Remarks at the opening of the General Assembly of the European Federation for Intercultural Learning

Ambassador Bell opens the General Assembly. (Embassy photo by Attila Németh)
Ambassador Bell opens the General Assembly.

Good morning, everyone.  I’m so delighted to be here, and thank you, Mr. Csaba (Chairman of the Board of AFS Hungary), for your kind invitation.  Let me first congratulate all of you on the centennial anniversary of your organization, American Field Service, and on the 25th anniversary of your chapter in Hungary.  You have a history to be proud of.  Started as a volunteer service of American ambulance drivers risking their lives during World War I, American Field Service has evolved into a major international youth exchange organization.  Its “gloriously exciting and grandly humanitarian” work continues today with exchange opportunities for more than 13,000 students and teachers annually and with volunteer work that your organization provides worldwide.

As I was preparing for this event, I learned that the American Field Service provides intercultural learning opportunities “to create a more just and peaceful world.”  This is exactly in sync with the mission of the U.S. Foreign Service.  In fact, 2015 is a special year for the U.S. Department of State, too, as we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of international exchange programs.  In 1940, with the memories of the First World War still fresh, and with another World War beginning, the United States recognized that intercultural learning and the exchange of ideas can have a greater impact in improving international relations by bringing people of different countries together.  The State Department formed a Division of Cultural Relations, which launched a program of travel grants for visits to the United States by leaders from the other countries in Western hemisphere.  This program marked the beginning of the International Visitor Leadership Program, our flagship exchange program for mid-career professionals that continues to this day.

We redoubled our efforts after World War II by establishing the Fulbright program, and later, through the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961, we expanded our outreach to the world with academic, cultural, sports, and professional exchanges, and through public -private partnerships.  Today the Department of State administers exchange programs for more than 50,000 participants each year.  Artists, educators, athletes, students, youth, and emerging leaders from more than 160 countries around the globe, including the United States, participate in these exchanges.  To reflect the diversity of the United States and within our global community, we encourage the involvement of American and international participants from underrepresented groups – for example, women, racial and ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities.  We are proud that our exchange alumni include 385 current or former heads of state, 63 Nobel laureates, and thousands of leaders across the private and nonprofits sectors –solid proof of the success and importance of international exchanges.

In the increasingly interconnected and globalized world we live in today, intercultural learning has become a necessity, and we have a responsibility to provide the next generations with the means to meet the challenges of the 21st century.  There is no doubt in my mind – and I’m sure you all agree – that international exchange programs improve our understanding of different cultures and viewpoints, build language and leadership skills, and enhance economic prosperity and security.

I know that you at the European Federation for Intercultural Learning (EFIL) member organizations work very hard to expand the knowledge and attitudes of students all over Europe so that they can successfully learn from and participate in the broader global community.  I would like to commend you for doing this important work and to wish you much success.  Thank you.