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The U.S. Department of State has been building people-to-people ties through international exchange for decades. Historically, much of the focus has been on international exchange, but in recent years, the Department has begun to invest in large numbers of U.S. citizens who have participated in exchange programs – exchange alumni – to reinforce the connection between foreign and domestic policy.  

With over 500,000 U.S. citizen exchange alumni, this network spans across local, community, and national levels and has become a vital source for U.S. investment and strength to reinforce the connection between foreign and domestic policy, or subnational diplomacy. 

Investing in American citizens is a key priority, as outlined in President Biden’s National Security Strategy. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, the relationship between foreign and domestic policy priorities requires us to build and invest in a stronger coalition of state and local actors at home. Harnessing the talents of alumni can advance this effort, while also helping Americans to better understand the role of U.S. foreign policy and how it can better serve their interests. 

Since establishing the Citizen Diplomacy Action Fund (CDAF) in 2019, The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) has empowered over 350 U.S. alumni in 22 states and across 65 countries to address critical challenges at home and abroad. To date, the fund has supported 189 projects that focus around themes like strengthening democratic institutions; protecting the environment; building community through arts, sports, language, and technology; and supporting women’s development and economic empowerment. 

In places like Richmond, Virginia, exchange alumni have been at the forefront of building community through technology. After winning a CDAF grant in 2021, Julia Beabout and Grady Hart collaborated with local stakeholders and institutions to uplift marginalized voices, engage their community, and share undertold histories in an approachable, meaningful way. Their mobile app, Monumental Conversations, tells stories of Black history and resilience through augmented reality. 

"U.S. citizen exchange alumni at an Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminar (TIES) in Santa Fe, NM in 2020.
U.S. citizen exchange alumni at an Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminar (TIES) in Santa Fe, NM in 2020.

CDAF also has global impact, with projects that focus on countering gender violence in Colombia; supporting a robust public-partnership to encourage social entrepreneurship in Romania; and increasing diversity in international exchange both within and outside of the United States.  

ECA is also reinforcing subnational diplomacy through alumni engagement with its Career Connections professional development seminars. Since 2019, nearly 1,300 alumni in eight cities across the United States have connected with expert career coaches, professionals from diverse fields, and international leaders through Career Connections.  The seminars are an opportunity for exchange alumni across the country to connect with each other, develop skills; build on their exchange experience, and elevate their role as community leaders locally, nationally, and globally.  

In recent years, ECA has also brought its Thematic International Exchange Seminars (TIES) to cities across the United States for U.S. exchange alumni. From Santa Fe, NM, to Philadelphia, PA, participants have come together to explore shared interests, learn from experts on key foreign policy issues, and develop innovative solutions to address shared global challenges. 

TIES has shown that local communities can benefit from taking part in diplomacy, as well. In April 2022, 35 exchange alumni came together in Denver, CO, to explore “Environmental Diplomacy and its Impact on American Society.” There, participants delved into how climate change can negatively affect American communities, especially minority communities, and the need to invest in greener infrastructure. 

Throughout the week, participants looked into how Denver addresses climate change on a local level through visits with community stakeholders, elected officials, and educators in expanding cross-sectoral programs and policy industries. These visits were beneficial not just for program participants, but also for these organizations to better understand how their work ties into broader subnational efforts – including furthering their own work outside of the United States.  

The 2023 TIES kicked off today with a week-long seminar in Birmingham, AL for 40 alumni from across the country. They will explore engagement with rural communities in the U.S., discuss the benefits of including rural voices in foreign policy, identify ways to increase visibility of U.S. rural businesses in international markets, and explore pathways to international exchange for rural Americans and first-generation college students. A goal of this seminar is to inspire exchange alumni, who are leaders in their communities, to build opportunities for dialogue on issues that are important in rural communities across America. 

U.S. citizen exchange alumni at a Thematic International Exchange Seminar (TIES) in March 2022. (State Department photo)

Harnessing the strength of U.S. citizen exchange alumni not only has the power to inform our national and global policy priorities, but also to strengthen our public diplomacy initiatives everywhere. By empowering U.S. exchange alumni to draw on the knowledge, skills, and cultural understanding they gained during their international experiences, these programs can have lasting impact – in highlighting the benefits alumni gain from their exchange, strengthening connections among Americans, and opening U.S. and international citizens’ hearts and minds to the possibility of public service. 

To learn more about the work of U.S. citizen exchange alumni, follow us on Twitter @ExchangeAlumni and Facebook @InternationalExchangeAlumni, and check out our website:  

About the Author: Emily Rand serves as a Communications Specialist in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Office of Alumni Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. 

U.S. Department of State

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