Building bridges through student diplomacy

“The one most important thing I learned and appreciate about the U.S. and want my country to follow is that America accepts differences. It finds similarities and respects differences, which I think the whole world needs to learn.” … former YES exchange student


In the eyes of the U.S. Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the events of Sept. 11, 2001 revealed that public diplomacy efforts with predominantly Muslims countries had been neglected for many years. Soon afterwards they helped establish the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange Study (YES) program. Its goal is to promote mutual understanding and respect between U.S. citizens and the Muslim population around the world. In essence, YES is sowing the seeds of friendships so our children can create a more peaceful world.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am one of the local coordinators for four YES students attending Thunder Mountain High School this year. Our role is to provide assistance and support to the students and their host families in Juneau. I receive a monthly stipend of $50 from AYUSA, one of several nonprofits that administer State Department grants for the YES program. I am also a host parent for a Muslim student from Turkey.

Before this year I had never been involved in a student exchange program. And I never imagined they could have a significant impact on international politics. But I’ve come to see such thinking is shortsighted. While I certainly don’t expect these students to immediately usher in an era of world peace, I do believe they and their TMHS classmates might be better equipped to practice international diplomacy than many of today’s political leaders.

That these young people traveled half way around the world to study here should be enough to stir the curiosity in most American students. What is life like in their home countries? What personal ambitions do they hope to fulfill? What might their Islamic cultures have in common with our way of life?

To discover who they are requires genuinely listening to them describe their life experiences and share their dreams. Through personal contact like this we’re able to cast aside prejudices we’ve inherited or formed about people who are different from us. It helps build respect for one another, which is the hallmark origin of lasting friendships.

Mutual respect is also the key to equal rights. It’s an essential component of our cherished freedoms of speech and religion. Yet if we look across the American landscape we’ll see an awful lot of intolerance based on race, religion, sexual orientation and even economic belief systems.

Muslim Americans in particular are under attack by a number of conservative groups. For instance, in December businesses pulled advertising from The Learning Channel’s “All-American Muslim” reality show after the Florida Family Association complained the program was “propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values.” And the Dove World Outreach Center, which staged a public burning of the Quran last April, sells t-shirts, caps and mugs imprinted with the slogan “Islam is of the Devil”.

Even if these groups don’t speak for the majority of Americans, such stark disagreements on what constitutes American values do indicate we’re a nation without a unified voice. Yet for the sake of individual liberty it has to be this way. So if we’re to preserve our freedoms we first have to recognize that they will always include the paradoxical challenge of learning to trust people who hold views that most drastically differ from ours.

What better place to begin this education than in our schools. It’s where we should be teaching our youth to think for themselves. Their opinion of other people shouldn’t be based on stereotypes handed down by adults. That interferes with learning the diplomatic skills needed to build meaningful friendships.

“All war represents a failure of diplomacy” British Parliamentarian Tony Benn told the House of Commons at the end of the first Gulf War. International diplomacy will always fail when fear and mistrust guide our politicians. Our children deserve better leaders. There might be a few among them and their Muslim classmates who are being given the chance to build bridges across today’s cultural divides.

Moniak is a Juneau resident.


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