I had a great meeting the other day with two young women who had just completed their second year of undergraduate education and were taking part in an internship at the Centre for People with Disabilities-Livelihoods organized by their college, Cornell University. They were extremely enthusiastic about their experience in Mysore and Hyderabad. They told me they felt awed by the rich cultural heritage of southern India and were grateful for the warm welcome they have received by Indians. They embraced their experience of India: they came to the Consulate where cotton shawls and skirts they bought in Mysore, and told me they have discovered a new favorite food during their visit: double ka meetha. As I listened to their enthusiastic account of their internship, I was struck by what a favorable impression of the U.S. they must be making on those they meet in India, and by how they would become “ambassadors” for India after they return back to the U.S., sharing information about their great experiences.
A group of about 20 students will be arriving from the U.S. next week to participate in the University of Hyderabad’s Study in India Program for a semester. My experience of a previous batch tells me that these students too will be effective bridge-builders across the cultural divide between the U.S. and India. In addition to their academic studies, they’ll also be learning about Andhra Pradesh’s artistic heritage as they learn to perform kuchipudi dance and play the sitar. They’ll take an appreciation for all things Indian back with them when they return to the U.S., and share it with their friends and family.
While all these American students help us achieve our fundamental goal of strengthening the people-to-people ties that provide a foundation for the U.S.-India bilateral relationships, the U.S. government doesn’t have anything to do with their decisions to come to India or their plans. We take the initiative in the opposite direction. At the Consulate, we actively look for opportunities to send young Indians to the U.S. to promote mutual understanding. The ten or so community college students we can support are a tiny fraction of the many Indians who pursue higher education in the U.S., but we try to identify deserving students who would not otherwise have a chance to experience the U.S. The programs we send them on include academic study, but they are not focused on acquisition of a degree. Instead, we hope to widen the horizons and build the confidence of these students, along with helping them acquire classroom knowledge. Students who returned to Hyderabad this summer after spending an academic year in the U.S. have said that the experience changed their lives.
But these exchanges actually affect more people than the few who get to travel. The students are Indian ambassadors while in the U.S., and when they return to India they help shatter misperceptions about the United States and the American people. I’ve enjoyed meeting a number of returned and departing students in recent weeks and wish we could expand this program dramatically.
Of course I also love meeting young people because it helps keep me young. I’m planning a trip out to Rajahmundry soon to visit universities and talk to students. I can’t wait!