Person to Person Exchange: The U.S. and Turkey

By: Coby Vail, THO Non-Resident Fellow

As a Program Officer at the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy, I’m at the front lines of Citizen Diplomacy and International Exchange everyday. Whether hosting interfaith leaders from around the world, young entrepreneurs from Latin America or refugee specialists from Turkey, I represent the United States (and Utah) to these visiting leaders. Because I believe that diplomacy starts here, at the person to person level, one handshake at a time, I know that exchange programs like these build bridges between peoples of diverse backgrounds and beliefs despite differences. For this reason, meaningful and frequent exchange programs between the United States and Turkey are crucial for a strong and sustaining relationship. Through my THO Non-Resident Fellowship, I will explore this topic and that of public diplomacy.

In looking at exchange programs open to Turkish and U.S. Citizens, I found many existing programs. On the website of the U.S. Embassy in Turkey, I found a list of 18 different exchange programs. Of those, four were open to U.S. participants and 14 programs engaged Turkish participants. Programs for U.S. citizens included two with a focus on Turkish language, one for high school students (National Security Language Initiative for Youth) and the other for undergraduate and graduate students (Critical Language Scholarship), with the other two focusing on English language (Fulbright) and culture (Kennedy Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program). Programs open to Turkish participants ranged from professional fellowships, short-term professional programs, to leadership, mentoring, and culture exchange programs. For the most part, all of these programs are open to participants from other countries as well.

The Turkish government does not have dedicated exchange programs of its own; however, it has multiple programs and initiatives to foster Turkish language learning and open opportunities to study in Turkey. The first, a summer language exchange program through the Yunus Emre Institute, is open to participants from any country and the second, Turkiye Burslari, is a scholarship program offering undergraduate and graduate students scholarships and living stipends to pursue education in Turkey. This doesn’t take into account the overall number of students studying in Turkey or the United States as international students who may also be seen as exchange participants but are not part of a specific program. In 2017, Turkish students made up the 15th largest source of international students in the U.S. numbering 10,600. The number of American students studying in Turkey is not publically available, but is thought to be far less, perhaps not event a tenth of the number of Turkish students studying in the U.S.

In light of all this, what can the number of U.S. and Turkish students studying in the other country and these exchange programs tell us about broader U.S.-Turkey relations? To me, such exchange programs are an investment in strong, future U.S.-Turkey ties as participants in such programs are the future leaders of tomorrow, making the best time to invest in such programs yesterday. You might think from what I’ve outlined above that these programs support a robust exchange of people and ideas between the two countries. Sadly, that is not the case, despite the best intentions and hard work of some. Below, I will outline some of the key points from which I draw this conclusion and suggest some avenues in which both sides can invest to create change.

Considering my last point first, let’s consider the disparity of Turkish students studying in the United States vs. U.S. students studying in Turkey. Although such students are not official exchange participants, they perhaps more than any exchange participant come to understand the host culture, history, and practices best through immersion. Because study in a foreign country is primarily open to those of the middle and upper economic classes, the lack of U.S. students studying in Turkish universities shows us that few future leaders of the United States are equipped with the cultural understanding that comes from living in another place long term. By comparison, the number of American students studying in countries like Germany, France, the U.K., and China is far higher.

In addition, the number of students from the United States studying abroad in Turkey has also declined significantly. This seems due to security warnings from the U.S. State Department which inappropriately classify Turkey as a dangerous place to visit. These State Department travel warnings often serve as the key indicator for University Study Abroad programs to approve or disapprove student travel for short-term study abroad or internships.

Another worrying trend in the exchange space is the limited Turkish participation in the United State’s premier professional exchange program, the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) designed to allow emerging leaders from around the globe to experience the United States firsthand and build lasting relationships through short programs. The IVLP program works with individuals from around the globe; but priorities for participation are determined annually by the U.S. Department of State.

Countries that are more important to U.S. Foreign Policy priorities in a given year receive more slots, and country-specific programs (where program participants come from a single country) may be created or participants may travel in regional or multi-regional groups. One major concern for U.S. — Turkey relations is the lack of U.S. investment in U.S. — Turkey relations through the IVLP program. Turkey specific IVLP groups are few and far between limiting the opportunity for mid-level professionals in the United States and Turkey to connect and build those important bridges. When Turkish citizens do participate in IVLP programs it as a single participant in a larger multiregional project, greatly limiting the possibility for engaging with Turkey.

In the face of this how can the United States and Turkey engage better in the exchange realm? The United States would do well to reconsider its security warning that limit the possibility of student exchange, and the State Department would do well to increase Turkish participation in the IVLP program. In addition, Turkey should consider the creation of initiatives focused on American participants which I will consider in a future post. Exchange programs like these may seem inconsequential, but they are in fact the building blocks of strong business, political, and personal relations between countries. Both countries would be well to invest in them.