Foreign Service officers have different “portfolios” during specific tours. During my last tour of duty in Bangladesh, I was a visa chief, so most of the time, I was in the office. The few conversations that I had outside the office were about visa policies.
This time around, though, I have a more public-facing position in China. I meet with people outside the office several times a week. Which is great, because I get to diplomat in Chinese. My job during this tour requires me (among other things) to promote education in the United States to Chinese students. This week I went on a road trip to four cities in our consular district. We partnered with several U.S. universities, and set up information booths at our education fair.
A mix of parents and students come to our booths to ask about studying in the United States. I haven’t felt this useful in a long time. In Bangladesh, I didn’t have any of the local language, so I was limited to talking with people who already spoke English. I could muddle by in Vietnamese when I was in Vietnam, but I never felt as comfortable with Vietnamese as I do in Chinese.
With my background in academia, experience as a parent of college students, and pretty good Chinese, I felt useful. I felt like I really communicated with anxious parents and curious students, and connected with people this week.
The week was capped off by an education fair back in Shanghai. At our booth in the exhibition hall, I spent the day talking, dispelling myths, and clearing up some misunderstandings. I hope that straight answers from an American officer, delivered directly in Chinese, was convincing enough to the people I talked with.
My big takeaway from this week is that although there is still strong interest in studying in the United States, there is a real dearth of information about how to do it right. My team and I are already brainstorming ideas to overcome this information gap, such as online seminars for parents. We have a lot of work to do, and our resources are limited. But I love to connect with people, and I believe strongly in the value of an American education.