By Jeannie Hindman

In 1940, Nelson Rockefeller, coordinator of commercial and cultural affairs for the American Republics, initiated the exchange of persons program with Latin America, inviting 130 Latin American journalists to the United States. Shortly thereafter, on Dec. 16, 1940, the Department of State’s former Division of Cultural Relations invited the first official international visitor, Father Aurelio Espinosa Polit, to New York under the Hemisphere Leaders Program. This program would eventually become what is today known as the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). Over the intervening 80 years, exchange programs like the Fulbright Program, the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, Arts and Sports Envoys, and many others expanded across a network of more than 1 million people in 160 countries. There are now more than 90 exchange programs supporting nearly 55,000 American and foreign participants each year. Exchange alumni, like writer Aurelio Espinosa Polit, have brought lasting positive change. Today’s participants and alumni continue to build on the foundational legacy of the international exchange alumni network to achieve U.S. foreign policy goals while safeguarding the health, security, and economic welfare of communities around the world. 

U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs contribute to the American economy by providing nearly $36 billion in contributions from international students that help support more than 455,000 American jobs. Exchange alumni are leaders in their fields from new media, education, science, and technology. Dora Racca, an Argentinian Fulbright scholar and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Bioengineering, was part of a group of scientists from CASPR Biotech that traveled to San Francisco to upgrade the company’s COVID-19 test kits. CASPR Biotech is run and was co-founded by Franco Goytia, an alumnus of the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative Professional Fellows Program. CASPR’s U.S.-patented test kit detects coronavirus antibodies in less than an hour, at half the cost of the current standard test for COVID-19 diagnosis. 

The CASPR Biotech team traveled to San Francisco to upgrade their coronavirus test kits. Photo courtesy of CASPR Biotech
The CASPR Biotech team traveled to San Francisco to upgrade their coronavirus test kits. Photo courtesy of CASPR Biotech
Fulbright Scholar Dora Racca at the CASPR Biotech lab. Racca traveled to San Francisco, Ca. to upgrade CASPR’s COVID-19 test kits. Photo courtesy of Dora Racca
Fulbright Scholar Dora Racca at the CASPR Biotech lab. Racca traveled to San Francisco, Ca. to upgrade CASPR’s COVID-19 test kits. Photo courtesy of Dora Racca

Racca is also developing a microfluidic platform to process test results on-site, avoiding the need to send samples to labs. Racca and other scientists from CASPR Biotech are just one example of exchange alumni and long-term public-private partnerships that bring skills and innovation to the United States and abroad. 

International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) alumna Dr. Ita Perwira, senior health officer at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, led an online discussion about coronavirus with three doctors from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, April 22. Graphic courtesy of AtAmerica
International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) alumna Dr. Ita Perwira, senior health officer at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, led an online discussion about coronavirus with three doctors from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, April 22. Graphic courtesy of AtAmerica

As part of the Health Futures initiative, the Department launched the United States and  Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Health Futures Alumni Network (HFAN), April 22. HFAN is composed of 2,400 medical and public health alumni of U.S. exchange programs from ASEAN countries and Timor-Leste. HFAN is leading the charge in sharing best practices with U.S. experts, developing mentoring and networking platforms, promoting alumni funding initiatives, and identifying collaborative opportunities. In July 2020, two HFAN alumni participated in a Department-sponsored virtual professional development event called MentorTalks, speaking about their work on COVID-19 research and taking live questions from the audience. Successful professional exchanges and alumni mentorship continue to build bridges between U.S. and foreign public health experts, enabling them to more effectively respond during global health crises. 

Underpinning the person-to-person relationships between the United States and its foreign counterparts are the alumni who share a common belief in the democratic principles of strong civil society institutions upheld through civic engagement. From her U.S. Speaker Program tour in Australia to her work as executive director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), Michelle Ciulla Lipkin has championed media literacy around the world. During this time, Ciulla Lipkin built strategic partnerships with media companies such as Participant Media, Nickelodeon, and Twitter. Her Media Literacy Week campaign was used as a model by NAMLE Australian counterpart, ABC Education.

In July 2020, NAMLE led a series of webinar discussions at the Department-sponsored Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars (TIES). Seventy alumni from the United States and around the world were invited to explore media and communications education, policy, and advocacy. Ciulla Lipkin and her team provided a platform for participants to engage in open dialogue and to share global perspectives and best practices with their fellow alumni. Ciulla Lipkin also joined Dr. Ankuran Dutta, alumnus of the Study of the U.S. Institutes program, on MentorTalks to discuss media literacy skills for fighting pandemic misinformation.

Leaders of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) Central African Republic youth association in Bangui bring coronavirus prevention awareness, May 30. Photo by Arsène-Jonathan Mosseavo
Leaders of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) Central African Republic youth association in Bangui bring coronavirus prevention awareness, May 30. Photo by Arsène-Jonathan Mosseavo

U.S. government exchange alumni are international leaders in a wide array of fields, from journalism or correspondence supporting independent media, to political or economic leadership encouraging the protection of human rights. In fact, one in three countries are led by alumni of these exchange programs, 100 alumni are current or former members of U.S. Congress, and 69 alumni are current or former representatives to the U.N. In April 2020, Ambassador Ivan Šimonović, Croatian permanent resident to the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA), was appointed by UNGA President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande as a co-coordinator of the UNGA COVID-19 response. Šimonović is a Fulbright alumnus with a long career as a diplomat and politician serving in high-level positions within the Ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs in Croatia. The Department cultivates long-standing relationships with emerging world leaders to strengthen the foundation of mutual understanding and cooperation that is critical when addressing issues such as the social and economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak.

Since April, 55 rapid-response alumni projects have been approved in as little as two weeks with up to $10,000 in funding per project. This shift in programming enables U.S. embassies and consulates abroad to address community needs and future recovery efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Projects ranging from business development and entrepreneurship to education, conflict resolution, and disinformation management bring together alumni leaders and associations to support local, in-person or virtual initiatives. One such project aimed at combating COVID-19 misinformation in the Central African Republic leveraged the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) Alumni Association, YALI Centrafrique, to launch a successful health information campaign. African youth leaders developed fliers and radio spots in the local Sango language and provided training to fellow community members on COVID-19 prevention measures. The success of this campaign underscores the importance of local media partnerships driven by person-to-person relationships helping to uplift communities that are vulnerable to violent extremism and disinformation. 

Career Connections’ U.S. exchange alumni stand outside the United Nations building in New York City, NY. Photo by Ashton Bitton
Career Connections’ U.S. exchange alumni stand outside the United Nations building in New York City, NY. Photo by Ashton Bitton

While the global alumni network continues to grow exponentially as individuals complete their exchange programs, so does their influence as political, economic, health, educational, or religious leaders. Since its inception in 2004, the Office of Alumni Affairs within the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) has scaled up its digital outreach and engagement on the International Exchange Alumni website, Facebook, Linkedin, and through U.S. and international Career Connections and Alumni TIES seminars. These alumni continue to draw upon their exchange experiences and their professional backgrounds to collaborate across countries and cultures, empowering others to join ECA’s exchange programs and work towards building a more peaceful and inclusive world.

Jeannie Hindman is a staff writer and communications specialist in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Office of Alumni Affairs.