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October 21st, 2014:

Not so useful outreach, but a meaningful experience

Yesterday I represented the visa section in an outreach session to parents who are interested in sending their kids to U.S. community colleges. Representatives from several community colleges sponsored an event to promote their colleges. I was asked to be there as a resource person to answer questions about student visas.

There weren’t very many people there, and I didn’t get a lot of questions. I was starting to feel useless, then things got worse. An “agent” for a school cornered me for several minutes and asked why her clients would get denied visas. I told her that the simple answer was that they were probably not prepared to study in America. She wanted to press me on details of their refusals, which I was uncomfortable with. We in the visa section have a love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with agents and brokers. They do provide a valuable service to students who want to study in America, but who need help filling out their applications. That’s where the love part comes in: they help students get admitted to colleges. However, agents and brokers have a tendancy to hijack the process: they can push students to chose a particular school, and even give applicants false documents and tell them to lie in the visa interview. That’s the hate part.

So I wasn’t interested in talking with the agent very much. The agent didn’t seem likely to stop grilling me, so I looked for a chance to be more useful. I saw some parents in the room that were just sitting there, so I engaged one in a conversation. It turns out that she had a lot of questions, but didn’t realize that I speak Chinese, so she was reluctant to approach me.

The woman has a teenage daughter, and she’s considering sending her to high school in America. We talked about how the education systems in China and America differ, and I offered some insight into how Chinese students can benefit from U.S. schools. I shared with her that I have two kids, one in college and one getting ready to apply to college. We talked about the uncertainty of the future, how things are changing so fast, it’s hard for young people to know which direction to take, because we can’t predict where the jobs will be by the time they graduate. I commented that all we can do it encourage them to be flexible and well-rounded, adaptable to change.

She suddenly looked at me and said: “don’t you think that being a parent is really hard sometimes?”

I smiled and said yes, of course, and followed on with some personal experiences about parenting, and offered some perspectives about parenting in American culture.

I felt that the conversation changed at that point. I think that she began to see us not as an American and a Chinese person, or a diplomat and a citizen, but as two people, parents who are struggling with our common role as caregiver to our respective children. As a diplomat, we are supposed to be forging connections with the Chinese government and people. That is often difficult to do, given the linguistic, cultural, and political barriers. In my conversation with this parent, I feel that we managed to break down those barriers. Public diplomacy in China can be described as “challenging.” It’s hard for diplomats to have meaningful connections with the people in China. But through the combination of personal issues and my professional position, I had a small, but meaningful, public diplomacy win.