Honorable Minister of State for Tertiary Education Kwesi Yankah,
President of AFS International, Daniel Obst,
Chair of the AFS Board of Trustees, Vishakha Desai,
AFS-Ghana Board Chair, Reverend Alan Okomeng-Mensah,
AFS Partners from around the world,
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good evening. It is my pleasure to join you here tonight to celebrate 50 years of AFS Ghana and — on a broader scale — the enormous and indisputable benefits of cultural exchanges.
I am especially proud to welcome our friends from across the globe, who have gathered here for the AFS Network meeting. I have no doubt you have experienced a warm Ghanaian “akwaaba” during your stay.
Among the many AFS programs, we at the Embassy are particularly fond of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program — or YES. For nearly 15 years, the YES program has been sending foreign high school students to the United States. Every year, youth from more than 40 countries live with host families and attend American high schools; they learn what makes us tick as Americans, and they give us a window into their worlds. Ghana has been sending students on the YES program since 2006. The first reciprocal exchange in 2009 brought American students to Ghana’s shores. Having taught myself in an international boys’ boarding school, I am convinced of the value of these exchanges.
My recent meeting with Ghanaian and American YES students reinforced that view as they shared some wonderful stories about their experiences. Their time in Ghana or the United States gave them a new perspective; it challenged their preconceived notions of their host country. They told of the kindness of their host families, and teachers who welcomed them in their homes and classrooms. They highlighted the surprises they encountered. Many Ghanaian students have been unaware that America, too, struggles with poverty, or that many societal challenges are resolved by citizens themselves, through NGOs and volunteer efforts. The American students are deeply touched by the legendary Ghanaian hospitality they encounter daily. They are enthralled by Ghana’s rich and colorful culture — and deeply enamored of Ghanaian cuisine.
In talking with these young people, what is most striking is not what they say about their experiences, but how they say it. They exude confidence and leadership — confidence and leadership that comes from being able to say, “I did this. I left behind everything I knew, and I went to this strange place. I had highs and lows. I learned about others. But most importantly, I learned about myself. And I learned that I can accomplish anything.” Their experiences have prepared them to make a difference wherever they find themselves — in Ghana, the United States, or anywhere in the world.
They, and thousands like them, will make a difference, thanks to you — to AFS, your partner organizations, staff and volunteers. Thanks to you, countless young people have dared to dream of visiting a foreign land, and immersing themselves in the culture of others. They gain the profound understanding that we are more alike than different — that diversity, inclusion, empathy and respect are key to our common fate.
As Ambassador, I’m often asked why the United States cares about what happens in Ghana. Why do we invest in Ghana’s infrastructure and agriculture? Why do we support training for nurses and for soldiers? It’s for precisely the same reason: our futures are linked. Our success is mutual, and that success is so much more likely when we know each other, when we understand each other’s values and goals — when we trust each other. In 2017, we can Skype, we can tweet at each other, we can WhatsApp. There are myriad ways for us to connect with others around the world. But I still firmly believe that there is no substitute for that last three feet. Those personal connections will withstand the efforts of those who seek to divide us.
I applaud AFS for your decades of bringing people together. To AFS-Ghana: Fifty years is an impressive anniversary for any organization. I understand that it truly is 50 straight years, even through some challenging times. Your steadfast commitment to cross-cultural understanding is an example for the world.
Each of us in this room, in our own way, in our own corner of the globe, is working toward a more just and peaceful world. It is important work. It is our privilege to partner with you, and we thank you for your tireless efforts to prepare the next generation of global citizens — a generation filled with confidence, optimism, and the belief that, together, we can accomplish anything.