Five students from Germany waited patiently in the Rayburn Room of the U.S. Capitol Building. They were selected out of 75 German students participating in the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals to spend eight weeks interning for members of the United States House of Representatives.
But on February 4, 2016, they weren’t meeting just any representative. Our CBYX team had arranged a meeting with Congressman Glenn Thompson (Pennsylvania-5th District). Not only is Rep. Thompson a co-chair of the German-American caucus, he is one of the primary reasons that CBYX, the most enduring and important reciprocal exchange program between the United States and Germany, is still going strong in its 32nd year.
“The most important part of the caucus is supporting the CBYX program,” said Rep. Thompson.
Thompson’s role in U.S.-German relations stems from a large number of German descendants in his district. “Germany is in the roots of the citizens I serve,” said Thompson. In Pennsylvania overall, there are 3.5 million German-Americans, counting for 25.4% of the population, according to the 2000 census.
Evidence of America’s historical German heritage still exists, particularly in Pennsylvania. Punxsutawney Phil, our beloved groundhog that predicts the length of the winter, is a product of German tradition and a resident of Thompson’s district. However in German culture, locals would hunt groundhogs at the beginning of spring, rather than hold them up on stage.
With such a strong connection to Germany, Rep. Thompson was quick to be involved in U.S.-German relations through the caucus. So when Congressman Thompson heard of the proposed 50% decrease in funding for this historical U.S.-German exchange program, he rallied the caucus behind the cause. After a year-long campaign, funding for the program was officially restored in July 2015. Thompson addressed the house floor to commemorate the achievement.
As a result, Rep. Thompson has been eager to meet with participants of the program. “It’s amazing how many of your alumni are in positions of influence,” said Thompson. He spoke frankly with the interns about everything from the refugee crisis to Volkswagen to agricultural policy.
The interns, aware that they represent the future generation of their country, asked for guidance on which issues should hold the most weight. Thompson emphasized the importance of aligning on trade issues and the refugee crisis. In response to other discussions about how the United States should approach this issue, Thompson made it clear: “This country never had, never should, never will have a religious test. We’re based on religious freedom.”
Not many young leaders, particularly from overseas, have the opportunity to meet directly with American policymakers. Even fewer get the chance to spend 30 minutes discussing the future of their respective countries. Moments like this are invaluable experiences that will shape international relations for decades. We can’t wait to see how these leaders put Rep. Thompson’s words of wisdom, and their CBYX experiences overall, to good use.
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