Remarks for Latin American Association of Binational Centers

Tara Sonenshine
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
As Prepared for Delivery
Biennial Conference
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
November 12, 2012

Thank you for that introduction.

I am so pleased to speak to all of you today in Santo Domingo. This city has a special place in my heart. I came here just a few years ago, to a little town named Altos de Chavon, where I witnessed two good friends exchange wedding vows. He is now the executive director of the United Nations Children's Fund. She is the executive vice-president and chief operating officer of the Inter-American Development Bank. Now that was a real Western Hemisphere wedding.

I’ll never forget it – the spring night, that starry Santo Domingo sky. And I will always remember how much the people just love to hug you. Everybody hugs. They hug at home on the street, in grocery stores – everywhere.

So here I am back in the Land of Open Arms again. And hugging is part of my job description. As Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, I work to encourage long-term embraces between people everywhere, whether it’s through educational, or cultural, or professional exchanges.

So I am delighted to have the chance to thank all of you – the academic directors, librarians, and leaders of more than 120 Binational Centers across this region – for the work you do. It is so critical to the growth and future of our hemisphere. And today, I want to talk about the work we do together: how it reinforces and complements our own priorities and programs; and how it helps young people prepare for better futures. I also want to talk about what we are planning to do in the coming year to continue our support and commitment.

I got a real taste of the work you do this morning, when I visited “El Domínico-Americano.” That’s the Instituto Cultural Domínico here in Santo Domingo. I met with high school students who speak very good English. Their conversations are spirited. Their hopes are high. They want to attend college in the United States. They want bright futures. And it was so moving and inspiring to visit an institution that has the facilities and the commitment to help them.

In “El Domínico,” you’ll find a library with current information about the United States. You can take English classes. You’ll see student advisors helping students who want to study in the United States. You’ll be able to attend cultural events that bring broader understanding of my culture. You’ll see alumni who took classes there, now coming back to reconnect and forge new connections. You’ll see elementary and secondary-level students attending a full-day bilingual school.

What happens at “El Domínico” is not unusual; it’s typical. All over the region, from Monterrey, Mexico, to Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina, and from Chicalayo, Peru, to Recife, Brazil, you are nurturing dreams. You are shaping young people’s opinions – not with propaganda, but with accurate and nuanced information about the United States.

Most important, you teach them English – which is one of the greatest tools for success they can have in the global marketplace. It gives them access to the education and the opportunities they need.

President Obama said that education is the most important currency of the 21st century. And he showed his commitment to advancing education in this region with his 100,000 Strong in the Americas goal. That goal is to increase the number of students from the United States going to Latin America and the Caribbean, and from our region to the United States, to 100,000 each year in both directions.

We are working with universities, the private sector, and governments throughout the region to support that goal. But BNCs – Binational Centers – are also key partners.

Why? Because you can’t just send students to an American campus and expect them to flourish. I'm pleased that many of your BNCs host EducationUSA advising centers to provide international students with keys to their future. This help students learn what to expect – and how to succeed -- when they reach a campus in the United States.

We see evidence of your partnership all over the region. In Brazil, for instance. President Rousseff launched its Scientific Mobility Program –previously known as “Science without Borders.” The goal is to send 101,000 Brazilian students abroad to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – the STEM fields.

The U.S. Government has been working to connect the U.S. and Brazilian higher education communities. We are encouraging U.S. universities, colleges, and community colleges to create opportunities that are geared to the different needs of the students – long term and short term. And to get more students ready for the big step of international study, the BNCs in Brazil have been increasing their English courses.

By putting U.S. study into the reach of more, and more diverse, students, BNCs are helping us in so many programs –like our Youth Ambassadors and Jóvenes en Acción, which give promising young leaders experiences in the United States and enrich their knowledge of our culture and values.

They come back with the training and support and connections to implement community service projects at home. And we count on BNCs to support us in our English Access microscholarship programs, which provide opportunities for underprivileged students.

In a region where only 18 percent of the people have regular Internet access, adapting to the challenges of the 21st century is essential.

We are addressing that digital divide together. For example, in Recife, Brazil, we funded an e-book lending program at the BNC to use tablets and e-readers as educational tools.

In the past year, the Department of State has reinvigorated support for American Spaces around the world. The BNC model for American Spaces is unique to Latin America, and definitely it is a model that has a decades-long record of success. As part of that deepening support for American Spaces, we want to make the most of our resources from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Bureau of International Information Programs.

You have access to E-Library USA, which contains more than 30 commercial databases with everything from the Harvard Business Review to interactive e-books for children. And thanks to a licensing agreement with the Motion Picture Licensing Corporation, you can select from a vast array of American feature films that highlight American culture and values.

Tomorrow, Maureen Cormack, the Principal Deputy Coordinator for the Bureau of International Information Programs, will be speaking with about the full scope – existing and new – of print, video, Internet, and even mobile and social media platforms that our embassies, consulates, and American Spaces use to engage audiences about the culture and politics of the United States. And she will talk about a new partnership with DirecTV that will provide BNCs with a new platform to help you with your mission.

When I think about our Spaces, and when I talk about our Spaces, I like to say I “CARE” about these Spaces. I use the word “care” because each letter C – A – R – E stands for the priorities of our relationship. C stands for content, A stands for access, R stands for resources, and E stands for evaluation.

First, content. We are committed to assisting you with up-to-date content for people seeking information about the United States, and opportunities to study in the United States, and for students of English. You can find samples of our newest publications and materials in the lobby, including the new learner English eJournal on Entrepreneurship.

We are always working to innovate – and to offer our partners new, exciting ways to teach English. I’d like to tell you about one of our newest tools. It’s a video game called “Trace Effects.” It’s for students between the ages of 12 and 16.

Trace is the name of the main character in this video game. He’s a teenage time traveler from the future. And he has to use American English—and his intelligence —to find his way home. Students get to play the role of Trace. They have to solve puzzles and resolve challenges as they travel through places like Washington DC, New York City, and the Grand Canyon.

But you’ll see this is much more than a video game. It teaches English. It shows aspects of American culture. It helps students understand the importance of community activism, entrepreneurship, environmental conservation, gender equality, and conflict resolution.

Tomorrow afternoon, you’ll be able to see how it works. Rick Rosenberg from the Department of State will be presenting “Trace Effects” in the Academic Directors’ session.

You can get “Trace Effects” in two ways – on DVD and online. BNCs will be receiving DVDs from our embassies in the next few weeks. And next month, you’ll be able to access “Trace Effects” on line at our redesigned American English Portal. We hope this site will become your one-stop shop for English language teaching materials and online resources.

The A in CARE stands for access. And that’s what we are providing for you.

Last year, we provided nearly three million dollars to make material improvements to BNCs. We asked you to work with embassies in the region to tell us what you needed.

Many of you took advantage of that offer. For example, BNC Belem got an $18,000 grant to renovate its facilities, including an elevator for people with disabilities. A BNC in Chile used a $40,000 grant to build a multimedia language laboratory. And in Monterrey, a BNC used $50,000 to transform its library into a vibrant community center.

Now, in fiscal year 2013, we are moving to a second phase of funding – and that’s enhancing internet connectivity in all of our American Spaces. That includes BNCs. And I am pleased to announce that we are setting aside $500,000 to provide wifi and to upgrade internet connectivity to all BNCs, so they can provide even more innovative opportunities for young people.

We are committed to you, as I said. And I still have two more letters in CARE to talk about!

The R in CARE is for resources. That includes training and funding. Our Regional English Language Officers – known as RELOs – and also English Language Fellows and Specialists will continue to provide training and assistance to develop course materials and other content. And our Regional Educational Advising Coordinators will provide training and expert advice to EducationUSA advisers at BNCs throughout the region.

Now here’s something new, a program that I am very excited about – and this is part of our second tranche of American Spaces funding. It’s called “English Cubed.”

This is a highly successful program that originated in Brazil. Over the course of 15 weeks, students who want to study in the United States get pre-academic English immersion. They learn to prepare for standardized tests required for admission. And they get oriented to American academic culture.

It’s a terrific way to help students succeed – and I hope you will be inspired to develop proposals for funding that will adapt English Cubed for use in your country or more widely across the region. Maria Snarski – one of our RELOs – will talk about it in greater detail tomorrow. And our embassies are looking forward to helping you with that.

Finally, the E in CARE is for evaluation. Our goal is to support you in reaching your goals and to identify areas in which you may want to improve. When we share the best results we are seeing around the region, we can highlight those successes as models for other spaces.

We also want to identify places where possible funding may be helpful to BNCs to reach your goals. So we have developed standards for each type of American Space to provide tools for self-assessment and guidelines for future development.

A copy of those standards is in your arrival packet, and Maureen Cormack will present them in more depth tomorrow morning at the Leaders’ Session. Our embassies and consulates will be reaching out to you throughout the next year, and we look forward to fruitful discussions about how standards can identify and achieve each BNC's full potential.

These are some of the ways we are working to support you – because we believe in what you are doing. This is a thriving region. In the past three years, our exports to this hemisphere have increased from $200 billion to nearly $650 billion – more than any other region. And in 15 years, the middle class in Latin America and the Caribbean has grown to more than 275 million people. That’s a consumer force and a workforce to be reckoned with!

By helping young people prepare for bigger and better opportunities, you are helping the future political leaders who will fight for human rights and social reform; and the traders, investors, scientists, and visionaries who will bring innovation and prosperity to their societies. And as more people migrate, travel, study, and do business across borders in our region, they will strengthen the people-to-people ties among all our countries. And you will help a thriving region grow more prosperous and more secure.

People ask: What are the benefits of public diplomacy? Why do you support the teaching of English? Why do you invite young people to study in the United States? Well, what you just heard is my answer. When we work together with a common purpose, we can see real and long term results that benefit generation after generation. That is what public diplomacy is all about.

That’s why we don’t just think of you as partners. We open our arms and we think of you as family. You are one of the many points of light – the stars in that Santo Domingo sky extend everywhere – that help us see real results. I am so pleased I had this chance to tell you that. And I hope that all of you will come away from this conference inspired with new ideas, invigorated with new energy, packing new tools in your backpacks to take home, and remembering that at the Department of State, we truly CARE about your success.

Thank you.