Letter to the editor: Exploring citizen diplomacy

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Citizen diplomacy is defined as the right – if not the responsibility- Americans have to impact foreign policy and diplomatic efforts, “one handshake at a time.” Citizen diplomacy operates under the premise that by meeting and interacting with “regular” Americans, international visitors will have a greater understanding of our people and culture.

The week of Feb. 12, I visited Washington, D.C. to participate in an incredibly eye-opening conference on Citizen Diplomacy hosted by the National Council for International Visitors (NCIV) in association with the U.S. Department of State. 

I was nominated by the Vermont Council on World Affairs in Burlington as an Emerging Leader to attend this conference, which featured dozens of prominent leaders such as Kathleen Stephens, John McCain, foreign ambassadors and 500 others from the public and private sectors.  

I participated in a State Department reception in the historic Ben Franklin Room and an evening reception hosted at the embassy of the Slovak Republic, where I met with Ronan Farrow and Tomicah Tillemann, both senior advisors to the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  

There I discussed how my generation can help shape American foreign policy and the role youth can play to foster peace and stability internationally. 

While the events were fascinating on their own, in my opinion, the people I met were the highlight of the trip. With Charlie Kellett, a UVM alum, ’93 environmental studies, and now diplomat, I discussed the concept of citizen diplomacy and I learned how he became interested in international affairs. 

Exposure to international scholars and exchange students inspired him to leave the U.S. for a chance to study abroad in 1988, when he left home to live in West Germany as an AFS high school exchange student. 

At UVM, Charlie studied under professor Jean Richardson, who challenged students to find solutions to the complex environmental challenges facing the Earth. Charlie heeded her challenge and served as a Peace Corp Volunteer in Morocco, where he worked in a national park and lived with subsistence farmers.  

There, he learned the power of citizen diplomacy through the Moroccan people’s generosity and hospitality and his desire to be part of something bigger than himself, and to promote mutual understanding internationally, led him to the State Department, where he works on the International Visitor Leadership Program. 

Similarly, my own path to international relations has been one full of fortunate opportunities that have allowed me to engage as a citizen diplomat. I began to study Chinese when living with incredibly diverse peers and developed  an interest in international cultures – specifically Chinese language and culture. 

The relatively brief amount of time that I spent in China during my junior year abroad was truly one of the best experiences I have ever had in my life. I lived in Beijing with a Chinese host family – a true family in every sense of the word. 

They welcomed me into their home and, through their hospitality and kindness, positively changed my perceptions of China. Meeting so many extraordinary people who are directly involved with international affairs, both abroad and in the United States, has reaffirmed my desire to work in international affairs in the future. 

However, none of this would have been possible without the wonderful opportunities afforded to me first in high school and now while attending UVM. Now, in my senior at UVM, I realize just how much I have grown as a direct result of studying here. 

As a global studies and Asian studies double major, I have had countless opportunities to build upon existing interest in foreign affairs, including living in the Global Village, studying abroad in China and interning with the Vermont Council on World Affairs (VCWA), the organization that brought me to D.C. for the conference. 

It is at UVM that I have branched out and have grown into the person that I am today, with a strong desire to make a difference in the world. Moreover, throughout my time here I have made long-lasting friendships that will stand the test of time, further enriching my experience at UVM.

In order to play an effective role in foreign relations, certain qualities are essential: a passion for people and learning, as well as an unceasing desire to make a palpable change in the world, great or small. Above all, it is the personal interactions between people that foster truly lasting and valuable relationships. 

Nevertheless, each individual has to make the personal decision to engage with the world in order to connect on a fundamental level with others, both in the U.S. and abroad, in order to be a citizen diplomat. I urge anyone who has an interest in international affairs, languages or other cultures to get out there and live your dream. You never know what opportunities will appear until you start. 

Therefore, in the pursuit of your dreams, I would like to pass on some advice given to me by Charlie Kellett, who told me to listen and understand. Through these concepts we can avoid misunderstandings and war, gain friends, and, in some cases, even a family.

As citizen diplomats we all have much to learn about ourselves and the world. Therefore, we all must take advantage of all the opportunities. The path to success is not an easy one, but if we take to heart the advice given to us, we may just succeed and eventually be able to make a difference and become part of something bigger than ourselves.