As events continue to unfold that disrupt Myanmar’s transition to democracy, Cultural Vistas wishes to extend its thoughts and concerns to all who are affected by the tragic turn towards violence. Democracy is always a work in progress, and we recognize that many of our communities across the globe are united in fighting against severe assaults on the values we hold most dear.
As always, we believe that international exchange and diplomatic solutions are the best bridges to overcome divides. Cultural Vistas is actively working to develop diplomatic relationships in Myanmar. Since 2015 we have supported 67 participants from the country and we are especially proud of the outstanding work that has been achieved during this time.
In times of darkness, the United States has advanced its diplomatic solutions to foster support for democratic values around the world. In 1940, amid a global wave of fascism and the early years World War II, newly appointed Coordinator of Commercial and Cultural Affairs for the American Republics, Nelson Rockefeller, created an exchange of journalists from Argentina to the United States. In 1948, new legislation codified the role of public diplomacy and citizen exchanges in U.S. foreign engagement and the one-off exchange of journalists officially became the start of what we know it today as the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). To date, the IVLP has welcomed over 225,000 alumni, changemakers, rising leaders, or experts in their various career fields to the United States to share professional best practices and to exchange cultural values.
As my team and I at Cultural Vistas celebrate our 10th year implementing the IVLP, I am reminded of our similar origins as an organization. Although we emerged several decades later in the 1960’s, our goals to create bridges between nations and build mutual understanding for a more peaceful, collaborative, and shared future remain the same.
Each August around 50 Edmund S. Muskie Internship Program participants gather for a debriefing seminar to reflect on and share their summer internship experiences. Their achievements and success stories serve as great proof of the Muskie Program’s importance for participants’ personal and professional development. But what happens after they complete the program? How do our alumni continue to succeed and use their international experience to support positive change in their home countries?
As the Muskie Program entered its sixth year in 2020, we invited Dr. Kelly Feltault at Cultural Crossings Consulting, LLC, to conduct an external evaluation to assess the long-term outcomes and impacts of the Muskie Program on our alumni and their home communities. More than 100 alumni participated in the survey, and some agreed to be interviewed. As a result, the Muskie Program team received a lot of interesting data, and we are happy to share a few major findings from this evaluation.
While I had lived abroad previously and traveled extensively, my Alfa Fellowship Program year was the first-time that I had ever stepped foot in Russia. Not only that, but I only had a very basic knowledge of Russian language at the time of the start of the program. However, I knew that for an aerospace engineer working in the space industry, an experience living and working in Russia would be invaluable in order to better understand the nuances of the long-standing space relationship between the U.S. and Russia, nuances that have included both competition and cooperation over the last few decades.
My goal for the Alfa Fellowship Program was to achieve a greater international perspective of my field, look into the healthy competition that exists among countries to spur innovation from the non-U.S. point-of-view, and gain a better understanding of international science and technology policies, specifically space policies. Going into the Alfa Fellowship Program, I already had an understanding of U.S. science and technology policy and initiatives, but I wanted to see how Russian science and technology policies and technological motivations are shaped by comparison.
So, I took a leave of absence from my engineering job, I arrived in Moscow, and as promised, a taxi driver holding a sign with my name on it met me outside of the baggage claim area at the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. He immediately started asking me questions about American politics, to which I responded as best as I could in my very limited Russian. This was just the beginning of a long series of conversations I would have with my Uber and Yandex drivers throughout the year. It turned out to be the best language practice I could have. Thus, began my journey as an Alfa Fellow, and I have never looked back.
How can we facilitate international exchange in a world where travel has come to an almost complete halt? At Cultural Vistas this is a question our teams grappled with again and again throughout 2020 and most likely will continue to contend with for years to come in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to the devastating loss of life, the pandemic resulted in closed borders, grounded planes, and recommendations to stay at home, impacting many opportunities for educational experiences abroad. It has changed – and is still changing – the world as we know it, and the international exchange industry must also evolve.