Q&A with CPD: Jennifer Clinton

In this series, CPD interviews international thought-leaders as well as key practitioners of public diplomacy and related professional fields to provide our readers with insight into the inner workings of some of the world’s most thoughtful PD practitioners. Jennifer Clinton is president and CEO of Cultural Vistas, a nonprofit that develops academic, cultural and professional exchange and public diplomacy programs.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, travel-based international exchange is currently suspended. Beyond this presumably temporary obstacle, what is important for us to remember about the enduring value of in-person cultural exchange?

I believe the physical separation is making people recognize their need for connection and appreciate their relationships more than ever. The old phrase “absence makes the heart grow fonder” feels very relevant right now. Everywhere you look, people are adapting and turning to virtual interactions like never before—among family, friends, co-workers and colleagues.

At the same time, I think this transition is really shining a light on some of the unique elements that only come through in-person engagement. People are becoming more cognizant of how and when we can foster a sense of connection and community virtually, and of which of those human experiences are more difficult to maintain or replicate while we’re separated. 

Simply put, there are some interactions and experiences that cannot be fully replicated online.

I believe that going forward, however, this experience will still bring significant changes to how we approach traditional international exchange programs. You can expect more blended experiences and for practitioners to be much more intentional with deciding which components of programs can be effective virtually versus those which require a more immersive, in-person engagement.

I think the current situation will force us all to work harder and become better at facilitating cultural exchange. As movement around the world has come to a near halt, I cannot help but also think about the tremendous environmental benefits we are gaining with reductions in air pollution. We know that global travel is a major contributor to this problem, and I believe that this current challenge will not only help us to get smarter about our work—what requires in-person, versus what can be accomplished with virtual—but also to reduce our environmental footprint in the process.

What have been the greatest challenges in maintaining this focus when travel is suspended?

Amid this truly unprecedented situation, our focus has become even more acute. Within my organization, I am seeing a level of innovation, creativity and connection that I have not witnessed before. The suspension of travel has created a laser focus on our mission and how we can continue to provide value in new and sustained ways. At the same time, our team has done an incredible job creating new avenues to connect with one another, keep up morale and build community in spite of the distance between one another.

Conversely, crises and disruption breed innovation, so what are some opportunities and new developments emerging in the field of international exchange? What can we be optimistic about?

There have been crises before that have halted movement, but not quite to this scale. I think the greatest opportunity that will emerge from this will come in the areas of equity and access to global engagement and collaboration.

Too many people are left out of opportunities to study, work and travel abroad because of the physical and financial barriers. As we all pivot to virtual work and engagement, the playing field in some ways becomes more level. At the same time, the wide-ranging economic effects of the pandemic will undoubtedly create further divides in our society. The need to ensure access to these cross-cultural learning opportunities to students and people of all backgrounds is greater than ever, and there’s considerable opportunity for our field to broaden its impact.

Work-based, global learning opportunities are no longer a ‘nice-to-have.’ They are a must. We believe the opportunity to participate in an international internship—particularly one that provides exposure to a new language and culture, and strengthens skills such as adaptability, empathy and resilience, will only grow in importance as a necessary complement to one’s education and career pursuits. Working abroad is a huge differentiator, and if individuals can successfully access these benefits, without cost as an obstacle, that will be a major boost to their careers.

From a collaboration standpoint, I see the situation as an equalizer of voice and perspective. If you think about a Zoom call—there’s no longer the traditional hierarchies of where one sits or near whom. Everyone has an equal-size window panel and has the ability to contribute through multiple media and means. I actually believe this will help individuals build their confidence to contribute and find their voice. It is up to organizations like ours, whose mission is about creating and fostering global networks, to figure out how to convene and facilitate engagements that shine a light and advance collaboration on pressing topics of global significance.

If you could return to being a student or young professional, what kind of international exchange program would you want to try? Where would you go, and what would you hope to learn?

I have always said I’d like to join the Peace Corps when I retire. I love the fact that the organization is recruiting older individuals that bring a lifetime of experience to communities abroad. I envision myself helping women-owned businesses expand to not only expand their capabilities—but more importantly to help the families and communities. Through the U.S. Department of State’s International Women of Courage initiative, I have met so many incredible women who are driving change for the positive in some of the most repressive societies. I love helping individuals and organizations thrive and would like to do so where capacity building is most needed. Through this experience, I would like to gain a better appreciation for what women face in different environments and how they overcome these challenges. 

What is the role of international exchange alumni after they’ve completed their program? How can a participant prepare to instill what they’ve learned across a lifetime?

I believe anyone who is privileged with an international exchange experience has the responsibility to help bring a global perspective to their spheres of influence—to expose others in even some small way to the points of view they were able to gain during their experience. 

International exchange programs, when designed well, help individuals to build resilience, humility, curiosity, positive regard, self-awareness, relationship development and communication skills. These are the traits that are often found in our most effective leaders and responsible citizens, and these are experiences that tend to stick with individuals throughout their entire lives.

What advice do you have for students of public diplomacy who wish to participate or work in the international exchange community?

Two things come to mind immediately. 

We have a lot of young people that come to our field from the international relations discipline because they are interested in all things global, and it seems like a good fit. I encourage those individuals to broaden the skills and experience beyond the theoretical, and also to be sure to take courses in education, statistics, and monitoring and evaluation to understand the fundamentals of pedagogy.  

To be effective, international exchange experiences need to be well-designed and allow individuals to reap the personal and professional benefits of the learning experience. To design and effectively evaluate these programs, we need people who understand educational theory and, in particular, fundamentals of experiential education. Writing is another important skill to hone, and not just through academic essays. The ability to write clearly, concisely and persuasively for a variety of purposes and mediums is essential—particularly as many programs are funded by grants. Business skills are also a major plus, as this work requires people who can manage a budget, as well as market and sell and idea or program.

Secondly, it’s important that people go into the field with realistic expectations around compensation. Most international organizations are nonprofits that don’t offer stock options or other glitzy benefits. We do our best as a field, but there is an overall mindset in our world of “better, faster, cheaper” that puts pressure on our industry to keep costs down.  

Mission fit and cultural alignment are key selection criteria for nonprofits. Most people go this route because they are mission-driven and passionate about a specific cause. The benefits to working in this field are vast—working together with great people, making a real difference in the lives of others, and helping shape how institutions engage with the world, among others.

Those who are in for these reasons, often, would not change it for the world.

About Q&A with CPD

In this series, the USC Center on Public Diplomacy (CPD) interviews international thought-leaders as well as key practitioners of public diplomacy and related professional fields to provide our readers with insight into the inner workings of some of the world’s most thoughtful PD practitioners. For more information about the Q&A with CPD series, click here.

To read the other interviews in this series, please click here.


Visit CPD's Online Library

Explore CPD's vast online database featuring the latest books, articles, speeches and information on international organizations dedicated to public diplomacy.