Good afternoon. Two years ago, the YES Senate reception was one of the first events I attended after being sworn in as Under Secretary of State. Each year, this has been a can’t-miss event that my staff knows to schedule around.
Meeting amazing students and host families is one of my favorite things about my job. The experience you have shared this year exemplifies everything we aim to do in public diplomacy. Your presence is a powerful reminder that our dynamic world requires greater engagement and deeper understanding, and that betting on the best of human nature is never a gamble, it’s a game changer.
I would like to thank Senator Lugar for hosting us today, and for providing such strong bipartisan support for this program over the years. And of course we wouldn’t be here tonight without the contributions of the late Senator Kennedy. He would be so proud of you.
I also would like to thank the State Department’s partner, Ayusa, for helping this program grow so much – from 163 students eight years ago, to over 900 today. To the extraordinary host families -- our citizen diplomats -- thank you for representing the best of our country while opening your homes and hearts to a visiting student.
And most of all, I want to thank the YES students. For your courage to seek out this opportunity and your willingness to try something new. For sharing so much of yourselves with us. For drawing our world closer together. I have heard amazing stories of your time in the United States. I only hope this opportunity has given half as much to you as you have given to our country.
I heard how Muhammad Aman, a young man from Pakistan who once characterized himself as shy, found his niche on a high school debate team in Missouri. He won trophy after trophy and took home the National Forensics League award for best speaker at his school. And he gave over 100 hours of service to his host community, including helping tornado victims in Joplin, Missouri, last month.
I saw the picture of a student from Bangladesh standing in the middle of the Bloomer High School football team in Wisconsin. The team was holding hands, on bended knee, as number seven – Sabbir Hossain – offered up the homecoming pre-game prayer to Allah. Afterwards, his teammates told him: “Good prayer, Sabbir.” And Sabbir wondered why, with all the brotherhood and equality he felt at that moment, there is so much tyranny in the world, why there is so much fighting.
I read a pair of essays written by Ruaa Yahya from Yemen and her American classmate from Oregon, Alexis Busso. Ruaa was the first student to wear the hijab at Bandon High School, but she was not the last. Ruaa helped several girls participate in the “Veil Project,” where non-Muslim students wear a veil for 48 hours. For Ruaa, it was an opportunity to present her religious discipline so that it was “understood in a right way.” For Alexis, it was an opportunity to learn what wearing the hijab feels like. Alexis wrote “this project works so well because it makes you realize what it’s like to be different.” As a result of the Veil Project, the girls had a shared experience that helped them better connect with one another.
Each of you has stories like these. Perhaps you arrived here unsure of what this year would hold. Perhaps you initially felt like an outsider. But then you found ways to connect to the people and experiences around you. You made friends. And you found a second home, a second family here in the United States.
Our world can change from moment to moment, as we are seeing in countries throughout the Middle East and across North Africa. Some of you will find your home countries very different from when you left. But the bonds you have forged this year will provide continuity and connection even when things get confusing or difficult.
Cherish those connections. Remember the experiences you lived this year. Your memories will bind you together across the miles and the years as you continue your education and serve your communities. And tell your stories – to people back in your countries and around the world.
You are all leaders who will help shape the course of the 21st century. Hearing your stories and meeting you today assures me that we are all in very good hands.