When former USIA Director, Edward R. Murrow, talked about going “the last three feet” in cross-cultural communication, he meant one person talking to another, through personal contact. But what if that’s not always possible? Travel to remote parts of the world can be difficult—which often makes those last three feet the hardest to reach.
Enter social media.
As a project to complete my Global Communication Master’s degree, I was able to support a direct form of global communication through the State Department’s Virtual Student Foreign Service (VSFS) e-internship. Since October 2011, I helped facilitate face-to-face communication between Americans and young Tajikis by organizing Skype web-chats for the Embassy’s American Corners located throughout Tajikistan. This kind of e-diplomacy micro-tasking expands and enhances our cross-cultural contact, and creates new and diverse channels of communication.
Communicating face-to-face via Skype is nothing new. Many people use web-chats to connect with friends or family abroad every day. In terms of public diplomacy, however, the idea of empowering many young people to connect with people abroad virtually, to learn from each other from thousands of miles away, is a relatively new concept.
The VSFS program began in 2009, as a way for the State Department to diversify its virtual diplomacy. The program selects American students for online internships with U.S. Embassies abroad and allows them to become citizen diplomats and help create web pages, blogs, and Facebook pages to support students abroad in learning about exchange and study abroad programs, as well as fellowships and scholarships. Virtual interns also help with different types of outreach and engagement online or help raise awareness for cultural events or conferences.
Harnessing the energy of the generation that grew up with MySpace and Facebook is the ideal way to facilitate cross-cultural communication for the future—young people are curious about the world around them and are happy to make new friends.
Social media is the engine that allows our generation to go “the last three feet” from 35,200,000 feet away.
This year, the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe selected four virtual interns (including myself): Ben Lingeman, a Masters student in Syracuse University’s Maxwell School; Courtney Myers, a substitute teacher working on a Master’s in teaching; and Melissa Etehad, a student at UC San Diego majoring in International Studies.
Ben and I were tasked with using our personal and professional contacts to find Americans interested in speaking with Tajiki youth. Courtney and Melissa focused on reaching out to teachers and school principals. The objective for both projects was the same—to facilitate communication and to bridge the gap between Americans and Tajiki youth.
Sadly, not many Americans can name the capital of, say, Turkmenistan, and many others don’t even realize that Central Asia is a fascinating, vibrant, and significant part of the world. Consequently, building people-to-people relationships and expanding avenues of communication with isolated nations in Central Asia is very important.
To further this goal, we were able to organize more than 12 Skype web-chats in over six different locations throughout Tajikistan. These chats produced frank face-to-face discussions and question and answer sessions on anything from hobbies to holidays, to tuition costs and university life. Students from Tajikistan were able to practice their English while interacting with Americans and Americans were able to learn more about Tajikis. The resulting conversations were truly inspiring—two very different cultures were able to come together to talk about what they have in common (it turns out students are stressed out everywhere).
There are roughly 35,200,000 feet between Washington, DC and Dushanbe, Tajikistan—yet when you’re sitting on your couch and interacting and chatting with someone that you see face-to-face in real time, you’d never notice.