Youth Exchange Program Welcomes Young "Citizen Diplomats"

By Cecilia Martin
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – More than 600 high school students from 24 countries filled Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall August 10 for a welcome by State Department officials at an orientation session in Washington.

The students, selected for their potential as future leaders, are participants in the U.S. Department of State-sponsored Youth Exchange and Study (YES). The program’s goal is to give young leaders interested in international diplomacy a taste of the real thing, beginning with an orientation session to acquaint them with the role of the Department of State in the YES program and the role of the students play as citizen diplomats of their countries.

The YES class of 2006-2007 is the fourth group of students to participate in the program, which was established in October 2002 to provide scholarships for students from countries with significant Muslim populations to study in a U.S. high school for up to one academic year.

Department of State Director of Strategic Communications Gordon Johndroe explained how the participants can teach Americans about their cultures and beliefs during their U.S. stays and teach people in their home countries what they learn about American culture when they return.

“I think for the most part you’re going to find Americans to be very similar to you,” said Johndroe, “and you’ll be able to go to your home countries and talk to your friends and your family and your neighbors about that, and that’s integral to the world moving forward together living in peace and freedom.” 


Department of State Program Specialist Robert Persiko addressed the students on their roles as citizen diplomats.  Speaking of the conflicts that have disrupted life in many of the students’ homelands, he said,  “The name ‘YES’ is an affirmation that all things are possible.  It is a positive response to the negativism in the world, and to all the people who have said that a program for young people from the Arab and Muslim world could not be done.  Our answer to that is, ‘yes it can’.”

Students selected for the YES program are viewed as potential future leaders of their countries.  Their time in the United States, spent living with an American family and studying at American high schools, is intended to give them a broader view of the world and help them develop their leadership qualities. They also learn about diplomacy.

“The YES program offers you the chance to … play a direct role in building bridges of understanding for your country and the United States,” Persiko said. He added that some might “be the only person from Iraq, Pakistan, or Indonesia that Americans ever meet.  For them, you will be those countries.” 

Persiko encouraged the students to participate in dialogue with their classmates, host families, and other Americans they meet.  Through cultural exchange, the YES students will be able to dispel stereotypes and misconceptions people in the United States might have about the Muslim world. At the same time, students will have the opportunity to compare stereotypical views of Americans with the Americans they meet and the society they experience.  The goal, he said, is an appreciation of cultural diversity.

Imam Yahya Hendi, Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University, addressed the gathering. “Indeed you are the leaders of the future, but unless you are able to work together and master the art of working together … we can’t become the leaders of the future,” he told them.

“You have an opportunity ahead of you to become ambassadors of your religions, ambassadors of your countries, ambassadors of your background to this great country of ours,” he said.  “To do this … you need to know how to communicate your ideas with respect to others … and remember in talking you need to listen,” explained Hendi.

The students’ response to the orientation session was as enthusiastic as their anticipation of their upcoming experiences in the United States.

YES program student, Lijo John from India, explained that he came to the United States for exactly the reasons the speakers had mentioned.  “I wanted to know more about the United States and understand it better, seeing the stereotypes and misunderstandings about Americans,” John said.  Already he is learning about other cultures through his fellow YES participants.  “Because it’s not possible for me to travel to all these other countries.  It’s a great opportunity for me to meet other people,” he said.

The YES program students will stay with American host families in communities all across the United States.

Additional information is available on the program’s Web site.