Greenheart joins with DOE in encouraging more American schools to host cultural exchange students

By: Marcelle Benedicta, Greenheart Vice President, Marketing and Account Management

Greenheart was part of a small group of visa sponsors that met with representatives from the Department of Education (DOE) this week to discover ways that the DOE can assist in encouraging more American schools to host cultural exchange students. The meeting with Bernadine Futrell, Ph.D., Deputy Assistant Secretary for Discretionary Grants & Support Services, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE) and her staff was productive and uplifting.

(L-R): Marcelle Benedicta – VP at Greenheart International, Gwen McNallan – President of STS Foundation, Bernadine Futrell, Ph.D., Deputy Assistant Secretary for Discretionary Grants & Support Services, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE), Tara Hofmann – CEO and President at AFS-USA, Keri Dooley – Executive VP at AFS-USA, and Marcel A. Maebara – CFO at ISE

Why do cultural exchanges matter?

The high school exchange program was Greenheart’s first designation with the Department of State’s BridgeUSA Exchange Visitor program. Over the years, we see the power that this cultural exchange program brings–not only to the international students, but also to the American students, host schools, host families, and the communities where they live. Our surveys show that students and hosts have a better impression of each other’s culture following the exchange. Exchanges, for this reason, are a critical part of U.S. public diplomacy efforts.

The challenge?

Over the past ten years, there has been a 21% decline in the number of American schools willing to host these international exchange students. Approximately 25% of American families who express an interest in hosting are not able to do so due to schools not accepting foreign exchange students.

Department of State and Department of Education join forces to support international exchanges

In March 2023, Secretary Blinken (DOS) and Secretary Cardona (DOE) issued a joint letter to school superintendents encouraging international exchanges. We applaud this collaboration and hope that more schools get to see this letter. Greenheart strongly believes that there’s an alignment between the Department of State’s high school program and the various Department of Education strategies, such as the Raise the Bar initiative and the International Education Strategy.

Cultural exchanges have superpowers

At a speech in November 2023, the U.S. Secretary of Education, Dr. Miguel Cardona, said that being bilingual is an economic superpower and multilingualism is also a cognitive superpower. Our nation has what it takes to lead the world and to continue leading a global community, the USA should focus on rigorous academic offerings and opportunities to learn from exposure to other cultures. Learning a different language through immersion is one of the ways to get there. Also, when international exchange students spend an academic year in the U.S. attending local high schools, they share their language, culture, and perspective with their fellow American students and school community. There is usually curiosity and interest in learning a word or two, whether it be Italian, Thai, or other languages. Moreover, some schools may organize cultural presentations to be shared in classrooms or an international night for the whole school, where the exchange students prepare presentations about their home country–covering areas such as language, geography, traditions, cultural dress, food sampling, and educational experiences. This is a great learning opportunity for the local students, especially those who may not have had an opportunity to travel outside the U.S. or their own state. In turn, the local students invite their new friends to community events and other activities that introduce the exchange students to the American experience. This is how the cultural exchange takes place and everyone, including the community, benefits from it.

In addition to the high school exchange program, Greenheart also facilitates another Department of State’s BridgeUSA programs, Teach USA, which brings international teachers to teach at American K-12 schools for 3-5 years. The exchange teachers offer a different perspective about school routines and plans, classroom management, and teaching approaches. This is in addition to sharing their home culture through twice yearly organized activities, (which is part of the Teach USA program requirement).

Looking forward

I walked away from the meeting feeling encouraged that we are opening doors (and minds and hearts!) one cultural exchange experience at a time. What powerful tools we have at our disposal to truly make the world a better place by promoting mutual understanding through people-to-people interactions. Greenheart looks forward to more schools recognizing the beneficial outcomes of exchanges—and opening their doors to high school exchange students and international teachers. Thank you to the Department of Education and the Department of State for supporting cultural exchange!

The visa sponsors before the meeting (L-R): Marcel A. Maebara – CFO at ISE, Keri Dooley – Executive VP at AFS-USA, Gwen McNallan – President of STS Foundation,
Tara Hofmann – CEO and President at AFS-USA, Marcelle Benedicta – VP at Greenheart International