The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) plays a unique role in forming friendships all over the world. Exchange programs create lasting cross-cultural connections between students, professionals, emerging leaders and scholars living miles apart who may have otherwise never met. As anyone who has been abroad knows, one of the hardest parts of doing an exchange program is saying goodbye to new friends when the program ends. With July 30, 2018, marking this year’s International Day of Friendship, ECA is celebrating all of the newfound friendships that happen through educational and cultural exchanges and ensuring these friendships last long after our programs end with several social media initiatives.
One of the most prominent ways ECA has digitally maintained such a strong network of friendships is with the Bureau’s flagship hashtag, #ExchangeOurWorld. With the use of a singular hashtag, ECA has created a growing community of friendships, useful not only for crowdsourcing content, but also for helping exchange participants add their voices to a broader online conversation about the value of exchange programs. #ExchangeOurWorld allows current participants and exchange alumni to share their stories while also bearing witness to the experiences of others. For example, Kudazi, a camp counselor doing a work-and-travel program through the Council on International Educational Exchange, had his first American meal with his new coworkers at a Waffle House in Kentucky, or that Mary, a FLEX alumna from Ukraine, reconnected with her American host family while in Rome two years after her program ended. As part of the promotion for this year’s International Day of Friendship, ECA created a video, compiling just a few of the hundreds of photos and video clips that are shared with us through the use of our #ExchangeOurWorld hashtag. The photos in the video highlight the impact of exchange programs on the relationships between participants and how experiences that people share during their programs can truly create lifelong friendships.
Another new feature ECA recently launched is #ExchangeOurWorld Postcards, which allow former American exchange participants of the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) Program to send a video message to their friend, colleague, teacher, mentor, or host family, telling them how important their friendship was to their study abroad experience. One of the more recent Postcard features Elise, an American student from Atlanta, Georgia, who studied Arabic with the NSLI-Y Program in Morocco last year. In front of a camera in Washington, DC, Elise sent a message to her friend Mouna in Morocco, illuminating the major role her new friend played in feeling welcomed and accepted while on a new program. Elise also shared a fond memory of surfing together in Mehdia, before repeating the same message, this time in Arabic. Videos like these act as a way for American exchange alumni to demonstrate their newly acquired critical language skills, while also keeping them connected to the network they formed on their exchange. Although public, the virtual messages has the same intimacy as physical postcards, especially when repeated in a foreign language, as that is an ability the two friends now share. New features like these promote the advancement of maintaining and cultivating strong relationships that can last far beyond the end date of an exchange program.
Advancing Foreign Policy Goals Through Friendships
ECA’s Assistant Secretary Marie Royce is also highlighting how she is quickly expanding the Bureau’s global friendships, using her Twitter account to show in person meetings with officials, alumni, and partners. By utilizing tools to promote not only the advancement of ECA programs, but also focusing on the importance of the leadership that makes such programs possible, ECA establishes itself as a leader in the realm of person-to-person diplomacy with both American and international students. By focusing on creating visual examples of Assistant Secretary Royce and other head officials of the Bureau as they continue to create strong working relationships both domestically and abroad, ECA has continuously proven its ability to maintain and promote creating strong relationships between the State Department and all of our partners around the world. By reaching out to embassies and consulates and asking them to join in the conversation digitally, Assistant Secretary Royce’s Twitter account continues to be one that showcases the importance of creating lasting global friendships. ECA recently created a video showcasing all of these photos in one place for the International Day of Friendship, visually demonstrating the ways that ECA and Assistant Secretary Royce have worked to advance the State Department’s main policy goals.
In an increasingly globalized world, social media is an important tool to support relationships and maintain connectivity. So, if there’s a friend you miss, maybe someone you haven’t seen since your State Department exchange program, reach out to them today using #ExchangeOurWorld and wish them a Happy International Day of Friendship!
About the Authors: Michaela Tobin and Trace Demarest served 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.