By Phil Simon
If you visited Chatham Bars Inn, The Canteen, or Stop & Shop on Cape Cod this summer, you may have been served by students from Afghanistan, Ireland and Serbia who were here on a cultural exchange program. University students like Anel, Mavutho and Umar are participating in the U.S. Department of State Exchange Visitor Program, which provides more than 80,000 students the opportunity to live and work in the United States on a J-1 Summer Work Travel visa during their summer break.
In fact, you were likely to meet similar students at popular summer vacation destinations across the country, from Bar Harbor, Maine, to the Grand Canyon to Santa Barbara, California. They were scooping ice cream, building sandwiches, and staffing hotels and national parks while experiencing American culture, immersing themselves in an English-speaking environment, and interacting with people from different backgrounds from around the world. For many, it was their first time living and working away from home and in an English-speaking environment, and the opportunities for personal growth and cultural exchange are vast.
Beyond their experiences living and working in a premier U.S. vacation destination, a select cohort of 64 exchange students from 31 countries were chosen to participate in the CIEE Civic Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. this summer. The Summit focused on teaching motivated young leaders from around the world about the power of diplomacy and how to become “changemakers.” These elite fellows were chosen through a competitive application process that received 1,200 applicants.
Summit fellows spent three days at American University’s School of International Service engaging with experts and sharing their unique perspectives on civic leadership, social entrepreneurship, and cultural understanding.
The three-day event made a lasting impression on Umar Asghar, who spent the summer working as a cashier at the Provincetown Stop & Shop. He reflected, “This training got me thinking about things I never thought about. Not just thinking about how things can be different, but to understand how to create change and make it happen.”
The one-of-a-kind curriculum featured sessions led by a U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Ashoka’s Youth Venture, “Girl Rising” filmmakers, the World Justice Project, and Street Law, in which fellows explored perspectives around social issues, democracy, the rule of law, and cultural understanding.
A highlight of the Summit was a daylong workshop called the “Be a Changemaker Challenge,” during which fellows identified their passions to create change for social issues, then worked in groups to develop plans for launching their own social ventures in their home countries. One common theme among the students was to pay their own experiences forward in a way, looking at how to increase access to education for their peers at home.
A tour of the nation’s capital brought classroom concepts to life through visits to sites such as the Martin Luther King Memorial, which represents one of the 20th century’s most influential changemakers.
Now in its third year, the Civic Leadership Summit has seen tremendous growth and an impactful exchange of ideas among participating students. This year students from Russia, Ukraine, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ireland, and many other countries were challenged to learn from one another and explore ways to make their communities, countries, and regions better places.
As another participant says, “Even if I stand alone and make only one person’s day easier, or break only one stereotype, or open only one person’s eyes to the diversity that is all around them, then to me, this journey has helped me to become a better global citizen.”
This summer’s exchange students will return to their home countries in the coming weeks with many unforgettable memories and new experiences behind them. For those who took part in the Civic Leadership Summit, they will also bring with them the tools and understanding to become civic-minded change-makers in an increasingly diverse and complex world. Through their participation, the fellows’ increased global understanding and intercultural knowledge will help them make lasting contributions that reach far beyond our vacation states' borders, to our greater global community.
Image credit: Flickr/m01229
Phil Simon is VP of Work and Travel USA at CIEE. Founded in 1947, CIEE is the country’s oldest and largest nonprofit study abroad and intercultural exchange organization, serving more than 350 U.S. colleges and universities, 1,000 U.S. high schools, and more than 35,000 international exchange students each year.