Will Cultural Exchanges Die Under the Trump Administration?

map of US

We try to avoid making “political” comments here on The Exchange Mom blog, knowing that audiences involved in cultural exchange and international education come from all walks of life and all political persuasions. President Trump’s proposed budget, however, is so potentially game-changing that we feel compelled to speak up.

There are many impacts of the President’s budget proposal beyond international education and exchange. I’m not even going to go into what the proposed budget cuts would do to environmental programs and the environment. Let’s just stick with the one agency that we’re involved with in high school cultural exchange — the U.S. Department of State.

The President’s proposed budget would cut funding for the U.S. Dept. of State by about 29%, eliminating most cultural exchange programs other than the Fulbright Program. Exchange programs dependent on significant federal funding could be doomed. These programs are important. See, for just a couple of examples, our posts Hiding in Plain Sight: The Changing Needs of Cultural Exchange and Today, An Exchange Student: Tomorrow . . . ? for our thoughts on why some of these programs are important. We would all be poorer for their loss.

proposed budget graph Dept of State 2017
Source: What Trump cut in his budget, Washington Post, March 16, 2017, http://wapo.st/trump-budget-proposal?tid=ss_tw.

It would be a mistake to assume that other cultural exchange programs — even if they do not primarily rely on Department of State funding for students — would come through this with no significant impacts. If the relevant oversight offices at the Department of State are defunded, for example, what happens then? Can the cultural exchange programs exist without a partnership with the Department of State?

Less direct but just as important is the additional pressure that public schools may face in coming years. The new Administration has plans to implement voucher and other programs. If attendance at public schools decreases as a result of such programs, the public school system will be increasingly squeezed. Will they still be receptive to high school exchange students on J-1 visas, who do not pay tuition? Will they be able to afford those students?

It’s hard to know how this will all play out. We can all see, however, that the Trump Administration has made clear that these are its priorities. The Administration’s proposed budget reflects a “hard power” approach to the future, not the “soft power” approach generally attributed to diplomacy and the State Department, and which most cultural exchange programs clearly support.

The international education community is beginning to speak out. As stated by the Alliance for International Exchange yesterday, as one example:

“Educational and cultural exchange programs have been a critical component of our national security policy since the end of World War II. ….the State Department reports that 1 in 3 current world leaders have been on an exchange program in the United States. In another Department study, 92 percent of participants from Muslim majority countries reported having a more favorable view of the United States.”

Shutting down these programs in favor of buying more guns and bombs ultimately will prove both shortsighted and “penny wise, pound foolish.” We hope that the high school, college, and post-graduate exchange community will make this clear to congressional and other representatives.

Today, An Exchange Student: Tomorrow . . . ?

“There’s no more important skill to succeed in the 21st century than a global mindset, and there’s no better way to develop a global mindset than studying abroad.”

—Ángel Cabrera, President, George Mason University, Fulbright Scholar; author of Being Global: How to Think, Act, and Lead in a Transformed World


I learned something interesting the other day: the president of Afghanistan, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, attended Lake Oswego High School as an exchange student. That’s where I live, where my own sons attended and graduated from high school. It’s where a dozen of our own exchange students “sons” and “daughters” and students we have supervised have attended school for a semester or academic year. It’s our home.

Lake Oswego High School as it looks today

I wasn’t surprised. Well, yes, I was . . . I certainly had no idea that President Ghani ever lived in Oregon, much less that he had attended high school here. But I wasn’t surprised to hear that he had been an exchange student, or to hear that he thought it was a profound experience that fundamentally changed his life.

We know that immersion in another culture as a teen or young adult can have amazing long-term impacts – effects that the students themselves may not see for quite some time. Their parents see it when they return home after six or ten months as more confident, more independent, more “worldly” young adults. “He left as an insecure teenager and came home as a young man. How does that happen?” a parent told me a few years ago in wonder. We see it, as the host parents and as the program coordinators who compare the nervous teenagers we pick up at the airport with the self-assured ones we bring back to the airport 10-11 months later. We saw it in our own son, who spent six months in Ghana at the age of 18.

President Ghani has praised the opportunities he had at Lake Oswego High School almost 50 years ago. He credited his exchange student experiences as “opening his eyes to the power of citizenship.” He reflected on serving on the student council: “It was the first time I ever saw students entrusted to make decisions, to decide how money should be spent. And we were held accountable for our decisions.”

President Ghani is not the only well-known political leader whose life demonstrates the value of studying (or living) abroad and learning about how others live. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa is among those from other countries who studied abroad, receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees from King’s College in London. In the U.S. former U.S. President Bill Clinton studied at Oxford University in England on a Rhodes scholarship, and has said “[n]o one who has lived through the second half of the 20th century could possibly be blind to the enormous impact of exchange programs on the future of countries.” At the high school level, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) spent three months in Ghana as an exchange student, an experience he has said led to his choice of studying international relations at Stanford University as well as decisions to spend time in India and Mexico. Living in Ghana, Sen. Merkley has said, “was a huge door to the diversity of the world, and the struggles that people have.’’

country road trees both sides
Where will the road take our students?

So keep an eye on that bright young teenager from Germany, Thailand, Australia, or Slovakia who has made friends with your son or daughter, plays on the school soccer team, or has a role in the school play. Watch the students from Brazil, South Korea, or Taiwan as their English improves during the school year. Listen to the ones in the school orchestra and the ones who participate in Model United Nations and the debate team. Admire their courage in stepping out into the unknown, and encourage your own children to do the same. Most of them won’t become president of their country, of course. But some might – after all, some certainly have. The rest will help change the world, one person at a time, in many other ways.

Photos courtesy of Unsplash.com, Joshua Earle, Sébastien Marchand, and Google Maps