With an industrious backdrop, deep history, and rich landscape, 39 ExchangeAlumni gathered in the heart of the “magic” city of Birmingham, Alabama in late February 2023. The ExchangeAlumni, who represented 24 U.S. states, Guam, and 17 exchange programs, were there to participate in the Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminar (TIES) on “Rural Engagement in Global Affairs.” These ExchangeAlumni, who live, study, and work in rural communities in the United States, discussed best strategies on how to promote international educational exchange, support climate change adaptation and mitigation initiatives, and develop programs for rural economic development and governance. During the week, they explored the challenges that rural communities face and discussed integrative and inclusive measures for improving the health, education, agriculture, and economic development of their communities.
The seminar began with a lively welcome reception that set the mood for the rest of the week. Scott Weinhold, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary (PDAS) of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, also attended the reception to meet the participants informally and learn about their work and previous exchange experiences.
The next morning, PDAS Weinhold officially welcomed the participants, reminding them of the importance of the mission to improve rural communities as he referenced President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which focuses on decreasing poverty and lowering costs, creating jobs and new economic opportunities, and expanding access to health care. PDAS Weinhold also encouraged participants to draw upon their own experiences and skills acquired during and after their exchange programs to collaborate with one another on those issues.
Following this inspiring start, the first participant-led panel discussion on “Teaching and Engaging Students in Global Affairs Opportunities” shared methods for promoting rural engagement in global affairs, the challenges faced by rural students and faculty in international exchange, and strategies to engage students across cultural identities. The conversation continued around opportunities for students to engage in global affairs and on initiatives to promote exposure, interest, and develop initiatives for students to interact in the global arena.
During the rest of the week, participants shared their experiences and community-based initiatives during subsequent sessions. During a presentation on “Embracing Diversity and Inclusion in Rural Communities,” participants discussed how they are engaging people in their rural communities in global affairs with a critical lens on diversity, equity, inclusion, and access to build social cohesion, stronger international cooperation, and trust. During a session on “The Role of Media, Literature, and Art in Rural Communities,” participants explored how rural communities are presented in media, how they are portrayed in literature and visual art, and how technology can be used to connect their communities with rural communities in other countries. Small group discussions on how to engage local government and businesses in rural affairs, and on how to connect international and rural communities, provided opportunities for participants to share best practices and lessons learned in an interactive format.
In addition to learning from one another’s expertise during the week, ExchangeAlumni met with local experts to learn about community-based education, economic, and health initiatives Henry Branscomb Joe, President of the Birmingham Committee on Foreign Relations, and Scotty Colson, Alabama Honorary Consul to Ukraine, representing Birmingham Sister Cities shared the initiatives and programs they are implementing to connect Birmingham and Alabama to the rest of the world. Dr. Isabel Scarinci of the University of Alabama Birmingham discussed her research on the inequities of access to health care for women in Alabama. Pat Duggins from Alabama Public Radio (APR) presented on APR’s efforts to focus the news and stories on issues of importance to underserved communities in Alabama.
The seminar participants visited Jones Valley Teaching Farm, where they learned how the farm uses food as a foundation to empower young people to lead, create, and grow a healthy future for themselves and their community. At Miles College, one of the fourteen Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs) in Alabama, participants toured the facilities and learned from faculty and staff about the history of the college and their focus on recruiting first-generation college students. The participants also visited Birmingham Promise, an initiative of Birmingham’s Mayor Randall Woodfin and a public-private program made possible by educators, colleges, individuals, and businesses, with the goal of providing financial support to underrepresented students.
During the seminar, participants had several opportunities to collaborate as they designed innovative projects to address issues facing rural communities. These project ideas included educational exchange, governance, economic, and infrastructure development, and effects of climate change. Following every Alumni TIES seminar, participants are eligible to apply for a grant of up to $10,000 to implement a community project related to the seminar theme. By the final day, many had shared their desire to maximize their new knowledge and skills developed at the seminar and apply for a grant to create sustainable change in their communities.
Throughout the intense discussions and debates, laughter, and non-stop conversations, it was evident that the bond between this cohort would last beyond the seminar. In each session, participants were intentional and respectful with one another not only in how they shared information but also in how they received it. And, they all agreed with the well-known statement by Lee Schwartz, Founder & CSO of Small Town Labs, that became the motto of the Seminar: “If you’ve seen one rural town, you’ve seen one rural town.” These changemakers left Birmingham with a rooted understanding of the need for change, emphasizing the great diversity that is present in rural communities in America today.
Alumni TIES is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and supported in its implementation by World Learning, in partnership with the Office of Alumni Affairs of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA).