When I arrived at the Gößnitz train station in Germany’s eastern state of Saxony, I didn’t know what to expect. It was dark and misty, so I couldn’t really discern much. From what little I could see, I felt like I had stepped back in time, like I was in some black and white film in which a trench coat-clad Cary Grant would be waiting for me on the dark platform, smoking a cigarette whose vapours would be enhanced by the fact that it was cold enough to see his breath. From what I had been told on the phone several days prior by Barbara Ebersbach, a 12th-grade English teacher at the high school in nearby Meerane, I was in a small village in what had once been the communist German Democratic Republic. And sure enough, there, on the platform, wearing a trench coat (but without the imagined cigarette), was Mrs. Ebersbach, waiting for me.

Most U.S. Embassies have an outreach program, and the Embassy in Berlin is no exception. Aware of AID’s goals and some of the other work I’ve done in Germany to promote cross-cultural understanding, the program’s coordinator asked me recently if I might be willing to travel to some small towns in former East Germany to speak to youngsters about America. Unlike Germans growing up in cities like Berlin or Frankfurt or in areas near the American military bases, high school students in the smaller towns of eastern Germany almost never have the opportunity to speak English to native speakers, nor does their contact with Americans tend to extend beyond their exposure to American music or films (which are often translated into German anyway). They would love to meet a real live American, he said. Eager to be a part of any such cultural diplomacy program, I agreed, and on this cold, damp evening a few weeks later, I found myself at the Gößnitz train station.

Mrs. Ebersbach turned out to be a warm, friendly and intelligent woman who had grown up in communist East Germany and had – despite all attempts on the part of the government to discourage it – studied English and become an English teacher. As a student, she had had almost no contact with native speakers whatsoever, and as such she was excited to give her students the opportunity she never had. The students were just as friendly and thoughtful; four girls from the twelfth grade made and ate breakfast with me the next morning. I received a tour of the school, whose beautifully restored rooms they showed me with pride. At some point, they realized that I spoke fluent German and that I had merely been pretending not to so they might practice their English, and to my delight, they continued to speak English with me anyway.

There followed several hours of intense discussions with two different groups of students, photographs for the local paper, an interview and a meeting with several teachers from the school’s English department. The students were interested in everything – from my favorite Hollywood actor to the importance of opinion polls in American presidential elections – and were not afraid to ask tough questions. They expressed their concern over the transatlantic relationship, and we talked about positive steps that could be taken to improve this situation as their generation comes of age and enters the worlds of scholarship and enterprise. We talked about stereotypes – their truths and their fallacies – and about the importance of trying to put yourself in others’ shoes before jumping to conclusions, however difficult that might be. I was overwhelmed by their kindness, their well-informed and thoughtful opinions and their engagement.

Only a small handful of the students had had the chance to travel to the United States, though many intend to spend a semester or two of their studies there. I sincerely hope that our conversation will encourage them to do so and that they get this opportunity. To promote understanding between America and the world, we need the participation of bright, young, enthusiastic individuals like the students in Meerane. I am sorry to have left them; I would have liked to speak with them for many hours more. But I am hopeful that they will remember this experience and what they have learned, and become involved in promoting global understanding over the course of their academic and professional lives. I know that I have learned a great deal from them and that their views have given me new perspectives on America’s role in the world.

I would urge fellow AID-ers who are abroad and any other Americans overseas who are committed to cross-cultural dialogue to think about how they can reach young people. Maybe there’s a similar outreach program near you, or maybe you know a schoolteacher who’d like to introduce her students to you. And don’t by shy just because you’re "only a student!" I’m no diplomat, but these students saw me as a representative of my country, one more accessible than any official ambassador or consular general. For ordinary people not involved in the daily grind of politics, informal diplomacy is much more important than what the talking heads are saying. You don’t have to be an expert to be a cultural ambassador – in fact, as soon as you step outside of the States, you are one whether you like it or not. So go out there and be one – actively.

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