My academic background is in European Studies (BA, University of Washington) and Political Communication (MA, University of Leeds). For both of those degrees, I wrote theses on the relationship between politics, terrorism and the media. While I still find that topic interesting, I decided to choose something less depressing for my PhD topic. Public diplomacy is getting to be a more popular field, but there is still a lot of work to be done--especially with student exchanges, which is really overlooked. The great minds of the day all seem to agree that student exchanges play an important role in public diplomacy, but hardly anyone ever does empirical research into them. The few studies that exist are almost exclusively focused on foreign students coming to the US, and never look at American students going abroad. Britain is the number one destination of choice for American study abroad participants, with over 33,000 US students coming to the UK in 2008. Our shared language, history, culture, etc. make it a relatively easy transition for students (easier than, say, China or Zimbabwe). And since I've been an American student in Britain for the past few years (and plan to be for a few more), I decided to write about what I know: the experience of American students in Britain.
It's a sort of unquestioned assumption that Americans don't go abroad and don't have passports, and students only study abroad so they can party it up 6,000 miles away from their parents. Yet the government (US State Department) gives Fulbright scholarships to students to go abroad, so there must be some strategic political value to this. This is where public diplomacy comes in. Public diplomacy is about 'telling our story to the world', where one country's government directs information (the diplomacy) towards the people of another country (the public). Students are great at this--their audience is receptive (friendly classmates), their message is credible (learn about America from an American's first-hand account), and they're well-positioned to participate in a 2-way dialogue that further enhances their credibility and efficacy (unlike other forms of PD, such as international broadcasting which is a 1-way street).
In this study, I will be looking at the experiences of American Fulbright participants in the UK to see how they compare or contrast with the Fulbright program's stated public diplomacy objectives. I hope to survey as many participants as possible over the next three years, and interview others involved in this field (Fulbright and State Dept representatives, former program alums, other public diplomacy researchers, etc.). I want to look at how they've changed over the years, particularly in the post-9/11 era (many studies date from the Cold War era, when public diplomacy was a key strategy in that ideological fight). At the end of this, I hope to have something interesting to say (100,000 words to be exact) about the current state of public diplomacy and student exchanges, perhaps about how they can be most effective or how they could be improved, and comment on the overall role of student exchanges within public diplomacy efforts.