Exchange Alumni in Action: Tackling the Opioid Crisis

5 minutes read time
Alumni TIES participants, male and female, sit in chairs in a circle in a carpeted conference room. Most hold notebooks. Behind them are flip-charts.
Alumni TIES participants discuss the association between adverse childhood experiences, addiction, and mental health challenges during the "Building Communities of Hope: Collective Action to Tackle Addiction" seminar.

Exchange Alumni in Action: Tackling the Opioid Crisis

Last week, First Lady Melania Trump unveiled her “Be Best” initiative to promote the emotional, physical, and social health of children, one of the main pillars of which is to address opioid addiction. Alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs took on this challenge recently when they convened in Cleveland, Ohio around a common purpose: using their collective skills and knowledge to prevent substance abuse and help those affected by it.

Declared a public health emergency by President Trump in fall 2017, opioid overdose kills more than 115 people in the United States every day. At the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, we are partnering with alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs, some of America’s best and brightest leaders, to address the opioid crisis.

American and international participants gathered for the Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminar (Alumni TIES) “Building Communities of Hope: Collective Action to Tackle Addiction,” the latest in a series of seminars for exchange alumni on critical global challenges, hosted by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. For the Cleveland seminar, participating exchange alumni included nurses, researchers, poets, pharmacists, grant writers, counselors, psychologists, teachers, and photojournalists. They represented 15 U.S. states, two foreign countries, and 14 exchange programs. They live everywhere from Louisville, Kentucky, to Ibadan, Nigeria and are working on the front lines of substance abuse prevention and treatment.

Uriel Kim (Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, Spain) shares his research using big data to improve community health.

Over the course of four days in Cleveland, exchange alumni drew on their unique backgrounds and perspectives to share best practices, learn new tools, and develop innovative community projects. Through participant-led discussions and activities, they learned multifaceted approaches to substance abuse prevention, education, and rehabilitation programs and services at the local, state, and national level.

Many of the participants shared stories of their own struggles with addiction or the loss of family members. Others gave insight into their work with community-based organizations and healthcare professionals.

Bob Kochersberger (Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program to Slovenia and Slovakia; Fulbright Specialist Program to Thailand and Japan) shares his motivation for working on issues related to substance abuse and recovery.

Alumni also shared their expertise in developing integrated care for mental illness and addiction, their research on substance abuse in pregnant and postpartum women, the impact of trauma and adverse childhood experiences, and best practices in working with youth, particularly through education and engagement in the arts. Throughout the seminar, alumni gained concrete tools in fundraising, public outreach, and data-driven community mapping. 

While Cleveland has been hit hard by the opioid crisis, the city is a dynamic leader in bringing together the public and private sectors to prevent opioid abuse and treat people suffering from addiction. Through site visits, alumni learned about local approaches and gained lessons learned from organizations in the Cleveland community.

At Relink.org, alumni learned strategies to ensure populations in need can quickly obtain information about services through an easy-to-use digital marketplace. The Center for Health Affairs at the Northeast Ohio Hospital Opioid Consortium shared their experience in fostering effective collaboration between community leaders and hospitals to reduce the number of overdoses and deaths due to heroin and opioid use. At the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio, alumni learned about the Heroin and Opioid Action Plan, which brings together a wide range of community stakeholders to identify and implement comprehensive solutions to substance abuse.

Elliot Gann (Next Level Program, Senegal) shows Jeri Katherine Howell (Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Program, Costa Rica) how he uses beat making to address trauma and connect with youth.

Throughout the four-day seminar, alumni worked on developing follow-on projects to implement back home in their communities to address substance abuse. The participants are now eligible to compete for up to $10,000 in funding through the small grants program. 

Energized by sharing knowledge with their peers and building their network of like-minded individuals dedicated to this issue, alumni have returned home to finalize their plans. From engaging at-risk youth in hip hop to training healthcare providers, their projects have a direct impact on improving their communities.

As noted by alumna Erin Towns, who participated in the Teachers for Global Classrooms and Fulbright-Hays programs, “The thing about a program like this is it’s asking for sustainability. We’re going to be able to address the narcotics problem in these communities. You can’t just do it through education. You can’t just do it through mental health. It has to be collaborative.”

Through the U.S. government’s investment in international exchange and seminars like this one, exchange alumni are collaborating to build communities of hope and tackle this challenge.

Alumni TIES: Making a Difference in Local Communities Around the World

Alumni TIES are regionally-focused seminars on key foreign policy issues that bring together alumni of diverse U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs. The gatherings provide alumni with opportunities to share knowledge and collaborate on solutions to critical global challenges. The Alumni TIES initiative is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and implemented in partnership with World Learning.

To learn more about this program, please visit the International Exchange Alumni website.

About the Author: Lauren Garza serves as the Outreach Manager in the Office of Alumni Affairs in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Editor’s Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State’s publication on Medium.