Written for The Light by Katherine Brown
I’ve based my entire career on my Youth For Understanding experience 20 years ago as a high school exchange student in Esbjerg, Denmark. I had just turned 16 in August 1994 when I began my semester abroad. I remember the experience being difficult. I struggled with the language and the winter. I was deeply homesick, but I met incredible friends who carried me through the experience and helped me to discover a curiosity about the world and America’s role in it.
My classmates were incredibly worldly; they were active in debating the future of their country and that of Europe just five years after the collapse of Communism. I remember sitting in gymnasium and learning about the war in Yugoslavia and the conflict in Northern Ireland. Both events had been elusive to me as a teenager in Los Altos, California. When questions came up about U.S. foreign policy, heads turned to me. I didn’t know what to say. I remember never wanting to feel that ignorant again and wanting to be part of the conversation, as they were.
I currently serve as the Executive Director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy at the State Department, which serves as a watchdog and an advocate for the role public diplomacy plays in U.S. national security. Luckily for me, the work is meaningful. In all of my work travels – from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Kenya – I carry my original exchange experience with me in big and small ways. I always aim to project the sense of humility and openness I felt so profoundly as a teenager. When legislators and policy makers ask why exchanges are worthy of investment, I can deliver the data and tell the stories with personal conviction.
I hope one day to return to Denmark, as I remember the warmth of the culture, the magic of the winter holidays, and the transformative friendships I made.