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Sister Cities Dinner Highlights Local Citizen Diplomats

“Before when I went down, I saw it as them against us. Now, they are my heroes.”

Discussion moderator Dr. Rick Van Sant used this quote from a cultural exchange participant to Mexico to demonstrate both the power of international exchanges to expose citizens of North Carolina to other cultures and peoples as well as the sort of grassroots esteem building possible through citizen diplomacy. The 2015 Sister Cities Association of Cary Annual Citizen Diplomacy Dinner was held this past Thursday, September 10th at the Page-Walker Arts & History Center in downtown Cary. The annual meeting, sponsored in association with the City of Cary and partnership from International Focus and the Cary Chamber of Commerce, allowed citizens of Cary and the Triangle area to enjoy a meal and expose them to the opportunities and rewards of international exchanges in the area.


A packed house as Dr. Rick Van Sant explains the importance of international exchange to North Carolina

The theme of the evening's discussion was “Building Cultural Bridges: The Power of International Exchanges” and focused on the personal experiences of the panel speakers as hosts and guests of international exchanges. Unlike traditional diplomacy, international cultural and educational exchanges allow students, professionals, and functionaries to engage directly with the people of another country. This not only allows these participants to observe and experience the workings of daily business life and culture of the host country, but to get to know its people. Local talks promote direct communication between foreign visitors and local groups. Home stays and hosted dinners allow these visitors to speak “off the record” and get to form more intimate friendships and relationships with their hosts. Organizations such as International Focus facilitate these exchanges by designing programs and working with government bodies such as the Department of State and the US Congress to bring young and advancing leaders to the United States to further grassroots diplomacy and foreign relations.

After a casual meet and greet and dinner, Sister Cities Association of Cary President Barbara Shepard welcomed the guests and introduced the evening's moderator, Dr. Rick Van Sant, Executive Director of the University of North Carolina system's Center for International Understanding. Dr. Van Sant spoke about his own background in international exchange and some of the exchanges he and the CIU had coordinated with local communities and citizens. He also spoke of the CIU and North Carolina's plans towards being the first state in the US to create a strategy for international exchange. He emphasized the importance of internationalization in the 21st century- “Being global is not a luxury, but a necessity”. He elaborated by reporting that the amount of direct investment in North Carolina was greater than most expected and that it was on North Carolina and North Carolinians to establish a global identity for the state as international hosts and visitors. “You all are brand ambassadors”, he said.

Mr. Srijan Mukherjee (second from right) shares an amusing story about his “aha moment”

Dr. Van Sant introduced the panelists, and afterwards asked each in turn about their own experiences and insights from either going abroad or hosting. The first panelist, Mr. Jeff Hadley, Department Head at Wake Tech Culinary Arts, recounted his trips with students to La Touquet in France. Mr. Srijan Mukherjee, a student at Green Hope High School in Cary, was then asked about his experiences abroad in Central America assisting in medical aid and teaching English as part of a humanitarian exchange. David and Sandy Campbell, hosts for several diplomatic exchanges through International Focus were the final panelists of the evening and spoke of some of their guests and how they felt about international exchange. Mr. Campbell recalled the connection he made with one of his guests, a Russian delegate who had served upon a sub during the Cold War at the same time as himself. Ms Campbell spoke about her time with a Kazakhstani delegation and how that during these exchanges she felt more like a representative of the US than just North Carolina.

From left to right: Dr. Rick Van Sant, Ms. Barbara Shepard, Mr. David Campbell, Ms. Sandy Campbell, Mr. Jeff Hadley, Mr. Srijan Mukherjee

The evening concluded with a short question and answer session, moderated by Dr. Van Sant. Unlike a typical session, Dr. Van Sant asked questions of both the panelists and the guests. Participants explored such ideas as their “Aha moment”-- where they think they or their guests felt a connection or where their minds broadened and what constituted “cultural awareness” vs “cultural competence”. Mr. Mukherjee recalled his initial shyness upon his first meeting his host family, with the hugs and kisses on the cheek, but how he eventually came to do the same. Mr. Campbell in turn told of two exchanges where he realized that the people he was spending casual time with were in fact quite important- one an evening spent watching basketball with a former minister of government in his home who was in the succession line to his nation’s presidency as well and another socializing with an assistant to a prime minister. Mr. Hadley spoke of how though his students enjoyed the novelty of finding wine and beer at McDonald's their breakthrough moment of coming to appreciate the slower, more social dining culture of France. He also spoke of his history with exchange programs and how even today he still stays in contact with the French students he hosted. Audience members as well related their different “aha” anecdotes- from realizing a student in one of their classes had the same feelings and motivations as themselves to a confusing first time encounter with American take-out food culture. As for “cultural competence”, the consensus became that the key difference between it and awareness was evolving- of moving past their preconceptions of other cultures and embracing the difference.

The Sisters Cities Association of Cary is a non-profit that strives to further global understanding and to encourage and assist sister city relationships between the citizens of Cary and cities throughout the world. International Focus is a non-profit organization with the mission to serve as North Carolina's premier organization facilitating cross-cultural exchange and promoting international arts, business, and education. For more information please visit and

Written by:
Benjamin Lawson
Program Associate

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