Following the news in 2017 could have left you with the impression that citizens were more divided across many democratic societies. A concerning rise in nationalist populism, amplified skepticism of international engagement, and strained longstanding alliances. Retreating democratic norms coincided with greater hostility toward facts and expertise. Citizens turned inward and shielded themselves with like-minded peers. Many were left feeling more divided from others, whether fellow citizens across town or people around the world.
By this analysis, you might think it’s an inopportune time to be in the international exchange business.
We believe the need and desire for people to connect is as great now as it has ever been in our 55-year history.
At Cultural Vistas, our business is bringing people and cultures together. And we think exchange programs are key to bridging divides, both locally and globally. They work on two levels:
Exchange programs advance global skills and build careers.
Despite recent inward-looking trends, the pace of globalization, technological advancement, and interconnectedness in the world is ever increasing. This means that any given field’s knowledge and innovation are more global than in the past.
Some of the best opportunities to learn and advance one’s career occur abroad, such as by gaining insight into new markets or practices. The thousands of young people for whom Cultural Vistas arranges international experiences each year have their fingers on the pulse of globalization and return home with industry knowledge, local understanding, and expanded networks.
I have witnessed this myself as a Robert Bosch Foundation Fellow in Germany. I dove deeply into German approaches to immigrant integration and forged relationships with policymakers and practitioners. These experiences changed the way I managed integration programs for the U.S. Government, allowed me to lead a working group among U.S. and German government officials, and helped in the creation of a new platform for local communities to share immigrant integration practices and jointly action-plan across the Atlantic.
Exchange programs enrich minds and connect lives.
They help us to deepen our empathies. This process often starts with an attribute we rarely focus on in exchange, but which provides a critical component to global understanding: gaining valuable perspective about ourselves and our place in the world.
As German philosopher Hermann von Keyserling wrote nearly a century ago, “The shortest path to oneself leads around the world.” With this perspective established, we can develop the intercultural competencies to both better understand and apply the skills and knowledge that advance our careers, as well as become able to better engage across difference of various stripes.
These competencies can improve our daily lives for the better not only during the abroad experience, but also at home, and can ripple positively across an organization or community.
Recognizing the multiple benefits of exchange programs – and how critical they are in the current climate – Cultural Vistas aims to see more people share in these benefits.
As an alum and board member, I am proud of Cultural Vistas’ efforts on this front. It creatively designs programs to engage on emerging issues and draw new partners and sectors into the exchange space.
It seeks to recruit and better support a more diverse participant base hailing from more varied places. It provides financial support for certain underrepresented and first-time exchange participants to foster their participation. And it works to provide participants with broad country experiences, outside of well-worn pathways.
While 2017 certainly left us with some challenges, Cultural Vistas is as committed as ever to its exchange mission and belief that citizens are our best ambassadors. And we will continue to develop more ambassadors knowing that each will bring our communities and our world a tiny bit closer.