Each year thousands of international visitors travel to and from the United States on exchange programs funded by public and private sources. For the past 50 years, Graduate School USA's International Institute has administered a diverse array of exchange programs for the U.S. government, foreign governments, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector. With the start of 2012, the International Institute staff had a chance to reflect on the importance of exchange programs, the challenges of implementing them, and creative suggestions for improving them.
Importance of Exchange Programs
Programs that bring international visitors to the United States on professional or cultural exchanges benefit a number of stakeholders. First, the international visitors themselves increase their understanding of America and can help dispel myths or stereotypes. Visitors create professional and personal contacts that may last a lifetime and begin to see themselves as part of the larger global community.
They also are exposed to new ideas or methods of doing things that can be implemented or modified upon their return home. For instance, the National Council for International Visitors recently highlighted the impact Nargis Ziyavatdinova had in her local community in Termez, Uzbekistan, in its December 2011 newsletter. In 2002, Ziyavatdinova participated in the U.S. State Department-funded International Visitor Leadership Program, during which she developed ideas to assist her Uzbek organization's goal of providing educational opportunities for children with disabilities.
Exchange programs also affect U.S. stakeholders who come into contact with the international visitors. American individuals and institutions that host or interact with international visitors are enriched by establishing new contacts, being introduced to a new culture, learning new ideas, and becoming part of the global community. Many U.S. citizens lack the resources to travel overseas, and exchange programs bring international visitors to us.
The Congressionally funded Open World program brings emerging leaders from throughout Eurasia to the United States to expose them to participatory democracy and free enterprise. A unique aspect of the program is that the international visitors stay with host families. The State Department funds a number of long-standing and new exchange programs, including some directed specifically at business, young political leaders, and mentoring.
Suggestions to Improve Exchange Programs
While exchange programs provide many benefits for U.S. citizens and international visitors, they also pose several challenges. We offer creative solutions for improving exchange programs.
International and Inter-institutional Collaboration
Different agencies within the U.S. government design and administer a diverse array of exchange programs. While the U.S. State Department administers a large portion of the exchange programs and lists them on its website, a site that summarizes all the exchange programs administered by the U.S. government does not exist. Therefore, agencies risk duplicating programs that may already exist, and agencies do not have an opportunity to share best practices in the implementation of exchange programs—following through on potential synergies that cross organizational and international boundaries.
In addition, as more foreign governments, educational institutions, nongovernmental organizations and other partners begin to invest in exchange programs, it is important that they have access to information about existing exchange programs administered by the U.S. government. This will allow the opportunity to partner on existing programs, avoid duplicating existing programs, and use best practices and lessons learned to improve the design and implementation of their own exchange programs. While exchange programs have existed for decades, sharing information among U.S. government agencies and international partners will lead to more effective exchange programs.
Bringing international visitors to the United States is expensive and limits the number of visitors able to participate in exchange programs. To expand exchange programs, collaborative public-private partnerships that complement the objectives of each public-private stakeholder should be sought. An example of leveraging public-private resources is the U.S. Agency for International Development's Global Development Alliance Model, which addresses jointly defined business and development objectives.
Broaden U.S. Exchange Opportunities
While bringing foreign visitors to the United States contributes to U.S. citizens being more aware and engaged with the global community, it does not enable them to experience a foreign culture firsthand. Donors should consider additional programs that provide U.S. citizens a chance to travel overseas to meet their professional counterparts or reciprocal visits that encourage collaboration between U.S. citizens and international visitors.
One approach is to provide an opportunity for U.S. and international stakeholders to collaboratively apply for grants that would partially fund activities to further the goals of their original exchange program. The remainder of the funds could be secured through the stakeholders themselves, the private sector, foundations, governments, or other sources.
While there are donors who support exchange programs, their number can be increased if the value of exchange programs is demonstrated and clearly articulated. This point ties into earlier points about data collection, public-private partnerships, the ability to demonstrate the positive impact of the exchange program, and to create new partnerships to support them.
A variety of communication vehicles educate people about exchange programs, such as Exchanges Connect, a State Department international social networking site. However, more needs to be done to link people to exchange programs, specifically, their purpose, impact, and why they are important to the global community.
The in-person contact that takes place during an exchange is its foundation. However, the advent of electronic communication devices and other technologies brings opportunities to revolutionize exchange programs. While donors and project implementers do an excellent job developing programs, they can use more vehicles for direct U.S. citizen and international visitor engagement on the design and development of exchange programs. This bottom-up approach in program development can ensure they are applicable to the people they are supposed to support and influence.
Meeting Global Challenges
Establishing, cultivating, and engaging the global community is essential to meeting current and future global challenges. Food security, climate change, and financial markets are not limited to or confined within one country; rather, they are all global issues. To understand, participate in, and make meaningful contributions to address these challenges, global citizens must have a solid understanding of the world around them. Understanding and appreciating different cultures and viewpoints is crucial to being an active member of the global community.
Exchange programs that bring international visitors to the United States to meet face-to-face with U.S. citizens strengthen the concept of a global community and are a key pillar of global engagement. The continuation, expansion, and diversification of exchange programs are crucial to supporting a global community that can interact and share ideas and information on a daily basis in an effort to make the world a better place to live.