March 17, 2016

Citizen Diplomacy Beyond the Wall

When Jeffrey Wood first traveled to China from Washington, D.C. as a high school studenton the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) Program, he could not have imagined that his study abroad journey would lead to an interview with First Lady Michelle Obama. In high school, with three other students, Jeffrey participated in a summer study abroad program for inner-city youth. His journey to China was later chronicled in a documentary film, “Beyond the Wall.” He returned home with a fresh perspective on his future and was determined to learn more about Chinese culture and international affairs.
As an undergraduate student at George Mason University, Jeffrey’s interest in Chinese affairs blossomed. He won a Gilman scholarship and spent an academic year in China studying language and culture. Gilman motivated him to continue his post-graduate studies in China and helped prepare him for a career in the Foreign Service. In 2014, the First Lady visited China to talk about the power of education, emphasizing the importance of students learning from their peers around the world. Jeffrey said he felt honored when he was selected to conduct a video interview with the First Lady during her official visit. He later wrote that when she entered the room his “nerves shot through the roof,” but her welcoming demeanor put him at ease, resulting in an enlightening conversation on education and exchanges.
While living abroad, Jeffrey learned how exchanges help reduce misunderstandings about other cultures, saying, “I was an African-American male studying in China and unprepared for the misperceptions that came from stereotypes that the nationals had learned about Americans. Being able to exemplify that people of color come from all parts of the world and not just from one specific part of the world really made an impact on my studies in China. In fact, it allowed me to truly understand my role as an American student studying abroad.” With those lessons learned, Jeffrey has been committed to diversifying the exchange community. He is currently an ambassador for both the 100,000 Strong Foundation and the D.C. Center for Global Education, promoting global education in inner-city public schools and encouraging youth to consider exchange programs. 
Jeffrey’s desire to continue learning about other cultures shows how long the benefits continue after the exchange is completed. After his Gilman exchange, Jeffrey was invited to speak at a conference on cooperation with China sponsored by National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington, D.C., about bridging cultures in the humanities. He also participated in the Public Policy and International Affairs Junior Summer Institute program at the University of California, Berkeley, where he spent seven weeks taking graduate courses in economics, statistics, and public policy. This year, as a 2015 Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellow, Jeffrey will return to China for his first year of graduate work with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He is studying International Affairs and China Studies and will be taking his Master’s degree courses in Mandarin.