When Angela Benedicto, a civil society activist from Tanzania traveled to Kalamazoo, Michigan, for her International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) in 2013, she never imagined she would return years later. If truth be told, she did not know where Kalamazoo was located when she received her itinerary and had low expectations for her visit to a city she never heard of, but she trusted her program team from the State Department and the Institute of International Education.
Her IVLP project aimed to bring together people who shared a passion for youth development, and Angela was eager to learn the American perspective. As a former child domestic worker, she wanted to improve the rights of domestic workers in her country and used her personal experiences as a benchmark when launching her nonprofit organization, WoteSawa Domestic Workers. Through Wotesawa, she is raising community awareness and advocating to end worker exploitation. Angela discussed key issues with staff at various nonprofit organizations and fostered new professional and personal connections during her time in the United States.
When asked about her favorite part of the IVLP, Angela excitedly answered, “it was the people.” Angela traveled to four U.S. cities and interacted with community leaders who shared similar aspirations. Through Global Ties Kalamazoo, a community-based member of the Global Ties U.S. network in Michigan, she visited the home of a local family for what the IVLP calls, “home hospitality.” She chatted with Louise and Jerry Potratz during dinner at the family’s home, cultivating a relationship that lasted far longer than her three-week trip to the United States.
Angela kept in touch with the Potratz family over social media after her project ended, and their relationship has blossomed into a life-long friendship. The connection has facilitated many opportunities to collaborate and benefit both Tanzanian and American girls.
In 2020, Angela returned to Kalamazoo on her own and stayed with the Potratz family. She met with staff at Merze Tate Explorer, which is a part of the Kalamazoo Youth Development Network (KYDNET). Together, students from the two organizations collaborated on a “Taste the World” auction by selling hand made products and donated goods from local businesses to raise funds for scholarships for girls in Tanzania.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, when physical contact was limited, Angela continued to connect the girls from the organizations in Kalamazoo and Mwanza, Tanazania via Zoom to further build their relationships. Angela’s experience on the IVLP in 2013 fostered this new network, and she plans to expand her efforts with another IVLP participant from Uganda.
Since 2013, Angela has gone above and beyond her IVLP project to create a network of leaders that helps develop youth across the world. Jodi Michaels, Executive Director of Global Ties Kalamazoo, believes that her organization helped spark the curiosity that made these connections so effective. Global Ties Kalamazoo is celebrating 50 years of building authentic connections for community residents, and serving as a local hub for global engagement. Michaels believes that her community efforts can build a domestic constituency for U.S. public diplomacy.
Many cities in the United States have limited access to global diversity. Professional exchange programs like the IVLP are crucial to bringing global awareness to Americans through firsthand experiences right in their homes or workplaces. By fostering this initial connection, Americans can build meaningful long-term relationships and expand their knowledge of peoples around the world. The IVLP provides a unique experience for nearly 5,000 International Visitors each year, and has the potential to create thousands of new bonds among communities around the world.
About the Author: Celeste Lan serves as a Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS) intern in the Office of International Visitors of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.