Remarks to Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program Students

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
Loy Henderson Auditorium, HST
Washington, DC
June 22, 2012

Good afternoon and thank you, Mary Deane, for that kind introduction.

It’s great to see you all here today. Let me start by welcoming you to the State Department and congratulating you on your successful participation as the ninth class of students in the Kennedy-Lugar Youth and Exchange Study, or YES, program. I understand that you have had an exciting and meaningful year and I am looking forward to hearing more about your experiences in a few minutes.

I’d also like to thank the organizations, local coordinators, host families and other volunteers here today who have helped make your program possible.

The need for people-to-people exchanges is more compelling than ever today. Even in an age of digital connections, nothing substitutes for living in a different culture, learning to communicate in another’s language, understanding the institutions, traditions, and celebrations that define each of our nations.

That’s why programs like YES are so important. Through this program, more than 6000 international students have connected with their American peers in communities across the United States, deepening their understanding of each other and building friendships and ties that will bind them together for generations.

As members of the ninth class of YES students, you have been especially active -- logging hundreds of hours of community service, winning local contests, performing solos in community holiday concerts, and much, much more. So, as you prepare to return home -- I challenge you to think how you can use what you’ve learned to make your home countries stronger, better places to live.

There are three billion people under the age of 30 in the world. In many of your countries, more than 70% of the population is under 30. And your generation is not sitting on the sidelines. In the last year and half, we’ve seen how young people, like you, have changed the course of nations.

Your generation inspires us in your ability to come up with new ideas and solutions. You are the most connected generation in the history of the world - you cross thousands of miles by using Twitter and Facebook.

Those connections bring enormous opportunity to share ideas and foster innovation across communities, states, and countries. Use those connections and your vision to be a global citizen. Whether you are volunteering at a community level, in a mosque, at school, and whether your job gives you reach at the local level, or country, or the whole world, remember that your creativity and energy have tremendous power.

I see this when I meet with young people whenever I travel. In Nigeria, I met young leaders who were working to ensure free, fair and credible elections for their country. One young woman spoke about her Vote or Quench project -- a youth driven, social media-enabled organization that is giving young people an entry point into political engagement. She called for presidential candidates to hold a first ever debate based on youth questions and used social media to help get out the vote.

Earlier this month I visited Laos and was interviewed by several Lao youth radio journalists. These teams of young reporters produce weekly half-hour radio programs in 12 provinces. Once a month, they travel to rural communities where they educate and train young people, stage infotainment events to promote messages on health and conduct interviews.

YES Alumni, a distinguished group that you are now joining, are doing similarly impressive work. For example, Maria Taqdees, a YES alumna in Pakistan, has helped women in her community gain an education and better their lives. After returning from her year as a YES student in Reno, Nevada, Maria worked with other YES Alumni to establish a Community Learning Centre in her one-bedroom home. In approximately two years, the Centre successfully provided English Language training to young females who are going or have gone to school and some are now teachers in neighborhood schools.

Like these young people, you have the skills and creativity to make a difference in your communities. So as you complete your program here in the United States, I encourage you to embrace your role as change agents. Take inspiration from your peers and use your new ideas and connections from the YES program to continue to build a better future for yourselves and your families, your communities, and your countries.

I have time for a few questions and am eager to hear more about your experiences.