Sunday, August 2, 2009

State Department

Friday morning began early since luggage had to be removed from our room and put in a collective holding space since we needed to check out from the dorms. We had a few more seminar sessions after breakfast with some more guest speakers.

Two women from the US State Department came in to share with us the importance of our role in the scholarship and our roles as young ambassadors of the United States. Ms. Jones was a representative from the offices of citizen exchanges and she has worked with the CBYX scholarship program for many years.

Her job involves organizing many opportunities to Americans to partake in cultural exchanges, be it through careers, culture etc., and she reiterated to us just how important this program is to both American and German relations. This scholarship is the oldest government sponsored exchange program and each year allows both Germans and Americans to experience university education and pre professional internships while abroad. Ms. Jones asked open ended questions to help get a sense of the group and to emphasize its diversity. She asked how we found out about the program, whether we have studied German [ as seemingly everyone’s hands shoot up around me] and she asked how many of us have graduated [ another huge amount of hands shoot up around me… I am such a wild card in this group…]. She also asked open-ended why we chose to apply to this program and what attracted us to Germany to study. Having a minor in Japanese, I was probably very unique in the room, and the connections that I have between my other experiences differentiate me from my fellow colleagues studying sciences or engineering or even the culinary arts. Everyone has a different reason to go to Germany, essentially highlighting that CBYX is 75 separate programs.

As ambassadors, she stressed to us the great opportunities we have to represent America and how we can teach, and learn and really make a statement in a unique way that really no other American institution can. She also told us to realize the huge honor it was to be supported by both the American and German governments to essentially build the future of US/German relations.

Our other speaker was a German area specialist from the State Department, and she allowed open conversation and questioning about US/German relations, and what we should expect as representative ambassadors to our home country. There were quite a few topics that really caught my attention and got me thinking and excited to observe German communities and the news.

On the subject of foreigners, mainly the large Muslim and Turkish populations in Germany, we addressed many issues that Germany is facing with its changing population. Germany has had immigrants coming to the nation for the past 40 years, and the wall has officially been down with this year marking its 20th anniversary joining to two sides together. This interests me in the major changes that the country has faced over about half a decade that America has ultimately faced since its creation. I questioned about the idea, and general cultural shift in America against the norm of assimilation, and to a stronger appreciation to our differences in America, but also what makes us one group of people, rather than a forceful culture that pressures people to change into an accepted norm. Germany, at this point, seems to conveniently blindside themselves to the issues of diversity and multi-generational foreigners living in Germany. Even so, there is still a stigma that these people are not “German”, and unlike America, there is no accepted idea of a hyphenated German, like in America my family being predominately being Polish/Italian-Americans. The great diversity of Germany in the European Union can be a positive facet to the country, but also in changing times, if issues are ignored, a very big issue that could affect the nation within the next few decades. This is something that is huge, and I would love to really research in Germany, observe, and possibly dedicate intern/volunteer time to really understand during this year.

One girl questioned Ms. White about the complex relations of Germany and Great Britain, which kind of caught everyone off guard. It was something that we all never really thought about. The discussion eluded in brief that Germany in Europe is a relatively young nation (forming an official republic in 1814 as a collection of small sovereign states with villages and Prussian fragments) and has always looked up to Britain as a great nation with, at the time, a superior navy, and world standing. It was casually agreed upon that this still stands in a way and (which I immediately linked to the parallel to Japan) that Germany still looks up to Great Britain, and actually, on a political standpoint envies the relations of US/Great Britain. Ms. White actually said that when editing official documents, only Britain is acceptable to be addressed as “our closest ally” and Germany, somewhat ironically, as only “one of our closest allies”.

We discussed a lot about perception of America abroad, and I find it very interesting to think about international relations and these allies from different nation’s perspectives. Since it was the State Department speaking to us, we had a lot of discussion about representing America, and we are actually encouraged to share our opinions abroad of America, of course be rational and positive, but once again, we have the unique foreign ambassador experience to not be confined to strictly represent the policies of the US government. Of many questions expected to be asked to us, many are likely to pertain to the new Obama administration, as well as changing moods in America’s standing in the world, and issues in American diversity. All of these things can help me express what interests me back in the states with my career goals, and also what I can learn from German and other European’s perspectives.

One final topic that was brought up that I have never really thought about was the US military bases in Germany. We talked about the importance of the bases, not only for national security, but also for stabilizing German communities. There may be some opposition to American military presence in German, but in reality, with 55,000 troops within the country, there are a few German cities that rely on the populations of these troops to function, and without them would be too small, and cease to exist. Ms. White made a comment that there are many positive aspects to the bases in Germany, and while there may be opposition, there are nations like Poland and the Czech Republic that are always requesting for a similar presence in their country for the positive role they can have on communities. This form of international relations is something that I would also like to learn more about this year.
[ The 5 CBYX students from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Of the 75 participants of the program, we are not only the most represented state, but also the most represented university of all the scholarship recipients. As Anna put it best: President Mary Sue Coleman would be very proud! ]

As for having the State Department as a resource, all of the CBYX participants are required to complete 20 hours of community service while abroad, and also strive to serve as an ambassador. The State Department, through the multiple consulates and the Embassy in Germany can provide us materials to hold presentations about America in public settings, such as German high schools. This is something that I think is very exciting (and natural to me, since I kind of did it myself in Japan on a whim in little speeches in my bad Japanese!)

When I initially saw the State Department on our seminar agenda, I was very excited. I first heard about the State Department, and more specifically the Foreign Service, when I was at the American Embassy in Finland, and I was hooked from there. I think the State Department has many fascinating career outlets, and I would like to keep learning and see how they can be a part of my future. The speakers, and the entire 3 day seminar as a whole has really excited me about the prospects of this great, prestigious opportunity, and I am a little less nervous, and a lot more motivated and excited to see what I can learn from this year.

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