Analysis | To cultivate a diverse and educated Foreign Service, the United States should invest in foreign exchange programs

River Harper

A woman purchases street food from a vendor in Vietnam.
Youth foreign exchange programs provide young Americans with the opportunity to develop expertise in other languages and cultures. (Image: Markus Winkler on Unsplash)

Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine has resulted in countless civilian deaths, a vast increase in refugees across multiple countries, and trillions of dollars in economic damage. China continues to express a desire to bring Taiwan under its control, stoking fears that it may eventually move to invade the island. One step the United States can take to increase preparedness for these challenges is to invest in a more diverse, globally educated generation of diplomats–and expanding access to State Department-sponsored foreign exchange programs is one of the best ways to do so.

The State Department administers government-sponsored programs for both U.S. and international students through its Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). ECA currently focuses on five programs for youth: the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX), Critical Language Scholarship (CLS), Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX), National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y), and Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study (YES) Abroad. CBYX is the United States’ only bilateral exchange, with about 350 U.S. students and 300 German students participating annually. While in Germany, U.S. students conduct person-to-person diplomacy, learn about the German political system, and live with a local host family. The FLEX program sends U.S. students to Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Poland, and welcomes foreign students from Ukraine, Hungary, and 20 other countries, primarily in Eastern Europe. The CLS and NSLI-Y programs allow U.S. students to travel to learn critical languages such as Russian, Arabic, and Chinese.

To strengthen ties with our closest allies and partners, ECA should create bilateral programs modeled after CBYX for a small number of other allies and partners in Europe, Asia, and Oceania. Keeping the number of countries with direct, bilateral exchanges low will reduce costs for the U.S. government and keep this strategy feasible over the long term. The United States should send 500 students to each additional country annually and allow 500 students from each country to travel to the United States. Students who participate in these programs and later work in government will have increased expertise in the culture, political environment, and language of these important allies and partners. Furthermore, these fully-funded exchanges can make trips abroad accessible to lower-income individuals. With the proper outreach and marketing, these programs can lead to more racial and socioeconomic diversity in exchange programs and ultimately within the State Department’s workforce itself. To ensure these programs reach their intended audience, it is vital that they remain fully funded for participants through contributions from partnering countries, taxpayer dollars, and donations from program alumni.

Nineteen of the 22 countries currently participating in FLEX send their own citizens to the United States, but do not host U.S. students in return. ECA should encourage more of these countries to host U.S. students, specifically those that are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). By increasing the number of NATO countries open to U.S. student travel, ECA will ensure that future U.S. leaders and diplomats have experienced a wide range of cultures and languages. This expansion will also provide an opportunity to grow the FLEX program seamlessly, since these countries already participate in the program. ECA can use this period to explore the possibility of expanding FLEX to the rest of NATO, if the United States deems the initial expansion to be successful.

ECA should also invest in its alumni program and leverage it to incentivize alumni to pursue careers in public service. Immediately after their program, U.S. students should be automatically enrolled in ECA’s alumni association, which should enable alumni to connect online and in-person. By remaining in contact with alumni, ECA will inform past participants about job openings for both civil and foreign service positions. The State Department should allow government agencies and private employers who work alongside the federal government to educate alumni about the career opportunities available to them and recruit qualified applicants.

In addition, ECA should launch an official mentorship program where younger alumni or students currently abroad can be paired with older alumni who already have established careers in the mentee’s industry of choice. Currently, alumni of the Fulbright and CLS programs receive one year of non-competitive eligibility benefits, allowing them to apply for federal employment without having to compete with the general public. The U.S. government should expand this benefit to all alumni whose programs lasted six months or longer, increasing the number of former participants who will seek civil service positions. To encourage a similar level of interest in a career with the Foreign Service, the State Department should provide a similar level of preferential treatment for ECA alumni seeking to enter the Foreign Service. Although applicants would still be required to pass the Foreign Service Officer Test, they would receive increased consideration to be invited to the oral assessment. By providing these incentives, ECA will simultaneously encourage its alumni to pursue careers in government and persuade more students to apply to its programs.

To increase the number of diverse applicants, ECA must focus its outreach on lower-income and racially diverse high schools. To promote its programs at low cost, ECA should send digital application materials to guidance counselors at schools receiving Title I funding and advertise its programs on social media. These posts are likely to spread organically and reach the intended target audience, given that the vast majority of U.S. teenagers use social media. Social media advertisements should also prominently feature alumni from all backgrounds providing favorable testimonials; by emphasizing that the U.S. government seeks to diversify these programs, ECA can ensure more diverse applicants apply.

Congress has continuously expressed strong, bipartisan support for exchange programs, describing them as “a proven and cost-effective way for the United States to remain internationally competitive, develop American leaders, . . . and promote American values.” This strategy is also consistent with ECA’s mission of fostering cultural understanding between the United States and other nations and developing a generation of educated, diverse U.S. leaders. Furthermore, successful implementation of this strategy is likely to increase the number of diverse leaders in the federal government and Foreign Service by offering students a path to these fields and increased consideration after completing an exchange program. After spending time abroad, these leaders will also possess more foreign policy experience.

To assess the effectiveness of this strategy, the State Department will evaluate the number of applicants, the percentage of alumni working in the federal government, and the percentage of participants from diverse backgrounds. ECA will also solicit qualitative feedback from program participants, engage in dialogue with representatives of countries hosting U.S. students, and communicate with Congress and inspectors general.

Cultivating a future generation of U.S. diplomats is critical to ensuring the United States can effectively implement foreign policy around the globe, particularly at a time of crisis for the Foreign Service. According to a report published last year by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, almost one-third of Foreign Service Officers are considering leaving their jobs. The number of Americans taking the Foreign Service Officer Test has also declined in recent years, meaning that the Department is likely to face a shortfall of Foreign Service Officers in the near future. In the past, personnel shortages within the Foreign Service have resulted in deficiencies in foreign language proficiency across the Department and other agencies, jeopardizing national security and diplomatic interests. By investing in its exchange programs, ECA will encourage future leaders to stay at the Department and prevent personnel shortages in the future, while also advancing key U.S. strategic interests worldwide.

River Harper (@RivHarper) is a junior at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, studying International Politics with a concentration in International Law, Institutions, and Ethics. He is currently an intern with the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and is an alum of ECA’s Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX) program. He is originally from Atlanta, Georgia and speaks fluent German.

Disclaimer: River Harper is currently employed by the Department of State as an intern in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. government.

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