LiveAtState: U.S. Exchanges with South and Central Asia

Adam Ereli
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs
Washington, DC
November 23, 2011

MS. JENSEN: Good afternoon. Welcome to LiveAtState, the State Department’s interactive web chat platform for reaching international journalists across the globe. We are delighted to welcome Adam Ereli, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs, with us today. We’ll be discussing educational exchange programs with the South and Central Asia region. I would just like to remind you that we have 30 minutes today, so if you would like, you can start asking your questions in the lower left hand portion of your screen at any time and we’ll get to as many of your questions as we can in the 30 minutes we have.

If at the end of this discussion you’d like to continue what was being said here, you can do so by using our Twitter handle @aerli – that’s a-e-r-e-l-i – and we can continue that discussion after our 30 minutes today. And with that, I would like to turn it over to Adam. Welcome.

AMBASSADOR ERELI: Thank you, Holly. It’s great to be here, great to talk to all of you on a subject of great importance to us at the State Department, but I think great importance to our friends around the world, which is educational exchange and the opportunity to study in the United States. No experience, I think, can be more transformative, more life-changing, more impactful than a U.S. education, whether that be at the undergraduate level, the bachelor’s degree, or the graduate level, the master’s degree.

And that’s why we devote – we, meaning the State Department – devote a lot for resources and a lot of people to trying to help our friends overseas, both in South and Central Asia, but across the globe, have access to an American education. And that’s what I wanted to talk about today: how – what resources there are available to help you and your fellow citizens to learn about the possibilities of a U.S. education and go through the application procedures, choose a university, and be able to take advantage of this really unique and very special opportunity.

I would say that on the good news front, the number of foreigners coming to the United States continues to grow. In 2010 and 2011, the numbers grew by 5.5 percent over previous years to about 725,000 foreigners studying in the United States. The number-one sending country of students to the United States, foreign students to the United States, is China. The number-two country is India, and then Korea and Saudi Arabia round out the top five.

So anyway, I think I’ll leave it there. The purpose of our talking today is just to hear your questions and to help you and your readers understand what are some of the resources that are available to help students who want to come to the United States do so.

MS. JENSEN: Great. What are you doing to attract more students from South Central Asia region?

AMBASSADOR ERELI: A bunch of things. It’s interesting, when President Obama and Prime Minister Singh met and Secretary Clinton traveled to India late July, educational exchange was a item that was very, very high on the agenda, because both countries realize that it’s key to strengthening our bilateral relationship, but also to developing the higher education sectors in both countries, and to develop – to serving the development needs of both countries.

So the United States and India have committed themselves to increasing the number of Indians coming to the United States, but also, importantly, Americans going to India. And that number has risen by 44 percent, which is significant. But more specifically, in India we’ve set up a toll-free hotline which is 1-800 – actually, I got the number right here. I think it’s 1-800-3 – actually, you can get it on our website, which is [][i], but there’s a 1-800 number you can call in India it has English and Hindi and it advises people about how they can access opportunities to the United States, where the educational advising centers are in the country, and where they can go to get more information.

I would say that we’ve got also, throughout South and Central Asia, 34 educational advising centers. What is an educational advising center? It is a place – either at the embassy or at an American center or at a Fulbright Commission – where you’ve got a professional education advisor who knows the U.S. higher education system, and who can help students who are eager to come to the U.S. navigate the very complicated geography that is U.S. higher education.

I mean, it’s not like in your country where you’ve got a ministry of higher education and most of the universities are sort of controlled by the central government. In our country, it’s totally decentralized. Yes, you have public universities but they’re controlled at the state level. You have a lot of private universities. So it’s very complicated to try to understand the system and then navigate it. So that’s what these educational advisors do and I would encourage you to go to them.

The third thing we have, which I would also sort of like to highlight, is we have a website, [] – all one word. And EducationUSA, obviously, is the network of educational advising centers; [] – G-O-V – is the website. And you can go to that website, you can find out information about educational advising resources in your local area, and equally importantly, you can sign up for weekly updates, so that we will push out to you via email, via SMS, via Facebook or other social media, weekly updates about scholarship opportunities or other study opportunities. So that rather than you coming to us, we’ll come to you. So in all these ways we’re being very aggressive about trying to help make coming to the United States for a higher education easier, more accessible, more understandable.

The final thing we have, I should mention, is we have what are called Opportunity Grants. Opportunity Grants are for qualified students who may not have the means, the money to pay for a lot of the application fees. It has nothing to do with scholarships, the cost of the education, but just to apply to U.S. universities you have to pay a fee, that you have to take tests like the TOEFL test, and other things that cost money. For those students who are really, really good and really, really promising, we will provide – we will pay for the costs of those tests, just to give them the opportunity to take them and to qualify for a U.S. education.

So at the political level, at the technological level with the telephone number and the website, at the personal level with – through educational advising centers, and at the financial level, we’re trying to do everything we can throughout the region to make it easier for you to come to the United States.

MS. JENSEN: Our first question comes from Krishnaroop Chakrabarty: “With regards to India, what are your specific plans?”

AMBASSADOR ERELI: Our specific plans are to grow the numbers of Indians coming to the United States and to grow the numbers of Americans coming to India. It’s interesting; we’ve got a special program called Passport to India, which is a collaboration between the State Department and the higher education community in the United States to encourage students – more Americans – to go study in India, because you’ve got a lot of Indians coming to the United States, but a much smaller percentage of Americans going to India. And if we want to strengthen ties between our two countries – and I don’t mean just politically, but I mean economically, socially, culturally, then it’s got to be a two-way street. So what we’re working on is making that – making it more two-way, less one-way.

The other thing I would mention, obviously, is the toll-free number in India, which I think gets about 30 calls a day. Not that many in a country of a billion people, and so I think we’re looking to expand that – expand traffic to that number, because it really is very useful. We’ve greatly increased the number of educational advising centers throughout the country, and that, I think, is an indicator of just how big the challenge is. I mean, you’ve got such a large country, the United States is such a popular destination for higher education for Indians, which we’re very pleased with.

I should say we’re not looking to compete with the Indian higher education system. India has a very, very good and successful high – college and graduate education program. But it’s really to supplement that and to give those who are looking for something they can’t get in India to come to the United States. But most importantly for us, to return to India and to contribute to the country. That’s really, I would say, critical to the exchange experience.

What we’re not looking for is people to come to the United States and stay in the United States. The whole value of educational exchange is that you learn from the experience of being here and that you take that experience and enrich your own country and enrich your own community. So that, for us, is the final destination – to take what’s best that we have to offer and share it with your countrymen.

MS. JENSEN: If you would like to get the latest information from the State Department in-language, you can follow us @USAUrdu on Twitter.

Our next question comes from Farooq Shah from Sama TV Pakistan: “How much is the U.S. spending currently on education programs in Pakistan? And are you satisfied with the results?”

AMBASSADOR ERELI: Oh, wow. We are spending a lot of money. I’d say it’s well over $20 million a year on all kinds of different exchanges. I mean, this has to do with the Fulbright program, it has to do with undergraduate programs which bring Pakistanis – hundreds of Pakistanis a year – to the United States for short-term, like a couple of weeks, sessions at U.S. universities, for professional development programs, for journalists, and in fact, there are a number of them here in the United States right now, as well as other educational exchanges for high school students – the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange Study program, the YES program. We also have the Access English Teaching program in Pakistan.

So I would say that Pakistan is one of the largest recipients of U.S. assistance for educational exchange. Are we satisfied with the results? Yes and no. We see the impact of our programs in Pakistan every day, because people who come back from our programs go on to make really, really valuable contributions to their societies. There was one lady who came on a – one woman who came on an – on a citizen activism training program, and she went back to Pakistan and created a non-governmental organization to help female victims of violence. And that organization is now recognized by the UN and has expanded to many, many cities in Pakistan and is helping hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of women, which is really so inspiring.

We see young students, college students who go back and set up alumni networks and volunteer networks to help the community. So the evidence is really dramatic every day about the impact of the programs, and we find that very satisfying. Obviously, the need is much greater, so I think where there’s more work to do, frankly, is to reach out to those parts of Pakistan that we haven’t been able to reach, to increase the diversity of people participating in our programs. And we don’t want just the urban, English-speaking elites, but we want people from all backgrounds from across the country who are looking for an opportunity to better themselves and better their country. And that’s a challenge that we continue to work on.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Saadia Mahmood: “Is there any plan to sponsor students at local universities in Pakistan through this bureau and not through USAID?”

AMBASSADOR ERELI: Let me think. I don’t believe so. Our focus really is on either bringing students to the United States. What we do do is we try to assist Pakistani universities – or not Pakistani – any universities to develop their curriculum, to develop some of their teaching methods, to help expand their offerings and make their institutions better places. And that involves, for example, bringing Fulbright specialists to universities to teach courses, to mentor and associate and share experiences with their local colleagues.

So I guess I would say our method of contributing to higher education overseas is not to pay for students to go to their own universities, because frankly, that’s not the role of the U.S. Government, but rather it’s to help enable those universities to provide better services and share experiences with U.S. experts so that the education experience in the country is richer and more cosmopolitan.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Mohammad Shahid Kahn: “@aereli, it’s great to be at this new option for interaction. I am from Pakistan and felt due to U.S. policies, many students are not as comfortable as they used to be, as what happened after 9/11 to many Pakistani students, those who are studying. So what are your plans to create a positive image?”

AMBASSADOR ERELI: It’s interesting. The number of students applying and coming to the United States and getting visas to come to the United States is way, way higher than it was before 9/11. So the myth that somehow after 9/11, the United States – from around the world, but particularly from Islamic countries – so the myth that somehow, the – after 9/11, the United States kind of closed down is just – is flat wrong. The numbers are way, way up. And there are a couple of reasons for this and they get to your question, sir.

Number one, we have expedited, streamlined, made much more user-friendly the whole visa application experience. And our – I’m in one bureau of the State Department, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which provides the scholarships or provides the advising centers, and serves as the link between foreign students and the U.S. higher education system.

There’s another part of the State Department which is an equally important part in this process, which is the Bureau of Consular Affairs, and they’re the ones that work in the consulate – consular sections of the U.S. embassies, and they’re the ones you go to to get the visa. So no matter how good we do our job in terms of promoting U.S. education and making it easier to get – to qualify for U.S. education, if they’re not doing – if the consular officers are not doing their job, it’s not going to do anybody much good.

And the good news about that is that our Consular Affairs Bureau and our consular officials overseas understand the importance of foreign students coming to the United States for our bilateral relationship, for our higher education community, and for the students themselves. And they understand that most – that almost all the students that apply for a visa are going there for the right reason. So as a result, the approval rate for students requesting F-1s or J-1s is really, I think, close to over 90 percent. That’s number one.

Number two, our Consular Affairs folks do a lot of outreach. They go to community centers in the countries. They go to schools in the countries. They try to explain the process of applying for a visa – what you need to know, what materials you need to have, what they’re looking for. They do that on their website, so – and every embassy has a consular office website that seeks to, again, explain the process, to be transparent so that everybody knows what’s expected. And finally, they – in many countries, they have special hours for students so that you can come in quickly, their attention is devoted to you, they’re not distracted by the other people trying for other kinds of visas. And that allows them to, I think, give the student applicant more personalized, direct attention and to facilitate the process.

So we recognize the perception that it’s – that getting to the United States is hard. We think the reality is very different, and we have taken a number of steps to help change people’s perception. I would just ask you to – if you’re really interested in this, to go to the Embassy, to look at our consular section, to interview our Public Affairs officers, and to see for yourselves on the ground the steps we’ve taken to make it easier.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Nadeem Saeed joining us from our London hub. He’s the editor for TopStory Online, an Urdu website focusing on Pakistan: “Despite all efforts, why the U.S. cannot so far bridge the trust gap between Pakistani people and Americans?”

AMBASSADOR ERELI: I think – I don’t know if I’d accept the premise of the question. I mean, there is a level of trust and friendship and closeness between the United States and Pakistan. Otherwise, we wouldn’t continue to try as hard as we do. We recognize Pakistan’s importance. We recognize Pakistan’s needs. We recognize Pakistan’s vulnerabilities. None of that would be true if there weren’t trust and affection and respect for Pakistan.

I think what the – what your – the questioner is referring to, frankly, is ongoing disputes, ongoing disagreements. That’s a factor in any relationship. Pakistan is not unique in that sense. The United States could be friends with a country, we could have trust in it, but we can also have issues on which we disagree. And to me, the measure of trust and the measure of the closeness of the relationship is that you are able to talk about those differences, you’re able to work through them without the basic fundamentals of the relationship being called into question.

So I would actually turn the question around and say even though we have our differences, the bonds remain strong, the recognition that we need each other remains strong, and that is an indicator of the fundamental trust that exists between us. Now if you talk about different specific issues, yeah, there are differences, yeah, there are questions about what do you really think and what do you really want. I think the way to deal with that is through dialogue and through the kind of exchanges that we do with journalists, with professionals, with students, with young people, so that they can understand us better and we can understand you better.

MS. JENSEN: The next question comes from Krishnaroop Chakrabarty:: “Indians are often subject to various forms of racial discrimination. What are you doing to provide security to them?”

AMBASSADOR ERELI: Oh. Well, gee, I mean, that’s news to me. I certainly would regret it. I wouldn’t – number one, I guess I’d say racial discrimination is a reality in – everywhere in the world. It’s an ugly reality. Wouldn’t it be great if we could wipe it out everywhere? Unfortunately, wherever you go in the world, there are going to be ignorant people who judge people on the basis of their race or their religion or their origin – country of origin, and that’s wrong and that’s unfortunate, but I guess it’s a reality of the world we live in.

It’s – it happens in the United States, it happens everywhere. I think – so I wouldn’t say there’s any sort of particular – there’s any particular antagonism towards India. It’s just some people, when they see somebody different, have a negative reaction, and that’s unfortunate. What are we doing to counter it? Again, I think that the best way to fight ignorance is with knowledge and tolerance. And again, that’s why it’s so important for, we think, foreign students to come to the United States. It makes our country richer. It makes our country understand the world more. I’ve talked to lots of students – foreign students – who have come to the United States and said, “When I first got to college and – ” whether they were from an Islamic country or an Arab country or an Asian country or an African country – “I first got to college and people in -- ” or university – “and people had never seen anybody from my country before. They didn’t even know where my country was,” and/or “They had never met a Muslim before and they thought all Muslims were terrorists.”

But then after a while, they come to realize, by dealing with – by interacting with you, by socializing with you, they come to realize that we actually probably have more in common than we have different, and they become fast friends. So that’s really what the exchange experience is all about. And you can fight ignorance by either running away from it or denying it. You have to fight ignorance, you have to fight prejudice with openness, with tolerance, and with knowledge. And really, that’s what the value of the exchange program is. So if I were an Indian student, if you were – if I were an Indian student and – or I’m talking to an Indian student and they had suffered prejudice in some form at an American university, I would say you’re not alone, but you can change that.

Finally, I’d say I don’t think it happens that often. Individual – there might be individual cases, but I think most people will find the United States a very open, a very welcoming, and a very tolerant place. I mean, we are a melting pot. We have people from every – as citizens, we have people from every walk of life, every corner of the globe, every religion, every language. And you go to any city of the United States and there will be parts of that city where English is not the first language.

So we are used to living with people who are different, and that’s really what makes America, I think, such a special place, and I would welcome you to be a part of that.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Sitora from Tajikistan: “Have you any opportunities for training courses for Tajik journalists?”

AMBASSADOR ERELI: Oh, yeah, sure, you bet, lots. (Laughter.) I would encourage you to go to the Public Affairs section of the Embassy, our Public Affairs officer. We have short-term training programs, like three weeks into – called the International Visitor Leadership Program. We have longer programs for – with internships called the Murrow Journalist Fellowship Program, M-u-r-r-o-w. We have, for midcareer journalists who are rising stars, we have the Humphrey Fellowship Program, which allows you to come here for a year and study journalism.

So there are a number of possibilities. I would encourage you to go to the Embassy and discuss them with our cultural and educational exchange specialists.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Saadia Mahmood: “U.S. has the largest Fulbright program in Pakistan. Do you have any plans to support primary education that is the base of education?”

AMBASSADOR ERELI: No. (Laughter.) In a word, that really is the domain of USAID. Our focus is on higher education. I agree with you that primary education is the base of education and it is fundamental and it needs – we need to support it. But we do that through our development agency, USAID, and we use the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in the State Department to focus on higher education. I would say that we do work with teachers in Pakistan, but don’t provide direct support for primary education.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Asif Jamal: “Mr. Ambassador, I am Asif Jamal of ARY Digital Network, one of the largest Pakistani television networks. My question is not every student is able to go the embassy and get to see an officer. Please elaborate what best procedures have you adopted to reach out to students at grassroot levels so it doesn’t remain only in access to those influential parents.”

AMBASSADOR ERELI: Yeah. Good question. Well, we – first of all, we go out to the universities. So it’s not like the only way a student can meet with somebody is to come to the embassy. We go out to them. The second way is through the web-based access that I talked about earlier, []. You can get information that way. The third way is every embassy has – most embassies have a Facebook – particularly the public affairs sections – have a Facebook site, so you can go to the Facebook site, ask questions, make an appointment, but you don’t even have to be in – you don’t have to be in Islamabad to go see somebody. We have people in Lahore, we have people in Karachi, we have people all over the country. And you don’t have to go to the embassy; you can sometimes go to the Fulbright Commission. They have people too.

So as I said at the beginning, and you raised the point which I would agree with a hundred percent, is the opportunity to study in the United States should not be reserved to a privileged few – to those who have money or those who have status or position or English language ability. It should be available to any aspiring Pakistani who seeks to improve himself or herself, or seeks to have an opportunity abroad. And that’s why we reach out beyond the embassy walls through the web, through the different centers, to reach these people.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Adil Shazeb from VOA South Asia: “Do the U.S. education program have – has different approach compared to its general policy towards students from areas, which are assumed pockets of extremists in Pakistan like FATA, Sawat, et cetera?”

AMBASSADOR ERELI: No, no. We welcome everybody. We don’t have – if you’re a student applying from London or you’re a student applying from Peshawar, we’re going to look at you the same way. Obviously, we do background checks, or we want to know some of your – it’s part of the consular process. But if you’re a student who wants to improve himself and wants to – again, to contribute to your country and are looking for the opportunity and qualifying, have been accepted by the university, and satisfied the consular officer, which most people do, then you’re going to have the opportunity.

It is a long process, it’s a complicated process, which is why we have the educational advisors. But we don’t have a two-tier system; in other words, one system, one process for people from one area, and another system and another process for people from another area. It’s the same process, the same system. Everybody’s treated equally.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Ghulam Hussain Awan from AAJ News, TV Pakistan: “What are the ultimate goals of the U.S. education programs in Pakistan, and how close you think you are to meeting your goals?”

AMBASSADOR ERELI: The goals of the education programs in Pakistan are several. First of all, it’s to strengthen ties between the United States and Pakistan, recognizing that the students at the undergraduate and graduate level are the future of the country. And by giving them the opportunity to study in the United States, giving them the opportunity to visit the United States, we are able to have them understand us a little bit better, and have us understand them a little bit better.

That is going to contribute to not only better relations, but fewer misunderstandings. Obviously, we pick people because we expect them to return to their country and to be people of influence. I don’t mean agents of the United States, but I mean people who use their experience to educate others. Not necessarily that the United States is good, not necessarily that the United States is right, but to share their experience and enrich the lives and the understanding and the thinking of their compatriots.

So number one, it’s to improve, I think, bilateral relations. Number two, it’s to address issues in Pakistan. There are a number of challenges which Pakistan faces which are – which we share, whether they be citizen activism, whether they be legislative development, whether they be judicial training and the rule of law, whether they be countering violent extremism. So there are a number of these issues that we both have a common interest in addressing. These educational programs serve that purpose, particularly the professional exchanges, particularly in the journalist area, but also in the graduate level research that’s being done by Pakistani students.

So I think both in terms of the broader bilateral relationship, but also in terms of specific issues that are a challenge to both our countries, these educational exchanges serve to advance our common goals. Are we succeeding? Like I said, there are success stories every day. But there remains a huge amount to do; you know the challenges as well as I do. Pakistan faces a number of threats, a number of challenges. We as Pakistan’s friend wants to help them deal with those, and I think educational and cultural exchange is a key component – not the only one – but a key component in that effort.

MS. JENSEN: We have time for one more question. It comes from Mohammad Shahid Khan from the South Asia Tribune in the UK, UAE: “I am based in the UK before that I was in the UAE. Many South Asians do want to study. So how – so do you have specific programs for South Asians based in the UK or UAE?”

AMBASSADOR ERELI: I don’t believe so. I think that if you’re a South Asian citizen in the UK and the UAE – well, let me put it this way: If you’re looking to study in the United States and you go to our educational advising centers, they will help you apply. So it doesn’t matter whether you’re South Asian or Abu Dhabian or British; you walk into the center, you say, “I want help, I need advice, I need information, blah blah blah,” they’ll do it for you. And then it’s up to you to apply, it’s up to you get in, we’ll help you do it, but it depends on your grades and your CV and your application and all that sort of stuff.

Do we have special funded programs for South Asians in these countries? Our focus in Britain is on the British. Our focus on Abu Dhabi is on the Abu Dhabians. So as a South Asian, I guess I’d say you’re kind of out of luck if you’re looking for a U.S. Government funded program. But if you’re looking to study in the United States and get perhaps a scholarship from the university or apply to the university or qualify at the university, our educational advising centers in both those countries are available to you, and we would welcome you.

MS. JENSEN: That’s all the time we have for today. Would you like to add any parting thoughts?

AMBASSADOR ERELI: Only that, as I’ve said, I think, throughout this broadcast, the United States is a richer place because we have people from foreign countries coming here and studying. It helps us understand the world better, it makes our universities stronger because it provides different perspectives that the students wouldn’t otherwise have, and it helps strengthen our relations with countries around the world.

So this really is an important issue for Americans and for the United States Government, and I would encourage – I know it might be easier to get – to go to Britain or to go to France because the application process is more simple and more streamlined – but I would tell you this: I don’t think there’s any better experience, any better education than the United States, because we don’t tell you what to think. We help teach you how to think, and how to look at things critically, and how to come up with your own decisions, and your own conclusions based on analyzing and assessing and gathering as much information as possible. That is a critical skill in the 21st century for success, whether it’s in business or politics or whatever your field of endeavor.

So please think of us. We want to help, we want you here, and thanks for listening.

MS. JENSEN: Well, I’d like to thank you all for joining us today and all of your great questions, and I’d also like to thank our Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Adam Ereli for joining us in the studio today.

Just a quick reminder, there will be a full audio and video link for your download for today’s program. It’ll be available shortly after the conclusion of today’s web chat. If you’d like to get the latest information on the State Department, you can follow us on our official State Department Twitter site using the Twitter handle, @statedept. If you would also like that information in language, you can follow us on Twitter using the handle @USAUrdu.

Thank you and have a great day. 

[i] Should read: “” throughout the transcript. The toll free numbered referenced above is 1-800-103-1231, available in English and Hindi, Monday through Friday.