You can call me Emiry.

Soft power, public diplomacy, memes- these were all terms I had heard before I began my first semester here (OK I'm lying, I had never ever heard of a meme before this class) but that I wasn't quite sure what they meant. The funny thing is, I was engaging in a form of soft power for years and although I was aware of what I was doing, nobody, even my boss had ever bothered to talk to me about what the implications of facilitating study abroad programs might be on a wider scale.

I guess I should go back a little bit. I was the Special Programs Coordinator at OU for about 2.5  years, and the assistant to the director before that. My job was pretty much to plan the study abroad programs of the students who came with various groups. Some students stayed for as little as 3 weeks, some stayed for 4 months. It was my job to figure out where they would live, what they would do in their free time, and coordinated their schedules. My main job, however, was the be the point person for these students while they were in Ohio. They couldn't find friends? I was expected to have dinner with them in the dining halls. Roommates who have sex while you're still in the room? No problem, I'll change that dorm for you! Needless to say, it was an exhausting, 7 day a week kind of job. The perk? Meeting all kinds of interesting people. The downside? Always having to be a polite, idealized version of an "American." My boss was always directing the trips to "typical American experiences" so that the students could go home and tell their friends, classmates, and paysanos how much fun AMERICA was. So, to Amish country we went. And to Cedar Point. Shopping malls. New York City. Niagara Falls. Washington DC (Japanese kids DO NOT like museums, btw). I took a group of Koreans camping in DC during the worst snow storm DC has ever seen. Why? They wanted to.

What does all of this have to do with soft power? Those students had the times of their lives. For the first time, someone was always there to help them with their problems- to find amusing things for them to do, to take them fun places and let them have adventure after adventure- and it wasn't their mother. They also liked that they could call me by my first name, and would usually scream "HI EMIRY" in unison every time they saw me. Those students went home and told their friends how awesome roller coasters are and how beautiful the statue of liberty is (even though few of them actually went out there- the lines were horrendous so they just zoomed in really close in the pics). We were discussing in class about how the results of soft power can be measured? For me, the test of my success was in the numbers. They kept coming, in greater and greater numbers. The universities arranged (at our request) to advertise for information sessions, and then let the students who had already come explain what it was like to perspective students. Although the attractions of cities and Amish people were tantalizing, when the new students came and I asked what brought them, they all emphasized that they too wanted to make American friends- they had heard how kind and fun the OU students were and wanted to meet some for themselves.

So, while I may not have had the terminology down, I feel confident that I've got the basics of the concept down. Here's a tip for those of you aspiring coordinators: De-bunk the beds. Save yourself some trips to the ER.

6 comments

  1. It was great to get a better picture of your background Emily! Your discussion about your time spent working with study abroad students takes me back to the time I studied abroad. Like you I was also very cautious about the image I was a projecting as a young america. Mostly, I never wanted to make a fool of myself, but I was cognizant of the fact that I was representing the US in my own VERY very small way. I definitely agree that educational exchange contributes collectively, along with other things, to Joseph Nye's concept of soft power. Whether it is Americans going abroad (and hopefully behaving themselves) or foreigners coming to the US, the exchange hopefully creates lasting relationships, one of the key dimensions of public diplomacy according to Nye, who has contributed so much to this discourse. First soft power, and the smart power, which is the type of power I prefer. Given how dangerous the world can, I'll bet we'll need that combination of hard and soft that smart power represents.

  2. I agree with Tunde. I loved my time studying abroad and miss all the international students who became my "family" while I was away from my real family. While, like Tunde, I behaved respectfully, I did see many others who were not as aware. Looking back, it seems like those folks were the inspiration for Jersey Shore.

  3. Emily!

    You bring up a really good point about measuring soft power. As much as public opinion polls measure favorability the PD programs I think are much deeper than that with affects that are not quantifiable. Your anecdote really illustrates this effectively. These students go home and share their experience with friends and family and word of mouth spreads this and influences other students to enroll in there abroad programs.

    And while these programs can be gauged by measuring enrollment rates in the future, I wonder if there are examples of other soft power initiatives that cannot be measured. Unfortunately, I cannot think of any off the top of my head.

    You are truly a cultural ambassador, Emily.

  4. Emily Grantham

    The funny thing is that the first time I went abroad to France, I was not concerned with my image as an American at all! I was moreso self conscious about my language ability, and finding cute clothes. I'm not embarrassed to admit this now because I feel like I've grown significantly since then, but it's important to recognize that many study abroad students feel this way, especially when they are going with a group of students from their university. We as practitioners in the field of IE (and or IC) have to keep in mind that many of the students who are coming here are focusing on the same things that I was as a 19 year old "girl". And I don't think its necessarily a bad thing.

  5. This is a great post, sounds like you had quite a time! I worked as a student peer advsior to incoming international students during college and really did have a great time. (Who knew a trip to Walmart could be such a novelty?!) Fortunately, I was not the one they went to with major roommate issues. I helped plan and coordinate trips and it was sometimes scary to realize that they way these students viewed America may depend (in part) with the experiences I was planning. To my 20 yr old self, fresh from my own experience, I sometimes found it to be a lot of pressure. I wanted to "do a good job" of representing my country. And it is a job, the US pays people a lot of money to make sure the rest of the world has the view and opinion of us that we want and that is beneficial. Study abroad, as a "corner stone of public diplomacy" as it was once put by the state department, is a form of soft power and can be extremely influential in shaping the opinions thousands of students create about the United States. These relationships, programs, curriculum need to be reviewed, analyzed for effectiveness and improved on constantly. But, luckily, as you say, many of these young men and women are also just looking for a good time and some friends who won't make fun of their accent! We shouldn't overrate the impact study abroad students will have on the general opinion the world holds about the US.

  6. Emiry,

    I'm so glad you mentioned your own time abroad, because, like Tunde, I couldn't stop thinking of mine as I read your post. What I couldn't stop wondering was, "Is four months really enough time to get to know a culture?" I spent nearly 12 months on exchange as an undergrad, and I remember watching three—fall, spring and summer—"semester in Paris" programs from my home university begin and end during my time there. I knew students in each of them, and I definitely know we ended up with different ideas of who the French really were. (You and I have discussed this before.)

    At the same time, I suppose that's the goal of public diplomacy, isn't it? Projecting an "ideal American" face to the world. Maybe we don't want foreigners learning what we're really like after all! I know the French certainly shouldn't :)

    Marc

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