The State Department brought John Matel out of retirement to manage public diplomacy activities in São Paulo for 42 days in August and September, 2018, as “while actually employed.” Before his retirement from the Foreign Service he was Country Public Affairs Officer for Brazil from 2011 to 2014.
Brazil’s flagship youth exchange is the Youth Ambassador Program. This has been going since 2002 and remains highly competitive, often with more than 10,000 applicants for 50 slots. Since 2006, the Mission sponsored English immersion courses for runners-up and hundreds of young Brazilians have enjoyed the benefits. Our binational centers, American Centers and EducationUSA branches all participate, drawing participants from all the regions in Brazil. It would be easy to take all or most of the participants from places like São Paulo or Rio, only from big cities, but emphasis on Brazil-wide inclusion makes the program more effective. Youth Ambassadors and related programs have now affected hundreds of young Brazilians and the earliest recipients are now in their early and mid-30s. More recently we have been doing Young Leaders of the Americas Exchanges (YLAE) for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Life Changing Experiences
During my 42 days in Brazil I spoke with dozens of Youth Ambassador Alumni and have been in contact with more. These supplement and update my previous contacts as PAO in Brazil 2011-14. Whenever I traveled, I made a point of inviting local youth alumni to pizza lunches. Then and now, I found uniform success. Youth touched by our programs had become successful and all were grateful for the experience. “Life changing” was the way I heard the programs described again and again. But there is more. Many alumni are now in positions of significant authority in business, government and in NGOs. One Youth Ambassador Alum is running for Congress in this elections cycle. We have a strong network throughout Brazil and one that is growing in both size and importance each year.
Reaching Back to Help Others
I spoke to a few Youth Ambassador Alums about “reach back.” How did they think that their experience affected their larger communities? This was important, since all of them came from challenging circumstances. It is gratifying to give a few a chance for a better life, even better if the ripples of their success move others along. I got thoughtful and sometimes inspiring answers. All thought (hoped) that the power of their example was helpful, but most had actually reached back with concrete effort. One very good example was a YA who right after coming back set up a leadership program in high schools in his state. The program he set up in his own high school reached an estimated 800 kids and it inspired the creation of a network of seven similar programs throughout the state. The idea is to make the kids agents of positive change. I am not sure how we can measure that, since in the process of expanding the programs and ideas are adapting to local conditions and so becoming harder to trace. I am sure that the effects are real, persistent and positive.
John Matel is president of the Virginia Tree Farm Foundation. Previously he was president of the Fulbright Commission in Brazil, senior International advisor at Smithsonian Institution, and a State Department fellow at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. With over 16 years of experience at the State Department, Matel has worked to understand societies, information and behaviors, and shape strategies to engage networked publics.