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Diplomacy in Action

The Impact of International Student Exchanges: Changing Minds, Changing Lives

Tara Sonenshine
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Remarks at Drake University (As Prepared for Delivery)
Des Moines, IA
September 10, 2012


Thank you. I am delighted to join you here at the Principal Financial Group Center for Global Citizenship.

Thank you, President David Maxwell, for hosting me and for being such a wonderful friend, colleague, and former professor at Tufts.

As you’ve just heard, I am the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. In that role, I work to promote our policy objectives by increasing understanding between the United States and other nations. That includes giving people around the world incentives and opportunities to build better futures for themselves.

Now, what is public diplomacy, exactly? Well, it’s many things. But I would like to underscore this: It’s about joining the global conversation and making sure America is relevant, connected, and active.

A big part of that is our academic exchange programs, such as the Fulbright Program, which operates in more than 155 countries worldwide.

To date, the Fulbright Program has provided approximately 310, 000 participants the opportunity to study, teach and conduct research, and exchange ideas in each others’ countries.

And I understand that Drake University has three former Fulbright Scholars: Dr. Chip Miller, Dr. Darcie Vandegrift and Dr. Karl Schaefer.

There are many other exchanges we do. Through our own Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, we run 120 programs that bring international participants to the United States and that send Americans around the world. Those programs include professional, private sector, academic, cultural, youth, and sports exchanges.

But I’ll focus for the most part on the educational part of the picture.

I mention this to answer some timely questions: When Americans are struggling to find jobs and support their families, why are we spending money on educational and cultural exchange programs abroad? Can we afford to be so nice any more?

That’s what I want to talk to you about today.

On one level, yes, we sponsor educational exchanges to benefit our fellow global citizens. That’s part of what makes us Americans. The world knows us for that. But we also do it to be strategic.

Let me explain why.

We also live in a century which trades increasingly in strategic partnerships. Social media is connecting us faster and closer. Our global economy is increasingly interdependent – with transactions whizzing around the world at hyperspeed. In this highly connected, globalized world, geographic borders are no longer relevant.

The truth is, we cannot afford not to be connected.

There is another factor. Approximately 60 percent of the world’s population is under 30. It is important that we build strong, positive relationships with these young, diverse populations. Why? Because they are the future leaders and citizens of the global community.

Again, we can’t afford not to be connected. We must continue to find ways to create, sustain, and strengthen our connections.

Our exchanges are one of the best ways we can do that. Study abroad for American students puts our own young people into direct and meaningful contact with those populations. It allows them to form lifelong ties and form enduring networks. That vibrant flow of exchange students creates a bridge – between our country and other nations.

That is the essence of people to people diplomacy.

Why is that beneficial – to you?

Because it enhances your ability to build global skills – an essential tool for the interconnected 21st century. It helps you become more competitive – an important attribute for your own futures.

And it helps our country: The more competitive you are, the more competitive America is.

International students coming to the U.S. help us too. Regardless of the country of origin, students are fascinating and fascinated with learning about one another’s lives and cultures. So, for those American students who cannot go abroad, having international students on our campuses enriches our classrooms, campuses, and our communities with new perspectives.

There are other reasons to build relationships through our exchanges. When we have formative experiences with our counterparts abroad, we are more likely to pursue investment projects in each other’s countries – creating mutual prosperity.

More likely to create sports partnerships that foster greater cultural understanding.

More likely to collaborate on scientific projects that cure illnesses or solve social problems… or work for peace, tolerance, and democratic freedoms.

Exchanges have national security implications too – in a holistic, preventive way.

When we help international students learn the skills to achieve prosperity and security, and build their own personal connections with Americans, that influences them deeply, as political leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists, artists, and athletes.

Thanks in part to American programs or exchanges, they go on to lead positive, productive lives. They can support their families. They can build their own communities and economies. As stakeholders in their freedoms and security, they are more likely to become our global partners. That makes our citizens safer.

These – and other – reasons are why we can say, without reservation, educational exchanges more than earn their investment. They’re not just the right thing to do. They’re the smart thing to do.

The proof of those programs can be seen in the former exchange students who are now leaders in their field.

More than 350 alumni have become heads of state, including Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Abdullah Gul of Turkey, Julia Gillard of Australia, and Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. Others have gone on to win Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes, start businesses, and more.

We saw the impact of educational exchanges in Japan last year. Tonight, I’ll be talking before the U.S.-Japan Conference about the earthquake last year – and the powerful response that came from Americans and people around the world. Global citizens from all walks of life – scientists, engineers, and students alike – came forward to help the people of Japan.

A great many of them had personal links to Japan because of educational exchanges. Our Fulbright program in Japan, for example, has brought American and Japanese students into close contact with our cultures for 60 years.

Now here is some news about the U.S.-Japan relationship that is both encouraging and also a bit concerning.

New polls show that an overwhelming majority of Japanese – 86 percent – favor the security alliance with the United States—close to a record high. And a record high number—nine out of 10—Japanese have a favorable opinion of the U.S.

That makes me proud. But what concerns me are that, over the past decade, we have seen a decline in the numbers of Japanese students coming to the U.S.

According to the Institute for International Education, in the year 2010-2011, 21,290 Japanese students studied in the U.S., compared with 47,073 a decade ago. They have declined by half in 12 years. Yet the studies show that there remains very high interest in Japan in studying abroad and coming to the U.S.

So what holds people back? Sometimes it is the cost of study abroad. Sometimes it is a lack of sufficient English language skills. Or sometimes it is just lack of awareness of all the programs that exist.

So that is work that I hope to do—to ensure that language training is robust around the world, and the accessibility and availability of international education remain high.

That’s why, in the wake of the Arab Spring, we are working hard to create educational opportunities for young people. The response has been powerful.

Last fall in Libya, when Secretary Clinton announced the reinstatement of Libya’s Fulbright Program, 1,700 Libyans applied within the space of a month. That was ten times the amount of applications as before!

In Tunisia, we reinstated the Tunisian Fulbright Program. And we established university partnerships to help Tunisian schools connect with their American counterparts. We’ve also doubled the number of Tunisians participating in the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study or YES program. And, in 2013, we’ll send American high school students to Tunisia for the first time.

Now, you might be thinking: this is all very well. But how does Iowa fit into the big picture of international exchanges?

The answer is: Iowa is deeply connected.

Chet Culver, who got his MA in teaching here at Drake, and who was Governor of Iowa from 2007-2011, participated in one of our programs: The American Council of Young Political Leaders delegation to Australia in 1999.

There are Fulbright foreign students and other exchange students all over Iowa – from Muscatine to Cedar Rapids to Ames to Iowa City. They are in state colleges and community colleges. In the academic year 2010 – 2011, international students contributed more than $280 million into the Iowa economy.

In that same time period, 187 Iowans participated in our academic, professional, and cultural exchange programs in foreign countries. And more than 350 citizens of foreign countries came to Iowa to do the same.

Educational exchanges are not only about students. About 755 people from Iowa opened their doors to those foreign students, scholars, and visitors.

My point is this: Iowa is as much a part of the educational exchange universe as Cairo or Tripoli.

We are all connected. Educational – and other – exchanges bring benefits in all directions. Not just for the students but the communities and economies around them.

Education exchanges matter – not only to young emerging leaders around the world but to our own country.

That’s why I encourage you not only to participate in educational programs abroad, but to find out more about what’s happening around the world. To become involved as global citizens – the way they did in Japan.

Not only will you expand your own cultural horizons, you’ll increase your chances of employment in the global market. And you will become part of our nation’s ongoing narrative: to pursue our own paths of happiness and prosperity – and to send a message around the world for others to do the same.

Thank you.

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