Secretary Blinken at the CBYX Welcome Home Event

The 2021-2022 CBYX cohort had the pleasure of meeting Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, during their Welcome Home Event in Washington, D.C. on June 21, 2022. Watch or read through Secretary Blinken’s speech to the CBYX participants below. 

Secretary Blinken: Thank you. Good morning, everyone. Wonderful to see this room full – full, full, right to the top rafters. Wow, standing room only. No, it really is wonderful as we continue all to work back from the pandemic phase of COVID that we actually can all get together increasingly and spend some time together.

So Assistant Secretary Satterfield referenced the fact that I did start out in this building 30 years ago, almost 30 years ago, and it was in the Bureau of European and Canadian Affairs, as it was then called. And I came to work and I got my office, which was pretty great. I mean, I got my own office. But it’s also true that the immediate previous occupant of that office had been a very large safe, which may give you some idea of what the office was like. It was just big enough for the very large safe, which was moved out. A very small desk was put in. There were no windows. It was basically a closet. (Laughter.) But it was in the front office of the European Affairs Bureau on the sixth floor of this building. It was an incredible privilege to start to work there. And here I am 30 years later, and basically I’ve moved up one floor to the seventh floor and I have some windows. So not bad. (Applause.)

Lee, thank you not only for the introduction, but thank you for the leadership of a bureau of a bureau that is near and dear to my heart. I’ll come back to that. I believe so profoundly in this mission of connecting people through education, through culture, through sports. It is in my judgement among the best things that we do and, in terms of value for the money that we put into it, the best thing that we do.

But I also want to take a moment – Senator Blunt left, but when you have senior members of Congress showing the support that he’s shown for our international exchange programs, it makes all the difference in the world. And the fact that, as the assistant secretary said, he was here today is really evidence of that, and having that partnership with Congress is hugely important.

But to everyone who is here who made this year’s Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange program a success, thank you, thank you, thank you. Our team at ECA, our partners in the AFS-USA, the ASSE, the Council on International Educational Exchange, Youth for Understanding, Cultural Vistas, the Nacel Open Door – all of you, thank you for making this a success and thank you for the difference that you’re making. Thank you. (Applause).

But most of all, congratulations to all of this year’s participants. Now, I know that many of you came home as recently as yesterday from your year away. I want to ask you all about what the airport was like. (Laughter). Yeah, I can imagine. But let me start by saying, even as you’re working through your jet lag, welcome back, welcome home. I suspect your family and friends missed you a whole lot. They can’t wait for you to fill them in on a year’s worth of stories, and I suspect you’re going to get a year’s worth of stories from back home.

But here’s what I wanted to talk to you about a little bit today, because I think and hope for most of you this has been an incredible experience, an opportunity to actually get to know another country in an up-close and personal way, not only seeing the sights that you’d see if you were a tourist, but learning all the little ways in which life is different there than it is here, but also the so many ways that it’s the same.

I know you’ve had to deal with a lot of new challenges: adjusting to local dialects that sound very different, maybe, from the High German that some of you may have learned in schools; trying to buy food on a Sunday – (laughter) – when stores in Germany are closed; or realizing that under the German grading system, somehow the lowest score is the best one and the highest score is thew worst, which would have serve dme very well at many stages of my own education. (Laughter).

And I suspect for almost all of you this was a year that had some unforgettable moments. Maybe just the first time you conducted a conversation entirely in German, how remarkable that is; and then making connections, making friendships that I bet you will last the rest of your lives.

There just isn’t an experience equivalent to the one of living in a new country.

As Lee said, when I was nine years old, I moved from New York to France, in my case, and I spent the next decade pretty much flying back and forth across the ocean because my dad was still in the United States, my mom and I were in Paris with my stepdad. I was going to school in France but spending breaks whenever I could in the United States. And here’s what really stood out for me, and I suspect many of you had this experience: As an American at a French school, I found myself even at a young age trying to explain my own country to the kids that I was in school with – sharing our own culture, maybe trying to correct some of the stereotypes that take hold about what Americans are like, debating world events from my point of view as an American kid. And it was almost like I was a junior diplomat representing my country abroad, just in a school cafeteria instead of at the U.S. embassy. But it was very much the same kind of thing.

But then what was interesting was when I was back here at home on breaks, in a way I was in the exact opposite role with my American friends. I found myself gently correcting stereotypes about the French people, sharing some of my favorite French music, trying to explain how my classmates over there saw the world. So in a way, I had become a representative for my new home back home as well.

So I have a feeling that a bunch of you already know that dynamic and you’re going to feel it even more as you’re back home, as you’re re-engaging with your friends and your families.

All these years later – because this was a while ago in my case – every day I can still feel how living abroad gave me a perspective that has stayed with me and that has shaped how I see the world, and it’s done incredible things to enrich my own life and I think to enrich my work. And it’s exactly why the State Department supports an incredibly broad range of exchange programs that bring international participants to the United States, take Americans around the world, just like you.

My wife, Evan Ryan, under the Obama administration sat where Assisstant Secretary Satterfield sits right now, as assistant secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs. So even if I didn’t profoundly believe this, I would have no choice. (Laughter). But because of her work, I really could see every single day – as we talked about it at home when we got back from work, I could just see and feel the power of programs.

And as I’ve traveled around the world, including when I was last in government but also including now, I get a chance to sit and talk to folks who are participating in these programs, and I know, I know the profound difference it makes – it makes not only in their lives, but in a sense the lives of Germany and the United States, in this case, together.

It really is how we get new points of view; how we learn to see the world through the eyes of people with different histories, different cultures, different perspectives; how we understand world events as more than just headlines or chyrons on the TV screen, but as real things happening to real people, real families, real communities. And it’s also how we find new partners to try to solve shared problems, and maybe gain some new skills that we bring back home to help as well.

I also think that over time, these ties of friendship, these ties of understanding between people actually run into bonds of trust between countries. And having that trust is more critical than it’s ever been to the work that we’re trying to do around the world to support democracy; to try to protect peace, or make it, as necessary; to try to advance the security of our own people, their prosperity, their opportunity, and shared progress around the world.

As alumni of this program, you’re not part of that mission. You are in effect citizen diplomats.

Now, if you end up building upon this experience in your life and in your career, all the better – all the better for you, all the better for the world.

So it’s one thing I can’t do – I can’t let you leave here today and I can’t leave here today without a little bit of a sales pitch: a career in diplomacy. I hope some of you, from this experience, have started to think that maybe that’s something you’d like to do. It is fascinating, it’s meaningful, it’s challenging, it’s deeply rewarding. So I’ve been hooked ever since I started working here in the Bureau of European and Canadian Affairs, but one of the things that I want to point out is this: If you look around this department, the State Department, you will find people with incredible backgrounds not just in foreign policy or law – because so many people come up in that way – we have people in backgrounds, expertise in medicine, in engineering, in technology, in business, so many different things, who are now serving their country, serving the United States around the world. I know you met with a few of them this morning. But one of the things that makes this department thrive is having incredibly diverse, talented people with different backgrounds, different experiences, on our team. So given your own diversity, given the places that you’re from, the things that you may do in your educations, even the things you may do in your careers, that still could lead you here, and I hope that it will.

One of the things that’s been really striking is that if you looked at people in the Foreign Service, the Civil Service here 30 or 40 years ago, most of them were coming straight out of college or maybe grad school. Now what we’re finding over the last 15 or 20 years is that people increasingly are coming from having had other careers, other pursuits for five years, 10 years, or more. And they bring with them this incredible experience, this incredible knowledge that enriches the department. So for some of you who may think this is a – this is really interesting but there’s something else I want to do, just keep this in the back of your mind. There’s nothing quite like – at least in my experience – going to work every day with the American flag literally as well as figuratively behind your back. There’s something really special about that. I hope you’ll consider it.

Last couple of things I want to say. Your exchange year came at an incredible time. Germany is one of our closest allies and partners. I’ve traveled to Germany five times already in this job as Secretary. I’m going to be going for a sixth time in a few days. Germany’s hosting the G7 meetings. We’re working together quite literally every day on some of the biggest challenges that we face and that are having a real effect, a real impact on the lives of all of our fellow citizens, like COVID-19 and trying to make sure that we help end this pandemic and w’re better positioned to deal with the next one; like the climate crisis that is having profound effects around the world, including in our own country, and trying to do what we need to do together to get ahead of it; standing together against the aggression that we’re seeing now by Russia in Ukraine.

One of the things I was told was that some of you actually volunteered this year helping Ukrainian refugees. Thank you, thank you, thank you – translating for new arrivals at train stations in Germany, working with local refugee assistance groups. You’ve really had a front row to history in the making. In fact, you’ve actually helped make that history by coming to the assistance of people in need. And these and so many other things that you’ve done in Germany, all of these experiences, in ways that you may not be able to fully realize or imagine now, they’re going to have a profound impact on your lives.

Some of you might know that just a few blocks from here is the German-American Friendship Garden. It’s right between the White House and the Washington Monument. And for those who are here and haven’t been and have a chance, go take a look. One of the things is so wonderful about it, especially right now, is it’s full of native plants and flowers from Germany and the United States. And it was dedicated a few decades ago, in 1988, just a few years after the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program was created. This year, you – each and every one of you – has planted new seeds of friendship between our countries. We’re already seeing them start to blossom, and I think over time they will keep growing and make a huge difference in the years ahead.

So to each and every one of you, welcome home, thank you for participating in this program, but mostly thank you for what you’re going to do in the years ahead. Thank you so much.