Small World; Big Hearts: Breaking Bread for Peace

When I moved to D.C. months ago, I settled into a lovely 300-square-foot studio in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, which I whimsically view as Washington’s grown-up version of Disney’s It’s A Small World — an iconic boat ride that teaches kids about global culture.

The neighborhood is steps away from Embassy Row, a tony section of Massachusetts Avenue where grand embassies stand side-by-side posh mansions. When I walk by the facades of these buildings, I imagine them as the smiling, welcoming faces in Disney’s playland and recall the high-pitched voices of children singing the ride’s theme song: “ . . . It’s a world of hopes and a world of fears / There’s so much that we share / That it’s time we’re aware / It’s a small world after all.”

I regard my tiny home as the Embassy of Maria’s Heart.

In March, I hosted a dinner for three international visitors who were in the U.S. as part of World Learning’s International Visitor Leadership Program, a professional exchange funded by the U.S. Department of State. Dinner hosting gives Americans a special opportunity to understand, exchange ideas, and forge friendships with people from around the world. It’s citizen diplomacy right in your own kitchen.

IVLP participants and host from left to right: Perla del Rocio RODRIGUEZ QUIROZ from Mexico; Mercedes Floridalma GARCIA VASQUEZ DE BARRENO from Guatemala; Magyelinett Aurora MALAVE MARCANO from Venezuela; and dinner host Maria de los Angeles, a Washington, D.C.-based writer.

My guests were three women from Mexico, Guatemala, and Venezuela who work on corporate social responsibility, healthcare, and leadership respectively. The trio were part of a cohort of twelve women who were touring the U.S. for three weeks as part of a program called Women Leaders: Drivers of Economic and Social Change. One of the program’s objectives is showcasing women-led efforts that generate positive change in their communities.

Welcoming guests from other countries was exciting. A first-generation Cuban-American from Miami, I’d been wandering on a writer’s pilgrimage of sorts, until I landed in D.C. As a recent transplant, I was eager for all four of us to enjoy an authentic Washingtonian spread, which I procured from Glen’s Garden Market, a local shop that sources food from surrounding farmland in the Chesapeake watershed.

Local delights for dinner. The host gave each guest a Potato Chip Chocolate Bar from Dupont Circle as a parting gift.

You’d think that starting a conversation with three strangers would be awkward, but no sooner was crust cracked and dipped into olive oil, did we find ourselves sharing ideas and stories without any hesitation. The warm and earthy scent of dough from fresh-baked ciabatta loaves lingered in the air, as the cadence of conversation landed upon the universal concerns of women: birth control, family planning, women’s economic security, freedom of speech, disease prevention and management, parenting, elder caregiving — you name it, we talked about it.

I’m no match for the mighty embassies up the road, but what I lack in size and officialdom I make up in warmth and openness.

I recently saw the movie A Wrinkle in Time, which references a quote by Rumi: “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” The world is full of wounds, including the collective, exhausted spirit of humanity. Breaking bread temporarily crumbles the fear that drives politics and devolves our better selves. Breaking open that crusty loaf enables the light to enter our hearts.

That evening, I learned so much about what’s really happening day-to-day in other places — the kind of heartbreaking stuff you don’t hear about in the news. The stories boosted my impression of resilient women the world over who endure unspeakable misery we can’t even begin to fathom here in the U.S. It’s comforting to know that my new friends are actively working to make their corner of the world a better place.

The international visitors brought gifts from their home country for their U.S. dinner host.

Hosting was humbling, exhilarating and deeply moving. With my Murphy bed tucked away, my living space became a miniature and covert United Nations — just a stone’s throw away from international centers of political power, including the White House.

Playing hostess was also just plain fun! I encourage my fellow Washingtonians and others beyond our nation’s capital to invite the world home for dinner. Throw open your doors to real diplomacy, experience what peace tastes like, and make sure to serve local bread! It is, after all, a small world — but our hearts are bigger.

Maria de los Angeles is an award-winning writer, teacher and spiritual entrepreneur based in Washington, D.C. She is also founder of #HeartCenteredMedia and, a forthcoming digital and social platform focused on heart-centered living in the nation’s capital. Her digital dispatches can be followed on Twitter@vicequeenmaria.

Each year, World Learning’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) brings about 800 participants to the U.S. to meet with colleagues in their respective fields and learn about American culture. Almost all of them will spend at least one evening with a dinner host. (Approximately 85 communities in 43 states host international visitors for dinner through IVLP and our local partners around the country.) Many program participants report back that this is one of the highlights of their visit to the U.S.

Building a More Secure World Through International Exchange

In an increasingly globalized world, law enforcement officials agree that cross border cooperation is vital to their success, especially those who investigate and prosecute organized, crime trafficking, and money laundering.

“Crime does not know borders,” says Iva Balgac, general police director at the Service for Strategic International Police Cooperation in Croatia.

In April, she was one of 80 law enforcement officials to participate in a three-week International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) exchange with the focus Towards a More Safe and Secure World: Combating Transnational and Organized Crime.

The program, funded by the U.S. Department of State and organized by World Learning, brought law enforcement professionals from across Europe and the Western Hemisphere to the U.S. to build networks and learn from their American counterparts. They traveled to more than a dozen cities across the country, including Washington, D.C., Tampa, and more, and the trip culminated at the Global Security Conference in New York City.

Iva Balgac, general police director at the Service for Strategic International Police Cooperation in Croatia.

“For me as a police officer, it’s always good to know a police officer in another country so that you have a direct contact and they can advise you how to solve certain issues,” Balgac says.

While police forces around the world have cooperative agreements allowing them to run a foreign license plate number or set up joint drug trafficking investigations, she says, “if you don’t have a colleague on the other side then [those agreements are] not very useful.”

Building a robust professional network is also critical for those who are responsible for crafting laws governing transnational crime. Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, looked to U.S. practices and international standards back in the early 2000s when it was reforming its judiciary and police.

Edin Jahic analyzes policy and ensures compliance with international standards as chief of the Section for Fighting Organized Crime and Corruption at the Ministry of Security in the Balkan state. He says his country adopted tools — like plea agreements and a witness protection program — that originated in the U.S. and have proven to be very effective in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well. He hoped to get an even better understanding of U.S. policy by participating in the exchange.

“It’s not enough just to read some provision or international standard explanation,” Jahic says. “You have to understand it in practice, especially if you are not a native English speaker. One word can change the entire work.”

Program participants visited the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to discuss the unique security requirements of the area.

In addition to meetings at federal institutions, Jahic says highlights of the program included meeting analysts from the private sector and universities. He also valued making connections with his fellow European participants.

“I am very fortunate to meet these guys,” he says. “We’ve already made some friendships that are going to last more than these three weeks and, of course, it’s going to be very helpful for my future job.”

Some of the participants already found that the exchange program is helping their work.

Juan Antonio Mateo Ciprian, a public prosecutor for the Attorney General of the Dominican Republic and director of the Department of Counterfeiting Investigations, says the exchange has given him insight into the internal and international cooperation that his U.S. counterparts employ to combat counterfeiting.

He explains that many in the Dominican government — including judges — do not consider forgery a serious crime. He wants to raise consciousness about how forgeries can be used to flout international laws and immigration policies.

IVLP participants attend a lecture at the United Nations as part of the Global Security Conference.

Laxity about forgery, Mateo Ciprian says, affects the country’s image abroad and lowers its potential for economic investment. He wants to change that by developing a training course for members of the prosecutor’s office.

“The idea is to eventually create a specialized prosecutor’s office that will help and advise all the various prosecutors in the country,” he says. “The lessons I have learned here will help me a great deal.” He also plans to use the knowledge and connections gained from the exchange program to share knowledge of forgery and contraband with the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo.

The Dominican prosecutor says the exchange program was not only professionally enriching but also personally interesting.

“We have seen amazing situations,” Mateo Ciprian says. “We have had visits not only to places such as prisons, but we have also met with homeless people. In general, I have been fascinated to see how crime is prosecuted in this country.”



Written by Amy McKeever, writer/editor at World Learning

These Young Deaf Artists Have a Message For the Hearing World

A group of nine young artists from Belgium and the United States is out to prove that Deafness isn’t a disability but rather a cultural heritage — one that crosses international borders and defies the boundaries of language.

This week, the nine members of Connecting Capitals will debut their artwork at the Next Generation, Please! festival in Brussels. The project, which is so named as it is a collaboration between a young people in the Belgian capital city and Washington, DC, uses multimedia and innovative performance art techniques to promote understanding of Deaf culture.

Connecting Capitals was one of 10 projects selected for the Next Generation, Please! festival. Hosted by BOZAR, a distinguished international cultural center, the festival explores the future of Europe through the eyes of its youth. Connecting Capitals will examine Deaf identity, seeking to build bridges not only between Deaf communities in Europe and the U.S., but between the Deaf world and the hearing world.

“I want hearing people to know that deaf people have a global Deaf community,” signs Bram Jonnaert, 23, one of the Belgian members of the group. He learned about the richness of that community himself in recent months through the international exchange program that sparked Connecting Capitals.

A cultural exchange begins

Connecting Capitals was formed earlier this year with a grant from World Learning’s Communities Connecting Heritage program, which matches up cultural institutions from around the world to collaborate on projects through virtual and in-person exchanges. BOZAR was paired with Gallaudet University, the world’s only Deaf university, located in Washington, DC.

Group shot of the Connecting Capitals and their partners.

“I could not be happier to be working with Gallaudet and BOZAR in this new way for a project that explores the intersections of Deaf history, culture, and civil rights,” says World Learning Program Manager Deanna Wertheimer. “World Learning is proud to be an ally in raising awareness and moving the positive narrative of Deaf culture forward through Communities Connecting Heritage.”

In January, BOZAR and Gallaudet gathered their young participants — many of them college students or recent graduates — at their respective headquarters in Brussels and DC for a weekly series of virtual icebreakers and workshops to begin planning their project. They finally met in person last month when the Belgian contingent traveled to DC for a week of project development.

Many international exchange programs are not accessible to the Deaf community, so this was a particularly unique opportunity. “I was so excited to meet deaf Americans,” signs Alice Leidensdorf, 26, a participant from Belgium.

The group quickly figured out how to bridge the seven languages among them — International Sign Language; American, Flemish, and French Belgian sign languages; and the three spoken languages — and even teach each other new signs. They also discovered they shared some of the same experiences; many had grown up struggling to communicate in a hearing family.

Joseph Antonio (far right) shares how Connecting Capitals is building bridges between the Deaf world and the hearing world.

“I believed that I was wrong, that I was just a broken hearing person who needed to get my basic needs met,” signs Joseph Antonio, 30, a communications studies major at Gallaudet. “I didn’t realize that I deserved anything more.”

Those experiences are at the heart of the project that Connecting Capitals will debut in Brussels this week. “I’d love to see that the artwork, the festival that we do at BOZAR, will be able to show that deaf people have common experiences, common fears, common feelings,” Jonnaert signs.

Sharing Deaf heritage through art

With the support of Gallaudet’s Motion Light Lab, Connecting Capitals has taken an innovative approach to communicating their experiences to an audience of both hearing and deaf people.

One element of that approach is a digital coffee table book. Intended as a guide to Deaf culture, the book features interviews and videos the participants have created about their own lives and how they have learned to express themselves. The app — which will be available on iTunes and accessible in several spoken languages — also includes interactive lessons in four different sign languages.

The Connecting Capitals wrote this Letter to the Future, inspired by the Deaf President Now protests of 1988.

Connecting Capitals also explores the changes society can make to support Deaf culture. Together, the group composed a Letter to the Future inspired by the Deaf President Now protests of 1988, which took place when a hearing woman was appointed president of Gallaudet over more qualified deaf candidates. “Now that we’re in 2018, we are still working for that equality,” signs Melissa Malzkuhn, founder and creative director of the Motion Light Lab and one of the project leaders.

In their letter, these young participants outlined not only the obstacles they face in their everyday lives, but also their vision for a more inclusive society, writing, “Being deaf in a world that has failed to understand our culture and our sign languages…is why we demand self-representation, equal access to sign language, and the eradication of systemic audism.”

To underscore the importance of this message, Connecting Capitals produced a film using a unique and theatrical art form known as visual vernacular, which they learned in a workshop with storyteller and Gallaudet professor Ben Bahan. This storytelling method incorporates sign languages, body movements, and advanced gestural techniques to convey ideas and emotions. Even a slightly different facial expression can change one’s meaning in visual vernacular.

“It’s poetry,” Antonio says. He adds that while hearing people might need to work to decipher meanings, “every deaf person understands visual vernacular.”

In the film, Connecting Capitals interprets their Letter to the Future through a story about the universal struggles that deaf people face. It begins depicting Leidensdorf, Jonnaert, and Antonio as caterpillars trying to make their way in a world that doesn’t understand them and denies them access even to their own culture. But, together, the caterpillars learn to climb a tree, spin cocoons, and transform into butterflies — insects which are, not coincidentally, deaf.

These young Belgians and Americans hope their work will not only show the hearing world that Deaf heritage exists — and is robust — but it will also prove to the next generation of deaf youth that they, too, can be artists. And while obstacles may continue to emerge, Jonnaert says he hopes the project will help the Deaf community break through barriers. “This is the start of a path; it’s not the end of it,” he says. “I already know that’s going to be our journey.”

This Teen Is Transforming How His Peers See the Middle East

Fifteen-year-old Turner Payne didn’t know very much about the Middle East before last summer. Though he was interested in the world, Payne didn’t have much opportunity to learn about the region’s history or culture as a high school freshman in Maryland. What he knew about it was what he’d learned from social media and TV news stories, which portrayed the Middle East as a place of conflict full of terror attacks and refugees.

But that changed when Payne joined the Digital Young Leaders Exchange Program (DYLEP), a virtual exchange program run by World Learning that connects teenagers from the U.S. and Iraq. In addition to getting to know peers from another country, it’s designed to help them develop leadership skills, while fostering civic engagement and respect for diversity. Payne spent almost every day of the four-month program chatting online with Iraqi teenagers — his virtual “family” — learning about their culture and sharing his experiences with them.

“I learned through DYLEP about how rich the Middle East is and how many different cultures and religions it has,” Payne says. He was surprised to find out, too, how much he had in common with his Iraqi family. “We connected on a very personal level because we shared the same interests and values like the love of travel, learning different languages, watching sports, eating good meals, and hanging out with family and friends. And that’s something I didn’t think would [happen with] someone from such a different area than me.”

Now in his sophomore year of high school, Payne is working to help other teens dispel misconceptions about the world. DYLEP participants are encouraged to launch projects addressing challenges in their communities, so Payne founded an initiative called Binding Borders. The digital cross-cultural project features video interviews with students from the Middle East and North Africa talking about how their cultures are perceived in the U.S.

“My experience at DYLEP really opened my eyes to the many different stereotypes that existed in the U.S. about the Middle East,” Payne says. “I wanted to come up with an idea that would address this problem.” He thought video interviews would be a powerful way to help American teens understand how their peers from the Middle East feel about how their culture is portrayed.

Turner (left) with his partner and classmate Abdullah.

Payne turned to his DYLEP family for advice on developing Binding Borders, as some of them already had experience in launching community projects. They suggested their American friend partner with a classmate to help promote Binding Borders more widely.

Payne found that partner in his classmate Abdelrahman Abdullah, whose family had moved to the U.S. from Egypt a few years earlier. Abdullah enthusiastically signed on to be Binding Border

s’ director.

In his own video, Abdullah explains the cross-cultural challenges he faced when his family moved to the U.S. Most students associated his native country with camels and pyramids rather than facets of modern Egyptian society — and the media didn’t help. “[My culture is] always portrayed negatively,” he says in the video. “Sometimes people think everyone is a terrorist because you’re a Muslim or just from the Middle East.”

Payne says this message is a common theme throughout the seven or eight video interviews he has recorded for the project. “They want us to go beyond the news and actually learn [about their culture],” he says.

So far, these messages are helping. Payne says the classmates who have watched the videos are surprised by what they’ve learned about Middle Eastern culture. “After they see these videos they have a moment where they realize, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve totally been stereotyping Middle Eastern students,’” he says. “I hope that will help them change.”

Payne and Abdullah plan to continue spreading Binding Borders’ message. They’ve presented the project to their school’s International Club and Payne has posted information about it on DYLEP’s Facebook page for alumni. They’re also planning to launch a Binding Borders club at their school next year, which Payne says will raise money to fund DYLEP scholarships as well as support the International Rescue Committee’s office in Silver Spring, Maryland. He’s excited to see how Binding Borders can help Middle Eastern and American students in his community overcome their differences and find a common ground.

“I think it’s important for us to learn as much as we can about other cultures and world views,” he says. “We need to welcome diversity.”

World Learning to Receive Grant from the Aspen Institute Stevens Initiative to Administer Virtual Exchange Between High School Youth in Iraq and the United States

The Aspen Institute Stevens Initiative today announced the award of a two-year grant to World Learning, one of 10 new projects funded through a national competition to use virtual exchange to increase cross-cultural understanding and equip young people to participate in a global economy.

World Learning’s is among the first wave of virtual exchange programs to be funded by the Stevens Initiative, a public-private partnership designed to increase people-to-people exchange between youth in the United States and the Middle East and North Africa as a lasting tribute to the legacy of Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Virtual exchange uses technology for sustained, people-to-people education programs. The Initiative aims to increase mutual understanding between youth in middle school through post-secondary and equip a generation of globally minded youth with the skills they need to succeed in an increasingly interdependent world.

The announcement marks the first major step in the Stevens Initiative’s plan to scale up people-to-people exchanges between youth in the United States and the Middle East and North Africa. The Initiative provided $5 million to support online programs that will bring more than 20,000 young people together to engage in cross-cultural learning experiences. The programs reach 17 countries in the Middle East and North Africa and 25 American states.

Under the Stevens Initiative, World Learning will implement the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program – Virtual (IYLEP Virtual). With this program, World Learning will build upon its implementation of the U.S. Department of State Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP) by using innovative technology platforms to conduct an exchange and leadership development training entirely online for a diverse cadre of future Iraqi and American youth leaders. IYLEP Virtual’s curriculum will emphasize global leadership, education, and engagement.

Other examples of the work to be undertaken include:

  • Arabic, English and Kurdish language exchange programs between students in California and their peers in Morocco, Iraq and Saudi Arabia;
  • Storytelling through virtual reality for middle and high school students in Kentucky, New York, and Jordan, including Syrian refugees;
  • A collaborative anthropological project between high school students in Morocco and Chicago;
  • Global leadership activities for students in Iraq, Illinois, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Washington, and Wisconsin.
  • An online program exploring how the media portrays people in the United Arab Emirates and various states across the United States.

Most programs will launch in Spring 2016 and continue for a period of two years.

“This is the beginning of a global classroom. World Learning will be a pioneer in an exciting and dynamic field,” said Elliot Gerson, Executive Vice President of the Aspen Institute. “Our vision is to spark conversations between young people in countries around the world—to exchange ideas and information and to work together on addressing important issues. We look forward to working with World Learning to achieve this vision.”

The first Stevens Initiative award competition was open to U.S. non-profit organizations. In addition to holding future rounds of the award competition, the Initiative will share best practices and support research to address which methods have a measurable impact and have the potential to reach all young people as the field grows.

“World Learning is proud to work with the Aspen Institute on this important and innovative project,” said Carol Jenkins, President for Global Development and Exchange at World Learning. “We have implemented the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program for many years and look forward to applying that experience to use new technology to build and strengthen relationships between American and Iraqi youth.”

The other Stevens Initiative grantees announced today are:

  • Chicago Sister Cities International
  • Eurasia Foundation
  • Global Nomads Group
  • National Democratic Institute
  • Soliya
  • State University of New York – Center for Collaborative Online International Learning
  • University of California Berkeley
  • Wofford College
  • World Learning

World Learning is a nonprofit organization that works globally to enhance the capacity and commitment of individuals, institutions, and communities to create a more sustainable, peaceful, and just world. The organization empowers people and strengthens institutions through education, development, and exchange programs.

The Stevens Initiative is a public-private partnership designed to increase people-to-people exchange between youth in the United States and the Middle East and North Africa as a lasting tribute to the legacy of Ambassador Chris Stevens. By fostering structured online engagements between young people in secondary through post-secondary education, the Stevens Initiative aims to increase mutual understanding and equip a generation of globally minded youth with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century.

Housed at the Aspen Institute, the Stevens Initiative is a collaboration between the family of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Department of State, the Bezos Family Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the governments of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Algeria, and Morocco, and Microsoft, Mozilla, Twitter, and GoPro. Visit the Stevens Initiative at

New Projects Celebrate Cultural Heritage Through Exchanges

World Learning and the U.S. Department of State are pleased to announce the selection of six new cultural heritage projects to receive funding as part of its Communities Connecting HeritageSM exchange program (CCH). CCH, a State Department initiative administered by World Learning, empowers youth to protect the cultural heritage of at-risk communities around the world.

“World Learning is thrilled to support projects that celebrate diversity and foster mutual understanding through Communities Connecting Heritage,” said Lisa Posner, World Learning’s vice president for Global Exchange. “This program will also help build new global bonds to improve overall cooperation and collaboration between the US and communities in key areas of the world.”

Through virtual and in-person exchanges and exhibitions, the program supports new partnerships between U.S. and foreign cultural organizations and the communities they serve. CCH specifically helps these communities preserve their tangible and intangible cultural heritage, reinforce positive messages, and advance cultural heritage through community outreach and public education.

The projects will be carried out among six U.S. organizations from four U.S. states and Washington, D.C., and six international organizations from five countries. Each organization was matched with an overseas counterpart during initial training and has been collaborating to develop engaging cultural heritage projects. The following six projects were just selected for funding in 2017:

  • The Creative Economy Group (Serbia) and Global Ties Akron (Ohio)
    Global Threads will train up to 20 university students as citizen journalists to capture the stories of artists in their communities and use that content to launch an online publication and Food/Art Expos in both countries.
  • The Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels (BOZAR; Belgium) and Gallaudet University (Washington, D.C.)
    Connecting Capitals will connect to empower up to 20 Deaf youth from the U.S. and Belgium, advocating for them to become more engaged citizens through a deeper understanding of their respective Deaf heritages.
  • Cultural Heritage without Borders (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and the Cultural Heritage Alliance (Maryland)
    Saving What Matters will train up to 10 university students in the skills of digital storytelling and show them how cultural heritage preservation can be used as a tool in community development projects on a local, regional, and international scale.
  • Athar Lina (Egypt) and Avenue 50 Studio (California)
    Through Walls: A Heritage Dialogue will empower up to 10 young female artists, enlisting them in the creation of two murals celebrating the heritage of specific neighborhoods in both Los Angeles and in Cairo.
  • Khoj International Artists Association (India) and Global 1-to-1 (New Mexico)
    Voices from the Margins will connect up to 12 at-risk youth and provide opportunities for them to explore the role of their traditional languages in cultural expression, especially in music and poetry. Together, they’ll create a music video reflecting what they’ve learned.
  • Contact Base (India) and the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (Washington, D.C.)
    Learning Together Toward a Brighter the Future will challenge up to 20 U.S. university students from disadvantaged backgrounds and 20 traditional artists and underserved youth from India to explore community-based cultural enterprise and heritage preservation through storytelling and folk music. The project will culminate in broad-reaching public exhibitions in each country.

The twelve organizations will now receive additional training on projects. The virtual exchanges will commence in early 2018, leading up to the in-person exchanges and public exhibitions in the spring and summer of 2018.

About ECA

The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs moves people to move ideas.  ECA builds relations between the people of the United States and the people of other countries through academic, cultural, sports, and professional exchanges, as well as public-private partnerships. The State Department’s cultural diplomacy programs employ the arts to advance U.S foreign policy by sharing America’s artistic excellence, demonstrating America’s respect for other cultures, creating international networks, and deepening trust.
Contact: [email protected]

About World LearningWorld Learning is a nonprofit organization empowering people and strengthening institutions through education, sustainable development, and exchange programs in more than 60 countries.

How International Exchanges Have Made a Difference in Denver

Denver may be known as the “mile-high” city for its mountainous perch, but it’s also a beacon that attracts people from countries around the world. A thriving center of international exchange programs, the city and state contribute significantly to citizen diplomacy, which sheds a favorable light on the community and the country, helps local businesses connect with global opportunities, and generates lasting friendships.

The goals put simply: “Achieving peace and creating connections, one person, one community at a time,” said Alyssa Fox, a homestay manager for Sister Cities International, in a February 2017 Associated Press article.

Each year, Colorado hosts more than 500 international leaders, professionals and students, providing more than 3,700 cross-cultural engagements, with local citizens volunteering more than 20,000 hours of service, according to a recent report from Global Ties U.S., a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit.

At the same time, exchange programs hosted in Denver have generated about $1.5 million in annual revenue from hotels, transportation, food and entertainment,” says Gergana Kostadinova, the manager for professional and youth programs at World Denver, a community organization dedicated to advancing an understanding of global affairs and cultures.

Many visitors come through State Department-funded exchange programs, which are designed and implemented by World Learning, a nonprofit that oversees exchanges around the world. The organization taps its network of local partners, like World Denver, to find host families in the U.S. (more than 2,000 visitors a year) and carry out local programs.

“In addition to hosting students from countries like Iraq, China and Mexico, we also connect visiting entrepreneurs to local companies and non-profits to plant the seeds for business partnerships,” says Gergana. “These connections go way beyond a nice dinner.”

For example, young business and social entrepreneurs from Latin America and the Caribbean recently visited Denver for five weeks to meet with, network, learn from and volunteer at local organizations. After another exchange, Russian entrepreneurs invited three Denver business consultants to their country to conduct trainings on subjects ranging from marketing strategies to women’s issues, Gergana explains.

Another program organized reciprocal visits (sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in London) for community leaders from Denver and Birmingham, England, to exchange information on and promote tolerance, safety, security and cultural understanding, as well as techniques to prevent radicalization, in their communities.

Breaking down stereotypes

One of the great advantages for local hosts, who provide a home to visitors for days or weeks at a time, is to learn about the different perspectives of their guests and to break down stereotypes.

Ausama from Iraq cooking dinner for his host family in Denver.

Carey Sacks hosted several visitors through World Denver, including teenage girls from Iraq and Chile and a young businesswoman from Russia. In addition to providing family dinners, a warm bed and sightseeing opportunities, Carey has cooked favorite foods with her guests, taken them horseback riding and even created a mock Halloween party in August because her Iraqi visitor, Aya, only knew about the holiday from television.

Aya, who wants to become a dentist to help the people of her country, lost her brother to an American bomb attack in Baghdad. “Her family was brave to send her here because they were afraid of Americans, and I wanted to show them how welcoming we can be and how cool our country is,” Carey explains. “Relationships matter.”

Paula Schriefer and her family have also hosted students from the Middle East. She says “we all genuinely grew to love each other. We hosted two Iraqi students, one a Shia, the other a Sunni, and they really bonded, too. We were all saddened when they had to depart.

“It’s an eye-opening experience for everyone, and its fun,” adds Paula, who heads the Spring Institute, an immigrant support organization. “The kids are nervous at first, but taking people out of their comfort zone allows them to open up. For some American hosts, “it may be their first exposure to Muslims from the Middle East.”

Alex and Paula Schriefer with exchange student Margarita from Russia at Garden of the Gods.

Having worked at the State Department and lived in the former Soviet Union, Paula says “people who’ve participated in exchanges become more than friends, they become incredible allies, and you find that they generally like Americans, if not their government’s policies.”

“The kids call me mom,” says Brenda Stokes, who, with her husband Allen, has hosted students from Mexico, Chile and Argentina. After introducing one student to pancakes and another to snow for the first time, “it’s amazing how quickly stereotypes break down and we start to feel like family,” she says.

“The more people cross boundaries, the better off the world is,” Brenda explains, noting that some of the guests thought all Americans carried guns.

Seeing the U.S. through their eyes

“It’s a way to connect with the world from our front door and see our country through another’s eyes,” says Donna Bryson, a former international correspondent for the Associated Press who has hosted students with her family in Denver.

“An Iraqi student who stayed with us for two weeks was surprised to see people in wheelchairs going to work or school. Not that her own country, wracked by decades of war, doesn’t have people disabled by injury or disease. But in Baghdad, she said, they’re hidden away. She helped me see that I’d taken for granted the progress here for Americans with disabilities.”

For Susie Shanley and her family, one of her guests, an Iraqi boy, really hit it off with her teenage son and they’ve become lifelong friends. The family and their guests attended a Rockies game and a jazz festival at a nearby park, rode bikes, and visited a mosque.

Enthralled by democracy

“I’m surprised how much they taught me,” says Susie, who once worked with a refugee organization and helped a Syrian family acclimate to the U.S. “The kids were absolutely enthralled by our government and how democracy works,” she says. “They made friends easily and learned we’re not out to get them. It’s easy for us to say ‘Muslim terrorists,’ because you can’t have empathy if you’ve never had a Muslim friend, and it’s easier to dismiss them if you don’t know.”

Ralph Ogden and Anne Wilcox with exchange students Rocio from Argentina and Mili from Chile.

Ralph Ogden and Anne Wilcox, who are experienced world travelers, have hosted girls from China, Argentina, Chile and Israel, as well as boys from Kurdistan — and they’ve stayed in touch with — and even visited — most of them in their home countries. In fact, the Chilean student is planning to attend the Colorado School of Mines after graduating from high school and is going to live with Ralph and Anne.

“The kids have all been exceptional in one way or another,” says Ralph, a semi-retired attorney and international consultant. “Smart, curious, artistically talented — two are in medical school in the U.S.,” he says. “I was surprised at how open and enthusiastic they were about the opportunity to be here, even though they didn’t know what to expect.”

One of Ralph’s friends, a neurosurgeon, even arranged an internship at a Denver hospital for one of the students.

“Before we started hosting, we had some trepidation,” Ralph says. “But we became attached to them very quickly. “I’d have any of them back anytime. It was reassuring to learn that kids are just kids everywhere.”

How International Exchanges Make a Difference in Seattle

As an international hub, Seattle often hosts business, government and education leaders from around the world. A key organization that sponsors and strengthens international exchanges, including programs for students, is the World Affairs Council–Seattle. These initiatives generate many benefits to the city ranging from economic growth to heartwarming personal relationships.

“Exchanges are an incredible gift to the community, often changing people’s perceptions and building business relationships and lifelong friendships,” says Rachel Paris-Lambert, director of the Council’s International Visitors Program. Since guests stay with host families during exchanges, “Connecting with young, energetic and intelligent people at the dinner table goes a long way to break down stereotypes, especially when visitors come from places like Mexico and Iraq.

“Our guests are the future civic and business leaders of their countries, who not only get to see America’s democratic values in action, but also the kindness and hospitality of our people — a side of America not always understood from the nightly news,” she explains. “And of course, we have our own stereotypes from our 24/7 media.”

International programs — many designed and implemented by World Learning, a nonprofit that oversees exchanges around the world with groups like the World Affairs Council — also generate revenue for Seattle every year. In fact, World Affairs Council exchanges contributed more than $2.7 million to the city in 2016, primarily hotel accommodations and transportation for 721 visitors, but not including revenue from meals and cultural events.

Perhaps most important, these programs inspire visitors to come back and further develop business relationships that support local companies or establish new ventures. The prestigious African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program is a case in point.

New business opportunities
Vava Angwenyi first visited in 2015 and has returned many times connecting Seattle to her work in Nairobi. Vava is the Founder and CEO of Vava Coffee, a social enterprise that seeks to improve conditions in the coffee industry and create sustainable livelihoods for the workers in the industry.

“It was always a dream to come to Seattle — given the coffee connection and growing entrepreneurship scene,” Vava says about her initial visit. Through the program, Vava was introduced to Seattle-based Atlas Coffee Importers. After a short meeting with Atlas’s founder, Craig Holt, “it became clear that our purposes and missions had the same goal, and we could really team up,” says Vava.

Vava also connected with other local businesses that share similar visions, including

Uncle Harry’s Natural Products, a woman-led company based in Redmond that is introducing a coffee-themed scrub to their product line, and Café Avole, a new Ethiopian café in South Seattle that will sell Vava Coffee.

The projects that have grown out of Vava’s visit are examples of the power of public diplomacy and showcase how such connections can be a catalyst to business innovation and collaboration on global issues.

In another exchange, a designer from the Netherlands forged a new partnership in Seattle for sustainable marble-like products made from recycled plastics. And local business leaders recently hosted a group from Latin America and the Caribbean, which has triggered new marketing opportunities in both directions.

Barrier-breaking conversations
What really launches these business opportunities is something quite simple — the opportunity to have a meaningful conversation.

As part of the cultural portion of her first visit, Vava was invited to the home of a local Seattle family for dinner, great conversation, and an evening of laughter. In-depth discussions on politics, pop culture, religion, society, and business ensued, and by the end of the evening a deep connection had been formed.

As a result, Vava not only stayed in touch with her host family, but she also stayed with them during her second visit to Seattle, when she was introduced to even more business people and activists.

“These face-to-face interactions are vitally important to our national security and economic prosperity, because they create a foundation of understanding, which fosters mutually beneficial relationships,” says Rachel. “People in Seattle are hungry to engage internationally and our programs make that happen.”

Cultural understanding…and fun… for students
Exchanges that sponsor high-school age visitors also lay a foundation of global understanding for the next generation. Such interactions change people, whether it’s a Jewish family hosting Muslim and Buddhist guests, or a visiting Muslim student speaking with a local Imam who believes in LGBT rights.

Katherine Randolph’s family recently hosted Kareem, an Iraqi student who was about the same age as her 17 year-old son, Alex. “It was a wonderful surprise that the two boys really hit it off and found they had a lot in common. They’re both smart and empathetic people who share a similar sense of humor and enjoyed goofing around with each other, just like any teenagers,” she says.

“We all pay attention to what’s going on in the Middle East,” Katherine adds, “but nothing compares to getting to know someone personally and what their life is really like. Thanks to Facebook and Skype, these deep relationships will continue. Alex and Kareem are friends.”

Smith, Iraqi adult mentor Mustafa Mohammed, and student Aria Qadir at a Seattle Sounders match.

Kristen Smith and her husband Pete Lawson have hosted visitors many times, mostly adult mentors, and enjoy showing them the Seattle-area sites, from the Pike Place Market to Mount Olympus, as well as just hanging out. She, too, says her perceptions have changed.

“We see Iraq as a war zone with guns everywhere,” she explains. “But the Iraqi people we’ve met are just living their lives. While there are dangers, not every area is a war zone, and we have a much better understanding of how they deal with life day by day.”

Changing perceptions about us
Visitors also come with misperceptions. “Many guests think America is a hostile place,” Kristen says. “Their image of America is about bombs and guns, and they think Americans are just focused on money and work. But they get to see who we are in full, our kindness and generosity. It really makes a difference.”

Ultimately, “perceptions change because we start to care about each other. Our guests go back home with a little piece of my heart, and I have a piece of theirs,” she says, softly.

Janine Magidman, a veteran teacher at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, coordinates homestays for exchange programs, so she has an even broader perspective, overseeing a growing network of host families for the thousands of students who want to come to Seattle.

When a group of enthusiastic Brazilian students came to Roosevelt recently, it lifted the spirits of the entire school and brought people out of their shells. “All the students realized they had so much in common,” Janine recalls.

“We need these programs now more than ever as a counterbalance to the negativity we see, and to build social activism,” Janine adds. “The key to peace is citizen diplomacy. Nothing works better than sitting around the kitchen table telling stories. We tell the people who think about hosting, don’t be afraid. It’s an awesome experience and you’ll develop lifelong friendships around the world.”

The Truly American Benefits of Tulsa’s International Exchange Programs

Tulsa is an All-American city located in the heart of the country, but for some, its reputation as an international hub is growing. That’s the way Tulsa Global Alliance sees it, as expressed in its vision statement: “Tulsa is a vibrant community that thinks globally, acts globally and connects globally.”

Tulsa Global Alliance (TGA) builds global communities through its many exchange programs. According to Bob Lieser, Vice President of Programs, these exchanges enable us “to make powerful friends in vital countries.” He cites one famous example. When then Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping came to the U.S. in 2012 on an agricultural mission, he insisted on visiting his host family from 27 years earlier. Xi wanted to reconnect with the Iowa farmers and other residents he came to know then. Today, he’s the President of China.

“With that exchange program, he gained an understanding of what America is about and what Americans are like,” Bob says. “Given today’s tense international climate, this kind of experience is incredibly important for future cooperation.” In fact, he adds, 300 current or former heads of state have participated in exchange programs to America.

“As the new Defense Secretary James Mattis put it recently, ‘“If you don’t fund the State Department fully [which funds many international exchange programs], then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.’ That’s a powerful statement.”

Bob also recalls a legislative fellow from Pakistan who initially didn’t want to visit the U.S. because she had such negative views of our country. “But at her delegation’s farewell dinner, she said she loved her host family and didn’t want to leave. Changing perceptions like this is so strategically important for the U.S.”

The Local Impact
Beyond the impact on international diplomacy and world peace, exchanges also provide significant and concrete benefits for hosts and host communities, including Tulsa.

The International Visitor Leadership Program, the State Department’s premier professional exchange, contributes between $700,000 and $800,000 a year to the Tulsa economy, and has contributed $30 million over the last 40 years. Exchanges also establish future business relationships and generate additional tourism.

Many of these exchanges are designed and implemented by World Learning, a nonprofit that oversees exchanges around the world. The organization taps its network of local partners, like the TGA, to find host families in the U.S. (more than 2,000 visitors a year).

Personal Impact
On a personal level, retirees Jim and Charlotte Langley, who have hosted guests since 2003, say the programs have enriched their lives in many ways.

“You’re making personal connections with people from around the world,” says Charlotte. We’ve made so many good friends and now, especially with Facebook, we don’t lose touch. We’re continually communicating with the girls and young women who have stayed with us from Iraq, Pakistan and other places. And they invite us to visit.”

In addition to providing a place to sleep, meals and some transportation, hosts also show visitors what it’s like to live in Tulsa, from cultural and sporting events to visits to the mall — which “they love” — to Sunday at church, where two young women agreed to answer questions for the children’s group, Charlotte says.

“Our guests have also cooked their home specialties for us, and one time, when we had a party for hosts and visitors, they moved the furniture to show us the dances they know from home. It was so much fun.”

One of the biggest surprises, she says, was how much they admire America. “I thought they’d be more negative, but it was the opposite. One Muslim girl even asked for a bible to read, which the Langleys were able to get for her in her native language.

“It’s so important for them to see how we live and vice versa,” Jim says. “It’s so important for both sides.”

More Similarities Than Differences
Carla Lynch, an assistant professor of nursing who has hosted five times, says the exchanges provide “the cultural experiences at home without having to travel. You begin to realize we’re all very similar, despite our differences, especially the kids, who just want to hang out and use their phones. Real people are not scary; they want a happy life, just like we do.”

Selim and Moayed pumping gas for the first time.

Carla also says the experience has been invaluable for her kids. “It keeps them open at an early age,” she explains. “It tears down barriers, opens eyes and changes minds about what the world is really like, beyond the politics. It would be a huge mistake to cut these programs.”

Karen Smith, who has supported exchanges through the Community Service Council, has helped to coordinate trips to the state capitol and local museums.

She explained that a young woman from Pakistan wanted to visit a domestic violence shelter to learn how we deal with the issue in the U.S. When she saw a room for male victims, she was stunned that men can be abused, too. In her culture, this is not considered and there are not support structures of this kind available to male victims.

“Only by developing one-on-one relationships can we break down misunderstandings and stereotypes and build empathy and trust,” Karen says. “It’s harder to be negative or hurt people when you know them.”

Turn Up the Music 
Leslie Melvin and her husband have hosted several potluck farewell dinners for 40 or 50 people, including teenagers from Iraq and Brazil.

“We turn the music up and just have a good time,” Leslie says. “It’s a fairly bittersweet event, however, because at the end of the dinner, Bob Leiser hands out certificates to each visitor and invites them to say a few words if they choose. Everyone realizes the Tulsa part of the trip is coming to an end. We take group pictures and there are hugs all around.”

One of her fondest memories was when the ice bucket challenge was all the rage. “The Iraqi kids did the challenge in our backyard and it went viral to Iraq in minutes! It just showed us how small our world really is.”

“I’m constantly reminded how much more we have in common than what sets us apart. Teenagers are teenagers for the most part, no matter where they live. And families are families. We truly embrace the spirit of TGA and the idea of citizen diplomacy — helping to make the world a better place one handshake at a time.”

How International Exchange Programs Are Making a Difference in Detroit

The city of Detroit is in the process of revitalization, trying to overcome a legacy of economic struggles and urban blight. One small but important way the city is improving is through international exchange programs coordinated by Global Ties Detroit, formerly the International Visitors Council.

Marian Reich, the organization’s Executive Director, says professional exchange programs not only give area students the opportunity to meet and learn about people from countries they don’t know much about, they also build opportunities for local businesses by helping to establish partnerships.

Visitors come through State Department-funded exchange programs, which are designed and implemented by World Learning, a nonprofit that oversees exchanges around the world. The organization taps its network of local partners, like the Council, to find host families in the U.S. (more than 2,000 visitors a year) and carry out programs.

“When visitors see how Detroit is changing — and how different it is from their expectations — they’re inclined to make business connections and even come back as tourists with their friends, which puts money back into the local economy through hotels, dining, theater and, of course, shopping,” Marian says.

The cultural and human connections, however, may be even more important for the city and country.

Citizen Diplomats
“I went to a dinner on a Friday evening with a delegation of English teachers from around the world — Indonesia, Senegal, Mali, Israel, Vietnam, Nepal and Russia,” Marian says. “The hosts, who were Jewish, celebrate Shabbat on Friday evenings by lighting candles and saying prayers — and everyone took part. All the guests began to share stories about their own religious and cultural experiences. The hosts often invite their neighbors,” she adds, “who were thrilled to be included in an event so rich in cultural diversity.”

Konstantin from Belarus meets another game developer at the Green Garage incubator.

Because Detroit doesn’t have an international affairs department, organizations like Global Ties Detroit fills the void, enabling people to enjoy the intellectual and emotional riches of connecting with people from around the world.

Jim and Py Wolfe understand. Both retired teachers, the Wolfes are homestay and dinner hospitality hosts who have shared their home, culture, and friendship with hundreds of international delegates over the years. Not only have they remained in touch with exchange participants, but they even visit their new friends in their home countries, including recent alumni of the Community Connections program from Belarus.

“We like to travel and we like to entertain,” says Jim. “It’s a natural for us.” From cooking meals and hanging out at home with their guests to taking them to sporting events, art museums and shopping malls, Jim and Py enjoy every opportunity to learn about people and how alike we all really are.

“We know so little about Muslim countries, for example,” Jim says. “But they’re essentially just like us and want the same things for themselves and their families.” Exchanges are also a lot of fun. “One time, a couple of guests from Ukraine were telling a joke and we were laughing our heads off, but I really had no idea what they were saying. It didn’t really matter,” Jim recalls with a smile.

On a recent Memorial Day cookout, Jim and Py’s guests, from Kyrgyzstan, were enjoying hamburgers and hotdogs with their neighbors. At one point, though, it became apparent that all the men were missing. It turns out they went over to the side lawn, facing Mecca, to pray.

Sharing religious traditions, food, recipes, songs and dances are all part of the mix. One visitor from Ukraine even took out a tool bag from the garage to fix the broken table in the Wolfe’s kitchen, simply to be helpful.

“Just being together is so enlightening,” Jim says. “And we get so close that when our guests leave, we’re all crying. Now, in addition to receiving birthday and anniversary greetings from around the world, we’re able to stay in touch through Skype, so we can keep up with our friendships.”

Considering themselves “citizen diplomats” the Wolfes are committed to doing their part to change perceptions, which are often based on what people see on TV. “When you get right down to it, conversing with someone over a nice dinner demonstrates our common humanity. It’s that simple, and it’s important, especially now.”

Faris Alami, who is the founder of International Strategic Management in Detroit, which helps entrepreneurs with training, mentorships and grants, knows how important personal connections and international understanding are to his business and home life.

Investing in Each Other
Faris, who is a Palestinian Muslim, and his American wife Lara see international exchanges as the best way to build bridges, not only for themselves but for their three children, who range in age from six to eleven. Lara even insisted on remodeling their home to make sure it could accommodate visitors, who’ve come from places as far away as Mongolia, South America and Africa.

“We’ll find our kids playing pool, air hockey, chess and even the piano with our guests,” Faris says. “They are learning at a young age how to interact with people from different countries, just doing what they normally do and having fun doing it.

“You’d have to fly around the world to be able to bond with so many different people,” Faris says. “But here we’re blessed to meet so many wonderful people and enjoy our time together, which includes our neighbors and friends, who are fascinated by the experience and love to join in.”

Ultimately, Faris believes, such interactions can create a better world and impact public policy. “The more we interact, the more we change perceptions and attitudes, sometimes here more than anywhere else. It’s a better investment than fighting each other.”

How The Experiment Inspired This White House ‘Champion of Change’

Dorothy Stoneman’s journey to the frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement can be traced back to an eye-opening experience in France in 1959. As a member of a World Learning Experiment cohort, Stonemen credits the experience with expanding her worldview and exposing her to an array of perspectives outside of her own.

Stoneman, who was named by the White House as a “Champion of Change” in 2012, recalls her decision to join New York’s Harlem Action Group as one that ultimately would go against the grain within the movement. As most of her white peers headed south to get involved in activism, she decided to enact change within a community not in the headlines through education and advocacy.

“I learned to use my privilege in a way that was accountable to the community and embedded in it,” she said. “The white folks who went south tended to overwhelm the movement with their point of view.”

Stoneman began her career as a public school teacher, and then became director of a community-based, parent-controlled daycare center and elementary school. In addition to her role as an educator, Stoneman turned her focus to breaking the cycle of crime and poverty through suitable living solutions within her neighborhood.

In the 1970s, Stoneman’s students told her they wanted to rehabilitate empty neighborhood houses that attracted crime, which inspired her to found YouthBuild USA. The program helps low-income people aged 16 to 24 earn their GEDs or high school diplomas, learn job skills, and serve their communities by building affordable and increasingly green units of housing.

According to the Stoneman, there are still pressing civil rights issues that resonate from her time as a teacher in Harlem. She remains determined to advocate for closing gaps within the education system and finding solutions to address the disproportionate number of people of color in prison.

“The dominant culture needs to invest in opportunities for education, job training, employment, and service for young people born into poverty,” she said.

Developing Leadership Skills Through an International Exchange Program

This August, sixteen Japanese and Korean young women (eight from each country) and four adult mentors (two from each country) participated in an exchange program facilitated by World Learning and funded by the State Department, which focused on building their leadership and entrepreneurial skills.

The primary objectives of the program were to support the students as they developed into young adults with a strong sense of civic responsibility, an entrepreneurial mindset, a commitment to community development, an awareness of current and global issues, strong interpersonal leadership skills, and a willingness to foster relationships among youth from different ethnic, religious, and national groups in Japan, South Korea and the United States.

The sixteen students participated in homestays across the U.S., where they were immersed in American culture and strengthened their English skills. They also planned for the implementation of community service projects upon their return home, which were presented to World Learning staff on August 26. The projects focused on issues ranging from library fundraising and book exchange, to developing an English-speaking forum through Skype for Japanese and Korean students.

One of the highlights for the group after their homestay visits across the country was the chance to attend a screening of a Voice of America (VOA) documentary at the World Learning headquarters in Washington, DC. The film, entitled A Single Step, was hosted and narrated by Academy Award winner Sally Field, and focused on women who have made it their clarion call to challenge the status quo and motivate women to participate in issues such as human rights, health, politics, climate change, civil society, and the economy. One of the women profiled in the documentary, Dr. Sachiko Kuno, resonated especially with the exchange group, as she is a Japanese entrepreneur and leader within the pharmaceutical field. VOA brought a film crew to the screening to capture the young women’s reactions to the documentary, during both the film and a post-viewing discussion. A Single Step centers on the Beijing+20 initiative to reexamine the role of women in the international arena and will soon be distributed to American embassies worldwide.

Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars

Participant Profile

Participants are alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs and vary in age and level of expertise, but all will be engaged in the seminar topic and highly motivated to create change in their communities.

Please consult the list of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs below.

Participant Selection

Alumni TIES participants who are not U.S. citizens are nominated by the U.S. Embassies or Consulates in their countries. Please contact the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in your country to learn how you can participate in Alumni TIES. Potential Alumni TIES participants who are living in the United States can apply for specific seminars managed by World Learning. The web link to the online application will be distributed widely by the Office of Alumni Affairs of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

All participants for Alumni TIES seminars are selected by the U.S. Department of State.

Program Design

Alumni TIES seminars take place in six world regions and the U.S.; each seminar is three to four days for small groups of alumni. The seminars include speakers, capacity development trainings, and alumni networking activities. Through the small grants initiative, alumni have the opportunity to take action and make a positive difference in their communities.

Learn More

Watch more videos about the Alumni TIES program.

Read stories from past participants about their experiences at the seminars or with their small grant projects on the Alumni TIES blog.

For information on programs for U.S. government-sponsored exchange program alumni visit the International Exchange Alumni website.

Alumni TIES is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and supported in its implementation by World Learning, in partnership with the Office of Alumni Affairs of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA).  

Arts Envoy Program

The Arts Envoy Program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by World Learning.

English Language Assessment Services

Prior to administering assessments and trainings, World Learning works with organizations to determine their needs and set appropriate language proficiency benchmarks. The assessment utilizes a comprehensive, four-pronged approach to measure individuals’ skills against those benchmarks. This approach combines the MET: Michigan English Test, SPEAK: Speaking Proficiency English Assessment Kit, and World Learning’s own customizable writing test and interview protocol. Combining these four assessment types allows for an accurate rating of participants’ four key language skills, reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

World Learning ESL technical experts tailor the writing test and interview protocol for each client to incorporate their needs and the context of the assessment. Two trained World Learning raters independently score the SPEAK test, writing test, and interview protocol to ensure accuracy. Once all scores are finalized, World Learning converts them into a single master rating that corresponds to standard language proficiency benchmarks. World Learning also provides Certificates of Achievement to participants who reach the benchmarks set by their organizations.

Communities Connecting Heritage

Communities Connecting HeritageSM  Program Impact


CCH Alumni Small Grants

At the conclusion of the program’s third year, the CCH team opened the Communities Connecting Heritage Small Grants to organizational and community member alumni from all three CCH cycles. The following projects were selected for CCH Small Grant implementation.

Kristina Llane (Albania)
Title of Project: Beekeeping Tradition as and Educative Tool

This project aims to preserve and share the importance of local beekeeping traditions in the Gjirokastra community of Albania. Kristina will work with elementary school students to cultivate youth interest in beekeeping’s cultural role in their community. Throughout the project, students and teachers will contribute to an educational book on beekeeping to that will equip teachers to continue sharing with future classrooms. The project will conclude with a panel discussion focused on protecting and preserving culture, tradition, and the environment in Albania.

Kalpana Gagdekar (India)
Title of Project: Connecting Community with Their Traditional/Heritage Cuisine

This project will explore and document the Chhara community’s traditional cuisines, which are experiencing a disappearing effect under modern global influences. Kalpana aims to document the rituals and heritage of Chhara cuisine through seven video interviews with Chhara women elders. The project combines modern technology with traditional food heritage and welcomes Chhara members of all ages to reclaim and rediscover their own heritage.

Mandala Theatre (Nepal) and Creative Connections (Connecticut, U.S.)
Title of Project: Hamro Sanskriti: Preserving Cultural Heritage through Participatory Theatre

The goal of this project is to provide youth in Connecticut and Nepal with a deeper connection to their own culture through student-led virtual workshops. The workshops – spearheaded by theater trainers in Nepal and Connecticut – will teach participatory theater techniques to 250 high school students and conclude with a model forum theater piece produced by students for the public.

Athar Lina (Egypt)
Title of Project: Rawya: The Water Women

Rawya: The Water Women is a Cairo-based project aimed at restoring the historically significant Sabil Um Abbas, a 19th century religious building and gathering place, into a usable community space once more. In addition to restoring aspects of the building, the project will connect U.S. and Egyptian women storytellers Donna Bryson and Chirine El Ansary to curate a storytelling experience of powerful 19th century women from their respective countries. Their work will culminate in a video exhibition that will be on display in the newly renovated Sabil Um Abbas for the local community to experience.

Bhasha Research and Publication Centre (India) and University of Northern Colorado (Colorado, U.S.)
Title of Project: Reclaiming Heritage II: Building Social Bonds and Bridges with Cultural Heritage

This project will utilize digital library resources at UNC to create and share cultural heritage “snapshots” with the broader community. These short videos will help immigrants and refugees in Colorado and indigenous peoples in India share their cultural heritage while building bonds with their local communities. The project will provide its participants with the ownership and platform to share their own heritage while paving a pathway for integration with others in their community.

Outside the Lens (California, U.S.)
Title of Project: Youth Tellers

Youth Tellers is a cross-cultural collaboration between Latinx youth in California and Bosnia-Herzegovina, relying on the concepts of past, present, and future to explore students’ complex cultural identities. Using digital media tools including photography, videography, and youth-facing communication forums like Discord, the project will culminate in a virtual exhibition showcasing the participants’ cultural heritage exchange with one another.

Explore the Story section on the right to learn more about the unique cultural heritage projects implemented since 2018.