What do Indira Gandhi, Nicolas Sarkozy, Dilma Rousseff and Margaret Thatcher have in common? Besides being one time or current heads of state, they are alumni of the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program, which brings rising leaders from across the globe to the United States and pairs them with professional counterparts in cities and towns across America.
For 55 years, the Miami Council for International Visitors has been instrumental in making real and lasting connections in South Florida between these participants and those of other international-exchange programs and the members of our communities.
What started out as an effort to make foreign students feel welcome here evolved into a unique opportunity to help further our country’s foreign-policy initiatives through direct interaction — citizen diplomacy — that has changed perceptions, shattered stereotypes and garnered respect, new perspectives and deep appreciation.
This exchange is brought to fruition with a great deal of tenacity, creativity and trust from everyone involved: the international visitor, along with local professionals, and volunteers and our board, members and staff. At the local level, we’re a grassroots organization, no different from any other small nonprofit with an important mission and sense of urgency to accomplish it within the confines of a modest budget.
Fortunately, we’re able to rely on long-term relationships and new-found collaborations that have allowed us to match our visitors with their professional counterparts, seek out cultural experiences for them and extend invitations to dine with our members.
Our name implies that the council’s work is on behalf of the international visitors, the rising stars who are distinguishing themselves in their chosen fields and have come to the attention of the U.S. Embassy in their home country. But that only tells half the story. Ask anyone who has met with our visitors, and they’ll say it was a privilege and a learning experience since they gained as much from the encounter as they imparted in knowledge.
An educator recently expressed her gratitude for being involved in a visit with a special project for leaders in disability rights from Uzbekistan: “I wanted to send a big ‘Thank you’ to you and our visitors from Uzbekistan. This was such an amazing experience for me professionally, personally and culturally. The students learned a great deal by participating in the exchange of information and felt great pride that they had something of value to share.”
Since 2005, there have been 2,500 international visitors whose itineraries we have arranged on subjects ranging from Combating Trafficking in Persons, Environmental Protection, Entrepreneurship & Small Business Development, Good Governance, Rights of the Disabled and Rule of Law to Wildlife Conservation.
There might be individual reasons why someone agrees to accept the invitation from the U.S. Embassy to participate in this program, sometimes at great personal risk, but a general consensus is that most do it to further their knowledge in their field and career and to see the United States first-hand. During their brief stay they examine our system of government, learn its policies affecting their interests and experience the depth and breadth of our country by traveling across the nation and meeting its people, marveling at our openness, our spirit of volunteerism and our institutions.
For those in South Florida who go out of their way to welcome these visitors to their places of work and often into their homes, the experience is from a different vantage point. They didn’t have to leave home to gain insights into trending topics and global events that are shaping our world because the world came to them.
The occasion to meet face to face and get to know one another on a personal level delivers more than a feel-good moment. It offers a glimpse into the future and a reason to be optimistic when one realizes that there are good people dedicated to seeking solutions to complex and challenging situations facing their country and ours. We might not know it now, but chances are that some of these encounters will be with individuals who go on to become heads of state, cabinet-level members or policy makers. In that light, these exchanges are really an investment in our mutual future.
Later this year, the Miami Council for International Visitors will become Global Ties Miami. We invite members of the community to demonstrate their commitment to international engagement by joining us and helping us continue to have a positive impact on tomorrow through the work we do today.
Annette Alvarez is the executive director of the Miami Council for International Visitors.