The United States of America exchange programme has opened participants to a new world of endless opportunities in their chosen careers, besides making Nigerians and Americans to know one another’s cultures beyond the stereotypes, writes John Iwori who was at the in pre-departure activities for young Nigerians selected for the programme 2016 participants which took place at  the US Embassy in Lagos.

Many things cropped up in this reporter’s mind when he got an invitation to attend the activities earmarked for participants in the United States of America exchange programme at the US Consulate General in Lagos. What will be the shape of the programme? What are the rules of engagement? Who are the participants? Against the backdrop that the US does not treat security with levity, what are the security measures invitees will be made to undergo in the consulate? Though it is not one’s first time in the embassy as one has been there on more than one occasion to get visa but it is the first time in the Public Affairs Section (PAS). These and many more questions were up in the reporter’s mind as he inched closer to the premises. The screening into the venue of the event was akin to the one which applicants for the US visa are subjected to. No cameras, mobile handsets, tablets or any other electronic devices. The embassy also took a step further by ensuring that no prohibited item is taken into the premises. To this extent, participants were also made to undergo the screening similar to the kind of security air travellers go through at airports. The officials on duty were brisk and businesslike in the way and manner they go about their duties this fateful rainy Tuesday morning. No side talks. No smiles. Instructions on what to remove or put inside the rolling tray were intermittently announced by the officials on duty at the main entry point into the premises. It was as if one is being taken on a very long journey that one only knows the beginning but not the end.

Though none of the officials on duty was ready to speak publicly on the reasons responsible for the rigorous screening of anyone entering into the consulate, THISDAY checks revealed that they were not unconnected with the need to forestall any ugly incident or terrorist attack on the US Embassy.

Participants were taken through series of exercises as part of the pre-departure orientation programme. These exercises were aimed at preparing them for the nine months that they would spend in the land of the Yankees as participants in the USA exchange programmes. There was a video on “Welcome to America”, Power Point presentation, slideshow of alumni in action in USA, as well as questions and answers sessions.

Alumni of the programme were also invited to share their experiences with the participants just as there was consultation with the programme officers. These were meant to provide opportunity to the participants to ask questions agitating their minds and erase any doubt they might harbour concerning the programme or their stay in America. Many of the participants raised questions on the hotels or apartments they will stay while carrying out their studies in America, especially the cost implications. The organisers did not only answer all the questions but also gave some useful tips to ensure they get the best. The organisers noted that just as there are some bad eggs in Nigeria, there are also bad eggs in the US and enjoined the participants to do everything possible to avoid them while in America.

The overall objective was to engage, educate and empower the participants in their various areas of competence. From the outset, the participants were loaded with a lot of information that would help them in their journey. The information was also meant to equip them to stay successfully in America. The information was on health, and safety, and how to be successful as a US exchange programme participant. Coming a few days after three members of the lower chamber in the National Assembly were allegedly involved in acts demeaning their status as lawmakers, the US Embassy was on track telling the participants on what to do or not to do during their stay in America.

While welcoming participants, the US Consul General, Mr. John Bray described them as impressive.

His words: “You are a truly impressive group.  You are about to attend the leading, most prestigious exchange programmes we have to offer, as Humphrey Fellows, Fulbright scholars and researchers, and participants in the Study of the U.S. Institutes programme, the Teaching Excellence and Achievement Programme,  and TechWomen.”

Giving an insight into what the participants stand to gain from the programme, Bray said: “You may not yet realise it, but I promise you – your lives will be changed forever, both professionally and personally, as researchers, teachers, and entrepreneurs.  In 20 years, you will remember the American friends and colleagues, the universities, the cities and rural areas where you find yourself.   It will shape your thinking and your career in ways you never expected.  I urge you to be as open as you can be.  Be a sponge, soaking up everything you can, and push your boundaries.”

He urged them to remember that these exchanges are not just one-way programme.  According to him, they are bilateral.  “We want you to learn as much as you can from what you see and experience in America.  But just as important, we want you to share Nigeria with Americans who will never have encountered your culture before.  You have so much music, folk stories and sayings, traditional attire, and ways of thinking that will fascinate Americans.  We are a curious people, as you will see.”

It must be noted that the exchange programme is not new. Only last year, US  celebrated the 75 thanniversary of the first exchange programmes that the United States government attempted since the end of the American war of independence.

Over the years, the US has learned a lot about how to design a fantastic experience that awaits the participants from around the globe.

According to Bray, “we started such programmes, trying to figure out how humanity could recover from World War II.  But there has been one immutable lesson we have taken away from organising bilateral exchanges during and after the Cold War.  Mutual understanding across cultures and national boundaries makes a tremendous difference in international affairs for generations.  We do not just advance knowledge and technology and ideas with the creative talent found in every country, we advance lasting human ties and friendships that make peace and prosperity much more possible, and real, for ordinary citizens across the globe.”

He explained that over these 75 years “we have had hundreds of Nobel Prize winners, legislators, governors, ministers, heads of government, and heads of state grow in their careers and emerge as leaders with these titles after they had their immersion experience in a USA exchange programme.”

The strides made by the alumni are not limited to these persons alone as Bray noted that there are less visible ones running into thousands behind the leaders who have shone in their fields without the titles, as professors and business leaders, and expert policymakers for the politicians.

The diplomat stated that the participants are part of that wealth of talents, even as he wondered how far they will take the opportunity to grow in the years ahead in their chosen fields.

His words: “I want each of you to learn from the leaders in this room, but especially about my fellow Americans whom you encounter.  And I want my Public Affairs staff to hear from you when you come back.  Most of all, I want to hear news of how you have taken what you learned, and how you have shaped it to the benefit of Nigeria, and to the benefit of the entire world.”

There is no doubt that the exchange programme has tremendous benefits. In fact, from THISDAY interaction with some of the participants at the orientation venue, it was clear that it is a lifetime opportunity that some of them have been yearning for. For instance, Mr. Osayenweare Erharuyi, a lecturer, said his selection for the programme was a dream come true.

Erharuyi who teaches Pharmaceutical Chemistry in the University of Benin, hinged his assertion on the fact that he has been longing for an opportunity to do further studies in his area of specialisation for years to no avail. “Doing research in Nigeria is very cumbersome. It is not only the resources that are not available but the environment does not also encourage one to embark on any meaningful research. From what I have heard, this American exchange programme is a wonderful one. One will be paid a stipend while one is carrying out the research. Though I have been in Germany and Pakistan on similar research programmes but I am thrilled by my imminent departure to America because it offers more opportunities for self-development and capacity building for a young professional like me, he said.

The young lecturer revealed that the selection for the programme was tough as applicants must meet specific stringent requirements including written and oral interviews. Not a few have opined that the organisers and the participants must do everything possible to ensure that the ideals behind the establishment of the scheme are sustained in the years ahead. This is the only way to maintain the focus of the programme. Besides strengthening the ties between Nigeria and the US, the success of the programme will place many Nigerians and Americans in a vantage position to know one another  beyond the usual stereotypes common in the public space, especially in the social media.