Remarks to the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel

Judith A. McHale
Under Secretary of State 
for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
Alexandria, VA
October 23, 2009

(as prepared for delivery)

Thank you for inviting me to speak.  It’s an honor to be able to congratulate the Council on your 25th anniversary.  At State, I rarely get an opportunity in one setting to express appreciation to so many of our partners, so I certainly welcome this occasion. 

In the four months since I’ve been in this job, several things have made a particularly powerful impression on me. I thought I would start by sharing those with you.  Foremost, of course, is the Obama Administration’s belief in the importance of public diplomacy, including international exchanges.  From Cairo to Accra to the UN, President Obama has renewed America’s commitment to energetic engagement with other nations.

In Cairo, for example, he made an explicit commitment to, “expand exchange programs, and increase scholarships.” That was an early and emphatic message to those within and outside of our government: public diplomacy matters.  Secretary Clinton, likewise, has ensured that public diplomacy is a prominent part of her portfolio during her trips abroad.  And I think the President’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize was a reflection of the fact that the world is responding to our efforts to engage.

The second impression that has struck me is the changing world with which we must engage.

Today, 45% of the world’s population is under the age of 25. That’s an astounding figure, and it means that we need to expand and strengthen our efforts to reach new generations across the globe.

Finally, I have been very impressed with the reach and vibrancy of our international exchange programs, particularly our youth exchange programs.  My meetings with exchange participants have provided some of my most rewarding experiences in this job.  I’ve met with them in the U.S., Pakistan, Germany, Lebanon, Kuwait and Korea. In every case, I was struck by their poignant and inspiring stories.

Just two weeks ago, I met with students participating in our Youth Exchange and Study and Future Leaders Exchange programs.  They have been here only a few months, but were already losing the stereotypes they held about Americans -- and about each other.

One Muslim student from Lebanon, living with a Jewish host family, said that the experience had thoroughly changed his outlook on American society.  And this will have a multiplier effect, because he also noted that his family back in Lebanon is very supportive of his experience.

This, of course, is a microcosm of what needs to happen on a global scale. And it cannot happen without such partners as you.

International exchanges promote America’s foreign policy interests, by providing effective and meaningful ways for people from very different societies and cultures to experience the U.S. firsthand, while simultaneously helping Americans learn more about the world around them.  Youth exchanges, in particular, have a long and successful history of bringing hopeful and curious individuals to the United States, and sending their American counterparts to discover the world abroad.

The State Department shares with you a commitment to increasing mutual understanding between the young people of the U.S. and other countries. Nothing has a greater impact on the lives of young men and women than to directly experience a new country through youth exchange programs. 

Through exchanges, we reach out to foreign and American students and give them opportunities to widen their horizons, learn a new culture and language, and recognize the values we all share in common.  Our academic year-long exchanges give high school age students from all over the world the opportunity to live with an American host family, study at an American high school, and participate in extracurricular and volunteer activities.

For 25 years, you have set the standards for youth exchange, and over those many years you have raised the bar for quality programs. 

You are all on the “front line.”  You are the ones who recruit and provide guidance to families that host exchange students.  You and your local coordinators are in the communities that serve as their host homes.  And you are the ones who reach out to the schools where the students both learn and enrich the education of their classmates and teachers.

This is true public diplomacy.

I know you take your responsibilities very seriously, to make these experiences rich, rewarding, safe and secure for the participants.  As Senator Casey said to you last night, when foreign families put their children in our care it is a sacred trust that we all share.

We all have a responsibility to ensure that our youth exchange programs meet the standards we set, and the expectations of the parents who permit their children to come here.  For this reason, the State Department is taking a close look at the management and oversight of our youth programs, and strengthening and restructuring how we operate these exchanges.

We have already accomplished a lot -- but there is more to do.  During our review, one message came through loud and clear. There continues to be a pressing need to find good families and schools to host these young people.

This year, the Department of State has been pleased to partner with you on a joint campaign of Public Service Announcements, in order to reach out to more families across the U.S.  Since it was launched in May, these PSAs have aired 26,000 times on some 190 stations across 40 states. We’re also using the Internet: a dedicated website has had nearly 6,000 visits to date.

This is just the beginning of a campaign that we hope will introduce new families and schools to these special programs, and encourage them to join the exchange community by hosting a student. 

Of course, the most effective way to promote exchange programs is to provide an educational, rewarding and safe experience for everyone involved—the students, their host families, and the participating schools. Then, they will get the word out to their families, friends and others in their communities.

I would like to share with you how one current Youth Exchange and Study participant from India described his host parents and experience in the U.S. He said, and I quote, “They are as loving, helping and caring as my natural parents. I can’t explain more about them in words. Only in short I say that they are angels. They look after me for each and everything… I have many friends in school and I like the very different style of teaching here in [the] USA.”

That caliber of experience is our goal.  That is the gold standard of public diplomacy: people-to-people exchanges that not only transform opinions, but actually transform lives and transform our world.

Such testimonials are not only a tribute to the students and to the individuals with whom they live and study while in the United States, but also to all of you. They reflect your tireless work on their behalf.

Thanks to all of you this student and many other participants are placed in loving households, exciting learning environments, and welcoming communities.

Please accept my sincere congratulations on your 25th anniversary, and my thanks to each and every one of you and your fellow members for all that you do to demonstrate the hospitality and generosity of the American people.

Thank you.