Seizing Opportunities in International Education

Posted by Evan Ryan
November 30, 2015
Assistant Secretary Evan Ryan for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs speaks at the 2015 EducationUSA Forum in Washington D.C.

As Secretary Kerry stated so succinctly before a student audience at the University of Virginia, “there is no longer anything foreign about foreign policy.” Knowing how true that statement is, we must continue preparing future generations for a world where we all need to be part of solving complex global challenges, to include health crises, climate change, and violent extremism. Academic exchange is one important way that Americans and citizens around the world can connect and develop joint solutions to pressing international issues. In today’s globalized world, cross-border cooperation is more critical than ever, and educational exchange is one of the most effective ways to build relationships and networks, and, ultimately, foster greater diplomacy.

You don’t have to look far to see diplomacy happening in U.S. communities. Last academic year, nearly 975,000 international students studied at colleges and universities in the United States. These students bring greater diversity to American classrooms, prompting wider conversations and broadening perspectives, which help push creativity and innovation.

The recent Open Doors report on trends in international higher education, released this month, showed a 10 percent increase over the past year in the number of international students studying in the United States. 

In 2014-15, the number of international students in the United States increased by 10 percent to a record high of 974,926 students [State Department Photo]

Conversely, only slightly more than 300,000 American college students study abroad annually. This number represents less than two percent of the total number of American students enrolled today in U.S. universities. At the Department of State, we’re making it a priority to increase this number to ensure future generations of Americans are globally competent and internationally engaged.

To encourage more American students to study abroad, we have created a new U.S. Study Abroad Office to provide information about State Department-funded international exchanges, such as the Fulbright Program, the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, and the Critical Language Scholarship Program. Through this new office, we are working with U.S. and foreign institutions to provide information and highlight the benefits of study abroad for Americans. Our new website,, provides students with valuable resources to identify the program that is right for them.

Our efforts will help students like Tiara Willis, who grew up in North Philadelphia, explore the world beyond our country’s borders. Tiara received a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship to study in the United Arab Emirates in 2014. Since her return, she has shared her story and views on the value of her study abroad experience. As a result of her advocacy, we recognized her through the State Department’s Citizen Diplomacy Challenge, and she soon will join the Peace Corps with hopes of one day becoming a Foreign Service Officer. Tiara is clearly one young American woman who has answered Secretary Kerry’s recent call to service, in which he highlighted the central role that young people play “in advancing American interests and creating and ever-stronger global community.”

Tiara Willis, Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholar, speaks during the 2015 Open Doors Launch Event [State Department Photo]

We are also doing more to encourage students to be part of the solution to ending violent extremism. Particularly in the wake of the tragedy in Paris and following other recent acts of terrorism, the need for cross-cultural understanding amongst people who want to defeat terrorism is more apparent than ever. Last semester, I had the opportunity to help launch the “Peer 2 Peer: Challenging Extremism” initiative, a virtual competition involving universities from around the world. Teams of students from U.S. and international universities designed creative ways to counter extremism among vulnerable youth populations. They developed everything from mobile apps to grade school curricula. In our digital age, university students are uniquely positioned to talk to other young adults about the risks of radicalization by extremist groups.

On June 4, 2015 three universities, Mount Royal University (Canada), Missouri State University (USA), and Curtin University (Australia) participating in the “P2P: Challenging Extremism A CVE Youth Initiative,” presented their final digital CVE projects at the U.S. Department of State [State Department Photo]

The winning team from Missouri State University created a powerful video featuring Ajo Khan, a student at MSU who shares his story of growing up in Swat Valley, Pakistan. It is a compelling message of the toll that violent extremism takes on individuals and communities. There is a ripple effect with extremism – one that is global, and can only be addressed by working together, taking the time to understand one another.

Fianlly, we are encouraging all of our program alumni to share their experiences upon their return to the United States. One example of how our alumni are spreading the word is through the Millennial Trains Project. For the past three years, American undergraduate students and international Fulbright fellows have journeyed by train across the United States. Over the course of their trips, the group visited 20 cities, where they pitched their ideas for community-based projects, which helped develop their leadership, social entrepreneurship, and communication skills. The Millennial Trains Project was inspired by Fulbright alumnus Patrick Dowd, who participated in the Jagriti Yatra, a train journey designed for young entrepreneurs, during his study abroad experience in India. Once back in the United States, Dowd saw an opportunity to engage millennials here in the United States and was inspired to create a similar experience for American and international social innovators.

As Ghanaian diplomat and former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan said, “Education is, quite simply, peace-building by another name.” This is our chance to make history by building people-to-people relationships through academic exchanges. In fact, it is a necessity if we want to remain competitive. In 2015, the State Department celebrates 75 years of sponsored international exchange programs. All year, we have challenged alumni to envision the next 75 years of global exchange. To quote Secretary Kerry, “America is not exceptional simply because we say we are. We are exceptional because we do exceptional things.” 

From 1940 to the present the U.S. Department of State has fostered understanding through people-to-people exchange programs [State Department Photo]

In today’s increasingly global world, being exceptional means taking chances and facing new challenges, like study abroad. When you get out of your comfort zone, you broaden your perspective, get to know the world, and make yourself a better global citizen.   Exchange opportunities connect people across borders, promote understanding, and encourage us to work together to solve future challenges. Together, we will solve global challenges.

About the Author: Evan Ryan serves as Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA).

Editor's Note: This blog originally appeared on

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