massachusetts.
The evening unfolded as our dozen guests from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, the Palestinian Territories, Qatar, and Sudan talked to students, faculty, and representatives from World Boston, the non-governmental organizations partner in the Global Ties U.S. network who so enthusiastically embraced this program as one of many they managed throughout the year. Among the guests was also a contingent of U.S. alumni of our State Department exchange programs, most notably young men and women from the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) program.
Eli Harrington of World Boston energetically kicked off the evening reception and meet and greet, talking about the impact individuals make through citizen diplomacy. Professor Andrew Hess, a specialist in South and Central Asia and the Middle East, welcomed the group to the Fletcher School, noting how partnerships with schools around the world are an essential part of a first-class education. Next, Ryan Youkilis wowed the audience with his Arabic skills, thanks to his experience in Jordan as a NSLI-Y program participant. When I asked him how he learned Arabic, he beamed, further explaining how that it’s just the beginning of his journey down the language learning road. I was honored to share my own exchange program memories, having been on both sides of the exchanges fence, so to speak, as a Fulbright Scholar and a Boren Fellow and, later, a as a Public Diplomacy Foreign Service Officer, and great fan of our many exchange programs at State. I have seen with my own eyes how cultural exchange is the golden key of public diplomacy.
Talking to these youth and our IVLP guests, I could not help but be reminded of the durability and deep roots of exchanges. In my opening remarks, I reflected fondly on my own experiences in the erstwhile Czechoslovakia, as well as the many, many exchange program participants I have met while serving abroad as a Public Diplomacy Officer for 15 years in Washington, Riyadh, Kabul, Bogotá, Vladivostok, Moscow, and Tunis—and as Senior Fellow at The Fletcher School outside Boston, Massachusetts. We share a common bond as exchange participants, no matter what country we are from, which has sharpened our perceptions and won our hearts and minds.
Taking the floor with pride, one of the female participants, from Jordan, taped a bright yellow sheet of paper that said “SMART.GOV” on the black board. She proceeded to spell out letter-by- letter a mnemonic she created about her own experience, telling how everything she learned about transparency, accountability, and combating corruption on this program was now inked in her mind. She then moved the audience with a poem she wrote in commemoration of her IVLP experience, citing how she would take back home lasting memories to her family, friends, colleagues, and country. Our other IVLP guest speaker was from the Maghreb, and he shared his insights about how the program was certain to make a difference, back in the Kingdom of Morocco. Both guests received a resounding round of applause in the room.
Wrapping up, we asked our IVLP guests to share their impressions of their three-week visit to the United States. One visitor from Egypt remarked about New England, “Too cold!”, before explaining how she already had in mind an action plan to share with her community what she learned on her IVLP.. The participant from Qatar, said that he was surprised to find himself educating Americans he met about his country, but pleased to dispel myths that the country suffers from poverty and unrest. Our guest from Sudan, who has an active role in federal affairs back home, told me how he hopes to keep the connections he made in the United States alive -- passing me his business card. Our final round of applause went to the group’s outstanding interpreters, to be sure those who sometimes go unsung in the background got their fair due.
All in all, this Maghreb-Middle Eastern connection made, even if in a small way, a mark on everyone who attended. I returned home energized, remembering why I joined this career years ago. The Fletcher students who came to the event appreciated meeting our guests, adding this to their coveted checklist of Department of State visitors to meet, including ECA Assistant Secretary Evan Ryan who visited Fletcher earlier this month, on the heels of her own return trip from Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco. We all now share in common memories of a bright New England spring.
About the Author: Bridget F. Gersten is as a Foreign Service Officer assigned as a Senior Fellow at the Fletcher School (2013-2014).