Student Diplomats

Every Student a Diplomat

By Elliot Roper
Hinckley Institute of Politics
Washington DC Internship

The current state of U.S. public diplomacy is in need of an adjustment. The newly appointed Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, Karen Hughes, has been less than welcomed with open arms in her travels overseas. I haven’t come to these conclusions after viewing numerous media outlets, rather the evidence supporting this rests in the decline of foreign students who are not coming into the United States to study. What does student exchange have to do with public diplomacy? Joseph Nye, Distinguished Service Professor of international relations at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government recently said at a panel discussion that the, “best way to get our story out in terms of winning hearts and minds … is through emissaries who have been to American universities and return home.”

Exchange programs allow foreign students to travel to the U.S. and study; moreover, they provide subtle diplomatic opportunities unlike those implemented by State Department officials or expatriates working for multinational corporations. The intent of this paper is not to discredit the efforts or find flaws in our Foreign Service Officers stationed in embassies around the world; rather attention is placed on why student exchange is so necessary for establishing a positive image of who America really is and what we stand for. Foreign media outlets do not cover activities taking place at a college campus nearly as much as they do with what is happening in Washington DC. Throughout this paper consideration will be given to the decline in numbers of foreign students coming to the U.S., the programs that are actually out there available to them, and what is being done to increase the overall numbers and bring more international exchange back into the United States.

At the same aforementioned panel discussion, U.S. Representative Jim Kolbe (R-AZ) highlighted the seriousness of the problem when it comes to getting people to come study in the U.S. by stating we are, “having a serious problem with attracting the kinds of people and the professional talent that we need.” So why are the numbers decreasing? Where else are students deciding to study? India? China? “Many factors have been blamed for the fall in international enrollment, including the difficulty that students have faced in obtaining visas since the September 11th terrorist attacks, as well as increased competition for students from other English-speaking countries.” Has the American higher education system lost its competitive edge? One area in particular has some experts concerned: engineering and physical sciences; understandably so, given the current energy crisis facing the United States. “Debra W. Stewart, president of the graduate-schools council, said she worried about the effect of such decreases. ‘In a society that’s heavily reliant on innovation in technological fields,’ she said, ‘these declines are particularly disturbing.’” As countries like India and China continue to develop into economic powers, in all likelihood, higher enrollment in their colleges and universities will follow. “According to IIE, [Institute of International Education] the U.S. share of international students who select the United States for study-declined by almost ten percent from 1982 to 1995, the last year that IIE did the calculation.” So what exactly is the current administration doing to catch the attention of international students?

U.S. student exchange programs have been around since before the 1950’s with the start of the Fulbright Scholarship, and have grown exponential throughout the decades. Since September 11th much of the focus has shifted to the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Asia. Understanding and awareness have become a necessity if the United States is to not only to lead the rest of the world, but coexist harmoniously. In addition to the State Department Bureau of Educational Affairs Programs (ECA) the White House has launched its own series of programs for students in the Middle East. Most programs fall under the administration’s U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). Brief attention is now given to those programs, the opportunities they provide and their effectiveness.

In 2002 when MEPI launched, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated, “Here in the Middle East, that same long hopeful process of democratic change is now beginning to unfold. Millions of people are demanding freedom for themselves and democracy for their countries.” Without question, one of, if not the single most, focus of the initiative is to promote democracy in states where it has been non-existent. This is put into action by the current administration’s support for steps taken by countries towards democracy. Additionally, American profit and non-profit institutions, such as, among others, the National Endowment for Democracy and National Democratic Institute, have provided capital and physical assistance to those individuals and groups who share the common end goal of establishing or strengthening democracy in that region. While democracy has it’s supporters in the region, media outlets and rule of law experts are contributing to the overall democratic cause.

While the Middle East is only one region, and a sensitive one at the present time, some question the ability to monitor and effectively carryout exchange programs; especially from students in certain areas. A report filed by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) highlighted key areas where the State Department has failed to properly monitor the exchange visitor programs and summer work travel programs. “State has not exerted sufficient management oversight of the Summer Work Travel and Trainee programs to guard against abuse of the programs and has been slow to address program deficiencies.” Furthermore, this report highlighted three main areas of concern:

• “… foreign nationals using the program as a means of entering the United States and remaining illegally after their visa expire …”
• “…the Trainee Program being misused as a work program …”
• “… exchange participants being exploited, resulting in negative experiences, which could undermine the purpose of the programs.”

No doubt, the administration has good intentions by establishing initiatives like MEPI, but there are major setbacks. What gets missed in spreading democracy all around the world, is the way it can be properly delivered. Student diplomacy is the subtle, yet effective way to establishing democracy through exchange programs. This phrase, student diplomacy, is not meant to be interpreted as American students studying abroad and discussing politics with their counterparts, or taking international students in U.S. universities and indoctrinating them with our own system of government. We all know our own democracy has enough flaws. Rather, student diplomacy is most effective when exchanges between the two countries are free from any political overtone, because when politics arise ties can sever.

When American students study abroad and foreign students land in U.S. universities, both become sponges to the instant impressions of that country. As they engage in daily life throughout the semester or year, this is where the roots of public diplomacy start to have their halo effect. Goucher College in Baltimore is one school in particular that is pioneering an ambitious program by making it mandatory for undergraduate students to have at least one semester abroad; or they cannot graduate. The schools president, Sanford J. Ungar said, “I don’t see how we can claim to have educated a young person, give them a liberal arts education, if we don’t provide them with study-abroad programs.” While this may be on the extreme end of promoting student exchange programs, at a minimum, undergraduate students should be required to complete at least one full year of a foreign language. Nine years ago when I attended high school it was mandatory. Today, within the peak of the globalization era, it is as equally, if not more, important for college students to be able to communicate in more than one tongue.

What is Congress doing to tackle the issue of the declining number of international students and the lack of student exchange in the United States? The U.S. Senate declared 2006 as the “Year of Study Abroad”. “The resolution, S. Res. 308, was introduced by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), together with Sens. Daniel Akaka (D-HI), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Thad Cochran (R-MS), Norm Coleman (R-MN), Larry Craig (R-ID), and Russ Feingold (D-WI). It encourages secondary schools, institutions of higher learning, businesses, and government programs to promote and expand study abroad opportunities.” Although intentions are good, the implementation will need to be carefully monitored to ensure the exhaustion of all possible resources are used to make 2006 a successful year for student diplomacy.

Whether student exchange programs are promoted and carried out by the public or private sector, profit or non-profit organizations, we all have a long road ahead of us. Throughout this paper consideration has been given to some of the current opportunities for student exchanges, the problems with the decreasing number of international students studying in the U.S., and what is being done to counter thoses issue at hand. In addition, further steps must be taken to ensure student diplomacy is carried out in an effective manner.

First, undergraduate students must be required to complete a full academic year of a foreign language. By giving students the opportunity to converse in more than one language, it will not only open doors for their careers, but breakdown cultural barriers once presented by being monolingual. “As the streamers across the bottom of our television screens in the days following the terrorist attacks-asking speakers of Arabic, Farsi and Pashto to come forward-dramatically demonstrated, American foreign language skills are in critically short supply.” Second, increased government and private sector funding for students whose desire it is to study abroad. This should be a very competitive and intense selection process, involving an independent selection panel, as so the best possible students are sent abroad; moreover, including those who would not otherwise have an opportunity to travel overseas either for leisure or study. “Study abroad is not and should not be just for Rhodes Scholars. Its value is too great to be restricted to student elite. These opportunities can and should be available to every American college student.”
Third, the attraction of more foreign students to American universities; marketing campaigns need to be launched by the government and institutions of higher learning in order to promote educational opportunities available at U.S. schools.

In order for the United States to compete in this era of globalization we must bring the most talented minds to our country, so our students, as well as those from other countries, can gain from a positive educational experience. Only until we realize the necessity of international education and the impact it plays on how America is viewed around the globe, our public diplomacy will remain stagnant. “We must continue to nurture our greatest foreign policy asset: the friendship of those who know our country because we have welcomed them as students.”


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