Exchange Examines the Culture of Service in the United States

October 16, 2014


Woman participant sitting with four kids reading a book Photo Credit, Ms. Cassandra McGuiness
Volunteerism is a strong component of civic life in the United States. As such, the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs sponsored a multi-regional project through its International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) to examine the impact of volunteerism on the volunteers themselves and the communities they serve. The 21 participants represented leaders of NGOs or grassroots volunteer groups focused on youth, women or human rights, as well as some academic and government staff, from different regions and countries across the globe.

The participants visited a range of non-profit organizations, foundations, faith-based organizations, community groups and corporations, to discuss best practices for volunteer recruitment, retention and management.  The project also looked at the growth of social entrepreneurship in the United States and the impact of technology – particularly social networking – to develop new avenues for civic engagement and participation.

The program began with a tour of relevant institutions in Washington, D.C. then preceded to Richmond where participants joined Virginia’s 9/11 National Day of Service and Remembrance and watched via simulcast President Obama’s speech to commemorate the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps.  This positively impactful experience exemplified the spirit of volunteerism that flows through Americans at the state and national levels, up to their democratically-elected leader as well. Subsequent activities and meetings proved to be just as rewarding as the group divided into subgroups for programming in four New England cities based on three focus areas: youth, health education, and women.


Photo Credit, Ms. Cassandra McGuiness

A women’s rights advocate from Papua New Guinea benefited from observing the Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine in Portland and a community activist who works with at-risk youth in Mexico took away many ideas from a meeting with the Youth in Action NGO in Providence. In addition to such thematic activities, the entire group traveled to Colorado and ended in Minnesota where the pinnacle of their U.S. visit culminated by painting a topographical world map with fourth grade students.  This unifying activity illustrated how exchanges connect the world.


Participants pose in front of the world map they created Photo Credit, Ms. Cassandra McGuiness

Throughout the program, the need to inspire and instill a commitment to service at an early age was reinforced. The notion was first presented by keynote speaker and Youth Service America (YSA) President Steve Culbertson whose charismatic address inspired participants and prompted communication about a partnership between YSA and the youth organizations they represent. This is just one of many best practices, from service learning standards to the skill of organizing volunteers, that the participants observed and plan to implement when they return home.