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White House Seeks To Harness The Transformative Power Of Travel—US Government Promotes Study Abroad and Citizen Diplomacy

Photo by Michael McColl

Last month I was honored to attend the first-ever White House Summit on Study Abroad and Global Citizenship. The administration invited the top 100 travel bloggers and digital influencers to Washington DC to discuss how to encourage citizen diplomacy.

The administration wants to see more people-to-people connections across borders. And for this first summit, that means encouraging study abroad, volunteer abroad, and work abroad programs.

The full day gathering explored the benefits of cross-cultural educational and cultural exchange by studying, volunteering and working overseas. Every single Administration official who met with our group had their own study abroad story to share. Inevitably, their stories ended with an appreciation of how formative their experiences had been, and how they would not be who they are today if they had not sought out the study abroad experience.

The event included presentations by major players, including White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, the First Lady’s Chief of Staff Tina Tchen, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, and many other senior administration officials.

With all the crises in the world today, why is the White House focusing on study abroad?

Crisis management is a job requirement for each administration, but so is proactive work to improve the understanding of America by people around the world.

As iconic journalist Edward Murrow once said, “The real crucial link in the international exchange is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact, one person talking to another.” Believe it or not, the US government is serious about citizen diplomacy. Since the 1960s, the State Department has had an office dedicated to building friendly, peaceful international relations through exchange programs.

Why? Boutique hotel empressario Chip Conley put it this way in Fortune: “A lot of times, we tend to villainize each other. But when people are traveling, getting to know others and turning strangers into friends, we create a world where there are a lot fewer people who seem alien to us.”

A Washington Post columnist responded with a reference to “intergroup contact.” Pettigrew & Tropp’s theory holds that the prejudices between groups go down as interactions between th em go up. Studying, working or volunteering abroad are all ways we can increase intergroup contact.

As Summit co-sponsor Hostelling International USA pointed out, “That’s important to the idea of travel-promoting-intercultural-understanding, and I doubt it would otherwise have received mention in popular media.”

Evan Ryan, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State put it plainly: “Study abroad is often considered the pivotal event of young people’s lives. It is the moment the world is opened up to them and their preconceived notions are turned upside down.”

Hostelling International USA’s CEO Russ Hedge spoke about the transformative power of travel, and about “encouraging young adults to explore other places and cultures and become better global citizens.”

Chief of Staff to the First Lady Tina Tchen points out that international awareness starts early, with basic geography in grade school. “It starts with ‘where ARE these countries?'”


Tchen contends that study abroad is a huge benefit both to students and to our nation, and it is important that all Americans have access to these programs. Tchen wants to “make sure that the kids we send abroad are as diverse as our nation.”

Assistant to the President Ben Rhodes spoke of the “profound impact on lives” that study abroad can have. And he pointed out that study abroad “must not be just for kids from well-off families.”

Currently, three out of four US students who study abroad are white. “Sending American students abroad is a strategic imperative for the US, especially a diverse representation of students,” according to Assistant Secretary Ryan. We don’t want exchange program participation to depend on the wealth of the parents. (See resources article for grant and scholarship information.)

And there’s plenty of work to be done. Half of US students entering college say they are interested in studying abroad, according to the American Council on Education. Yet only 10% actually do study abroad, according to recent statistics cited by Assistant Secretary Ryan at the summit.

What’s next for the White House Travel Summit? It’s early, but many present at the event agreed that it felt like the start of something big. The senior government officials we spoke with stressed to us that they viewed this as the beginning of a long term collaboration. At the closing dinner, Turkish Airlines invited all summit attendees to a follow-up summit in Istanbul in 2015.

And yes, rest assured that we’ll be encouraging everyone to consider #ethicaldestinations when they plan their exchange program adventures.

Got additional tips on how we can all benefit by studying abroad? Continue the converstation on Twitter: @ethical_travel. Please use the hashtag #StudyAbroadBecause so we can keep the conversation straight.

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