People to People Diplomacy: The Benefits of Government-funded Exchange Programs

Child sits against a wall outside of the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an, China. Photo taken by Campbell Turner/BiPolitics on his NSLI-Y program.
Child sits against a wall outside of the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an, China. PHOTO: Campbell Turner/BiPolitics

I remember back to the start of senior year in high school, scouring the internet for a unique summer experience. Starting a career in public service so early has been difficult, as most internships are only available to college students, with many being reserved for only upperclassmen.

After combing through the U.S. State Department’s website for the third time, searching for either an internship or some other program I was eligible for, I came across the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y). With less than a week before the deadline, I immediately asked my teachers for recommendations and completed my application. Eight months later, I was living with a host family for 6 weeks, learning Mandarin Chinese in Xi’an, China.

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NSLI-Y is an exchange program funded by the Department of State that gives full, merit-based scholarships to American high school students to study languages critical to U.S. interests in an immersive environment. In addition to the summer program that I participated in, NSLI-Y offers a year-long program as well.

Every program activity is conducted in the language a participant is studying, known as their target language, to maximize language learning. Each student lives with a family that speaks little English—if any at all. Classes are spoken in the target language, tour guides speak in the target language during group excursions, and so on. For 6 weeks, I was constantly hearing Chinese all day, every day. NSLI-Y does a good job at choosing cities where little English is spoken, forcing students to make use of their target languages in everyday life. For example, the people I interacted with most—my host family and teachers—spoke no English.

Posing for a photo with my NSLI-Y host family
Posing for a photo with my NSLI-Y host family

For the first couple of weeks, my host family did not realize my listening was improving. One night, when we were all sitting at the dinner table together, they excitedly began discussing how they were going to “surprise me for my birthday with vanilla cake.” Thinking I was unable to pick up what they were saying, they planned while I was sitting at the table next to them. Not wanting to spoil their big surprise, I just pretended like I didn’t understand.

Every weekday, I would attend language class with 17 other NSLI-Y students. While I picked up a lot of new vocab through conversation with my host family, their friends, and strangers, most of my learning came from these classes.

Overall, my Chinese saw a lot of improvement—nothing I was capable of accomplishing in a traditional classroom setting. As a hands-on learner, having the opportunity to apply my school learning to everyday life was extremely beneficial. This is a primary justification for the founding of this scholarship program and others of the likes.

Participating in NSLI-Y allowed me to learn about a completely different culture, teach others about my own, and build relationships with people I otherwise would not have even been able to communicate with. Not only did I get to see the Chinese perspective of Americans, I helped change it—hopefully for the better—by sharing about my life and country.

It was easily the most difficult thing I have done in life thus far, but also the most rewarding. The world that opened up to me just from being able to converse in a different language at a basic level is inexplicable. These are just a few of the reasons why exchange programs like this one are so important.

NSLI-Y and similar exchange programs are not only a way the State Department is investing in the futures of American citizens, but in the future of the country and the government. The immediate beneficiary of these language-intensive programs is the scholarship recipient, but over the long-term, society benefits.

Participants in these exchange programs are likely to become even more interested in acquiring their target language than before. After devoting 6 weeks of my summer to studying Mandarin Chinese, my mentality towards learning the language is “I can’t let my time in China go to waste. I’ve come too far to give up on learning the language.” Most other alumni of NSLI-Y I have spoken with have no intention of discontinuing their language studies either.

Resultantly, as program alumni grow up and eventually become proficient in their target language, American companies and government organizations are going to have access to more speakers of languages where there has traditionally been a lack of.

Personally, I also left with a stronger interest in US-China relations, foreign affairs, sustainability, technology, and working abroad. My time in China made me realize just how much of the world is opened up to those who have the ability to communicate in more than one language.

Scholarship recipients also bring back and share all of the things they experienced and learned during their time abroad. Subsequently, cross-cultural understanding gradually increases. They receive funding to embark on a memorable experience, learn a language, understand the culture of a different country, and form friendships with people around the world. This is something we called “people to people diplomacy.

Historically, the United States government has seen successes in people to people diplomacy, the most well-known being Ping Pong Diplomacy in the 1970s. At a ping pong tournament in Nagoya, Japan in 1971, American player Glenn Cowan missed his bus, leading him to ride on the Chinese team’s bus. Chinese players had been instructed not to speak with the American ones, but one of the players, Zhuang Zedong, introduced himself to Cowan and presented him with a gift. The next day, Cowan gave Zhuang a gift, returning the favor. Very quickly, everyone found out about the exchanges, including China’s chairman, Mao Zedong, who invited the team to visit their county. These events paved the way for President Nixon to establish diplomatic and economic relations with China, which was one of his primary objectives when he took office in 1969. This is just one example of the positive effects that come from people to people diplomacy.

Additional benefits of people to people diplomacy and living abroad is the development of more global perspectives. It’s important to think about and understand how the decisions of companies and governments affect the rest of the world. More and more companies are looking to hire people who have experience abroad and an understanding of potential markets. This is exactly what the State Department is hoping to accomplish.

Here are the goals of NSLI-Y as stated on their website:

– To improve the ability of Americans to engage with the people of Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Persian, Russian, and Turkish-speaking countries through shared language

– To develop a cadre of Americans with advanced linguistic skills and related cultural understanding who are able to use their linguistic and cultural skills to advance international dialogue and compete effectively in the global economy

– To provide a tangible incentive for the learning and use of foreign language by creating overseas language study opportunities for U.S. high school students

– To spark a lifetime interest in foreign languages and cultures among American youth

I can now say from experience that the scholarship program is successfully achieving its goals. My experience was transformative, and so were those of many other participants. Now, many of my fellow NSLI-Y participants are planning to pursue jobs that allow them to use their target language on a regular basis.

Though this just one youth exchange program, there several other ones out there. Critical Language Scholarship is a program similar to NSLI-Y, but for college students. Many professional exchanges are sponsored by the government as well, which place more of an emphasis on the exchange of ideas through employees in certain industries.

There are too many programs to review each one, so it’s best if you visit the State Department’s website yourself, but they all share a common goal: developing a more global citizenry. Most programs were designed with long-term goals in mind, so it is crucial that the government continues to fund these exchanges. Each is an example of people to people diplomacy at work.

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About Campbell Turner 3 Articles
Founding President, BiPolitics. University of Virginia '22. Interests: international affairs, government, entrepreneurship.

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