Virtual Exchange Promotes Citizen Diplomacy

virtual exchange promotes citizen diplomacy

To kick off International Education Week 2017, yPIE DC highlighted innovations in international education. Virtual exchange programs designed to promote citizen diplomacy seemed like a great innovation to yPIE DC Board Member Stephanie Blochinger. She interviewed Paul Lachelier, the founder of Learning Life, to learn more about a new virtual exchange initiative that supports international dialogue outside of the classroom.

Why did you start this initiative?

screenshot of students on a computer during a virtual call

Learning Life’s Citizen Diplomacy Initiative is an outgrowth of three events, one tragic, two promising.

The two promising events were live, internet video dialogues or “virtual exchanges” that I organized between students when I was then a professor of sociology at Stetson University in Florida. In 2009, Stetson students met with university students in Paris to discuss the role of government in society in light of Obamacare legislation then being debated. In 2011, they discussed social media and social change in light of the Arab Spring in Egypt with university students in Cairo. Those single dialogues were well-received on all sides. I started to think that more such substantive, respectful, learning-focused, transnational dialogues are needed.

The tragic event was the series of coordinated terrorist attacks that happened in Paris on Friday, November 13, 2015, that killed 130 people. I concluded that it was time for Learning Life to turn our focus to combating the ignorance and disconnection that fuel extremism and xenophobia through virtual exchange and collaboration.

How is this initiative different from other community-based initiatives?

Most international virtual exchange is currently student-to-student or classroom-to-classroom. As much as such exchange is praiseworthy and deserving of expansion to more schools (so long as it produces positive and sustainable outcomes), it is more likely to occur between relatively privileged students because schools in wealthier communities are more likely to be equipped and motivated to engage in such dialogues.

As far as we know, we are the only nonprofit in the international virtual exchange field that’s devoted to dialogue and collaboration between lower-income people, and specifically families, in different nations. Families are sometimes viewed as refuges from a dangerous world, but families are always vulnerable to all sorts of public dangers, some of them international, like terrorism, disease, cyber-piracy and evolutions in transnational trade. We envision and work to nurture families not as refuges but as vehicles for peace through a new kind of family-to-family citizen diplomacy.

Plus, for less educated families, talking about family and lifestyle can be a more comprehensible and appealing entry-point into citizen diplomacy than talking about trade agreements, terrorism or climate change.

It’s also an opportunity for families to bond and create memories together through international dialogue. One of our family members in Dakar, Senegal, recently told us that his large family is usually busy, each at their own cell phones, hobbies, or tasks, but they come together as a family for our dialogues.

What challenges did you face in the first year of implementation?

We faced a number of challenges in our first year of the Citizen Diplomacy Initiative:

  • Recruiting families here in DC and abroad
  • Ensuring everyone showed up to the dialogues as planned
  • Arranging transportation for our DC families without cars
  • Dealing with unreliable internet 
  • Keeping the families engaged as we continue to develop and refine our curriculum
  • Coordinating a volunteer-intensive operation
  • Fundraising for food, transport, and communications for our dialogues and supportive learning activities (e.g., field trips, international potlucks, global learning “fundays”)

We’re still working on some of these challenges. But we’re happy to report our successes. We’ve completed over twenty live family-to-family dialogues. We also hosted an international photo project comparing various aspects of our families’ communities in DC, Dakar, Senegal, and Jerash, Jordan.

What can international education professionals learn from this program?

Our Citizen Diplomacy Initiative intends to convey a few things in the short and long-term.

  1. Overcoming many of the world’s challenges will take widespread, participatory, public commitment,
  2. Our current largely elite-controlled system of diplomacy doesn’t help spread that commitment,
  3. We thus need to democratize diplomacy, that is, to widen the spectrum of people participating in tackling those challenges,
  4. That technologies like the internet, cell phones and tablets — when properly used in carefully designed, research-based, international programs — can help democratize diplomacy.

How can yPIE DC members learn more?

students sitting around a table watching a video screen

To learn more about our Citizen Diplomacy Initiative visit, or check out our videos at our Youtube channel. Contact us at if you’d like to volunteer, or get e-news of our progress.

Learning Life has opportunities for those interested in helping to advance the field of international virtual exchange. Let us know and we’ll notify you of the bi-monthly face-to-face meetings in DC. We can also share the Slack of our Virtual Exchange Coalition, which brings together government, business and nonprofit professionals in the field.

Thank you Paul for sharing your story! This post has been edited for clarity and formatting. If you are interested in blogging about your work within the international education field, please e-mail with your proposed topic.

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