The law establishing cultural exchanges, the Fulbright-Hays Act, sets the following rationale for supporting people-to-people programs: “to enable the Government of the United States to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries…; to strengthen the ties which unite us with other nations by demonstrating achievements of the people of the United States…; to promote international cooperation for educational and cultural advancement; and thus to assist in the development of friendly, sympathetic, and peaceful relations between the United States and the other countries of the world.”
For much of my State Department career, I was involved in promoting and managing programs of citizen diplomacy, mostly in Eastern Europe and the former USSR. That includes such programs as the BridgeUSA exchange programs, high school exchanges, etc. I saw with my own eyes how exchange programs are fulfilling the original vision of Senator J. William Fulbright: they do indeed enhance mutual understanding and contribute to peaceful relations with other nations.
When I was ambassador to the nation of Georgia (2015-2018), I used to say that, after a few minutes of talking with a Georgian, I could tell whether they had been an exchange participant in the United States. Their faces would show they were more open to other perspectives. They would demonstrate exposure to our educational system with their probing questions, and to our traditions of civic engagement with their views regarding the need to hold government accountable. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, they would have an easy familiarity with the English language.
Most Americans get that exchange programs can promote mutual understanding and thus enhance peaceful relations. Less understood are the economic benefits. For example, I would often hear from U.S. investors that their best hires for their companies overseas were former exchange participants. One reason of course was that returned exchangees have excellent English, but just as important is they understand the importance of U.S. practices, such as a customer-based approach to business. And, of course, many of those same alumni of exchange programs would become faithful adherents of U.S. ideas: not just political, but also economic.
As implicit in their very name, exchange programs are a reciprocal endeavor. The students themselves are not the only beneficiaries. Organizations and businesses that host foreign students also gain from the experience.
by Ambassador Ian Kelly
Ambassador Ian Kelly is on Greenheart International’s Board of Directors. He is Ambassador (ret.) in Residence at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Amb. Kelly is a retired senior foreign service officer who last served as the United States Ambassador to Georgia, from 2015 to 2018. He previously served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) from 2010 to 2013. Prior to his ambassadorships, Kelly held a variety of high-level roles at the U.S. State Department, including serving as the Department spokesman under Secretary Hillary Clinton and as Director of the Office of Russian Affairs. Before joining the State Department, he earned a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Columbia University.
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