An Open Letter to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on the Importance of People-to-People International Exchange Programs

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Dear President Biden and Vice President Harris,

On behalf of the Council on International Educational Exchange, I wish to congratulate you on your historic inauguration.

For the last four years, our nation’s “America First” attitude and retreat from international engagement has frayed relationships with our allies, damaging America’s economy, national identity, and relationship with the world. This month, this selfishness led to an insurrection in our nation’s capital. Our country and our world need you to lead us forward with dignity and respect for our neighbors, both domestic and international.

As you take office, we hope you will work quickly to restore the bonds of trust between America, our allies, and all the nations of the world.  We hope you will set ambitious goals to increase participation in international exchange and public diplomacy programs that, in the words of Senator Fulbright, “turn nations into people,” and contribute “as no other form of communication can to the humanizing of international relations.” 

It is important to not just to increase participation in international experiences, but to diversify it. By increasing access to the world for students from all countries, races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds, your administration will be preparing the next generation of American and world leaders with the global perspective needed to affect positive change in our interconnected and multicultural world.

Our non-profit, CIEE, was founded in the aftermath of World War II. American college students seeking exchange experiences abroad travelled on troop ships that otherwise had been sailing back to Europe empty after depositing returning U.S. soldiers. Relationships these young people forged were critical in restoring bonds between nations in a world that had been ripped apart. Today, we need this spirit more than ever.

American education, thought leadership, and cultural institutions are in many ways our greatest export. Through the Department of State’s BridgeUSA programs, thousands of high school and college students, young professionals, teachers, doctors, researchers, and seasoned professionals live in the U.S., experience American culture, and grow academically and professionally. During these limited-term stays, these ,bright young people from more than 200 countries learn about democracy, freedom of speech, diversity of thought, and the rich palette of American freedoms that define our nation.

Research shows overwhelmingly that these exchange visitors grow in their respect and admiration for Americans and American values, returning to their home countries with new insights and warmth in their hearts for the United States. And one of the most distinctive program elements is that most participants self-fund the experience, making BridgeUSA programs an economically efficient way to bolster our national security interests by providing impactful cultural transformation, paid for by the foreign visitors.

Research also shows that the benefits of international education and exchange are enjoyed disproportionately by white, affluent students. The face America presents to the world, through our study abroad program participants, is not representative of our diversity as a nation. For too long this has been the realm of economically privileged, and largely white, students. That must change if we are to develop a critical mass of diverse global citizens to lead our communities, our states, and our nation.

We urge you to invest in programs and initiatives that ensure that marginalized and minority groups are no longer underrepresented in education abroad, an effort that would pay long-term dividends at the individual student level, giving more Americans from all walks of life the advantages of international education: language fluency, intercultural awareness, and other skills needed to compete in a global marketplace.

Under your leadership, America can increase and diversify participation in people-to-people international exchange programs. Through your strong support and simple adjustments to policy, we can enhance America’s competitive advantage in today’s interconnected and multicultural world, while spreading American values, and nurturing cross-cultural relationships that foster trust and plant seeds of peace.

Congratulations and warm wishes,

James P. Pellow, Ed.D.
President and CEO
CIEE, Inc. (Council on International Educational Exchange)

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