For 75 years, emerging foreign leaders and professionals have gotten first-hand knowledge of American culture, politics and lifestyle, thanks to a U.S. State Department exchange program. The International Visitor Leadership Program aims to cultivate lasting relationships and promote policy goals.
"I would say, without exaggerating, that it changed my life," said Argentine business consultant Ricardo Vanella, who took part in the IVLP exchange in 2010.
Vanella is among more than 200,000 potential foreign leaders who have visited the United States through the program since President Franklin D. Roosevelt established it in 1940.
More than 300 of them would later become heads of state or of government – including Britain's Margaret Thatcher, India's Indira Gandhi, France's Nicolas Sarkozy and Mexico’s Felipe Calderon. Others have become leaders in nongovernmental organizations and the private sector.
The experience used to last for three months, said Jennifer Clinton, president of Global Ties U.S., the nonprofit group that manages the network of organizations that administer the IVLP for the State Department. Now, it has been compressed to three weeks, she said, "but the impact and the impressions that participants take from the experience are still very profound and make a big difference in terms of how they see the U.S., its people, its culture."
French businessman Pascal Dupeyrat took part in the program in 2000, focusing on the Internet and the economy. He saw a country different from the one he had imagined based on movies and TV.
"The energy I felt in this country really changed my life because after that, I decided to run my own business," Dupeyrat said. "So it has been a tremendous change in my own and personal life."
Participants spend a week in Washington and two weeks in several other cities.
Vanella said the experience widened his perspectives "because we met a lot of people, from many fields. I would say that professionally it also has an impact – not only your mind but your network gets broader and broader."
As the program celebrates its 75th anniversary, Clinton said its future funding by Congress could face difficulties.
"One of the dynamics that’s happening in the U.S. is a little bit of a closure of minds in terms of how we are engaging internationally, a little bit of fear of international engagement," she said.
But she said with growing anti-American sentiment in many places, it's important to give people from around the world first-hand experience with Americans and American life.