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Building bridges between cultures through travel

By Dion Wierts, Public Affairs Section, U.S. Mission to the EU

What better way to broaden your horizon and  understand other people than to strap on your boots, leave your comfort zone, and interact with foreign cultures in places you have never been to or even heard of. The U.S. Department of State understands the importance of being exposed to other cultures and using its missions, consulates, and embassies spanning the globe, it frequently brings people from all walks of life and nationalities to the United States to learn more about this vast and diverse country and to build bridges between societies.

Every year in the month of September, when everyone is back from their summer break and people have recharged their batteries, I have the pleasure of organizing a networking event for alumni of these exchange programs in Brussels. Some participants have traveled in recent years or might have even just returned, while others go as far back as the 1980s or 1990s.

 

As participants arrive, the room fills with energy, voices, and laughter. People who met at prior events pick up where they left off, while others meet for the first time. As opposed to other events, the main topic of conversation is not EU legislation or international crises. Instead, this evening is all about sharing experiences, anecdotes, insights, and funny moments of their travels to the United States. It is striking how vividly some people who completed their program a long time ago, still remember their trip. One participant for example recalled the challenges posed by extreme winter weather, causing a two-day delay of the program. Another participant elaborately discussed being invited by an American family to their house for dinner and what that entailed. Others went to a ranch in Texas, or country club in Utah, or simply to an 18th-floor apartment in downtown Chicago.

USEU blogs on cultural exchange programs:

EP Delegation Receives a Hands on Introduction to the U.S. Electoral System.

College of Europe Team Presents Social Media Project on Countering Violent Extremism at the State Department.

Beyond the Beltways: Tour Highlights Regional Views on T-TIP for EP Staffers

Listening to the stories and feedback of visitors who have recently returned from their trip makes me realize time and again how much we all can learn by embarking on a trip which confronts us with new situations, opinions, and people.

The format and topic of each program the United States missions organize is different and can range from a three-week program on climate change mitigation for a group of 20 visitors, to a five-day program on cultural minorities for just one person. Each is unique and at the end of the day what really matters is having the opportunity to experience  the United States in its full diversity and gaining a more complex opinion of the country and its people. For instance, did you know that a domestic flight from Massachusetts to Southern California takes 6.5 hours?

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Group of IVLP Young European Leaders visiting Washington DC. (Source: Flickr)

Without a doubt this experience allows visitors to reflect and draw parallels with Europe and their daily job as part of the EU policy making community. Setting foot on another continent is when many realize where their roots are. I truly believe that these types of exchange programs are a wise investment for the future of the transatlantic relationship.

Click here to learn more about the USEU programs and exchanges section.

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