Opinion: Spelman students experience Japan in new exchange program

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

In a guest column, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel and Spelman College President Dr. Helene Gayle talk about the significance of a new exchange collaboration that recently gave 26 Spelman students the opportunity to study, learn and experience in Japan.

By Rahm Emanuel and Dr. Helene Gayle

In America, our diversity makes us strong. Overseas, our alliances make us stronger. Japan is our single-most important ally in the Indo-Pacific: We have 55,000 troops stationed in Japan under our security alliance, we are each other’s top investment partners for three years running, and sister city relationships and grassroots connections link together our people unlike with any other nation.

For too long, though, the opportunity to experience and build an expertise in Japan has been out of reach for many American students. As a result, America has not developed a more diverse pool of “Japan hands.” Most of the U.S. academics, think tank experts and diplomats serving at our embassy and consulates in Japan do not reflect the full diversity of America.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

According to 2022 statistics from the U.S. State Department, while progress is being made in building a more diverse diplomatic corps, we still have a way to go to make the Foreign Service more representative of America. Only 5.4% of Foreign Service generalists and only 9% of Foreign Service specialists — these employees make up the majority of those who serve at overseas diplomatic posts — are African American. For Asian Americans, the percentages are 6.7% and 6.4% respectively, and Hispanic Americans 5% and 7%. Among these minority diplomats, only a fraction serve in the Indo-Pacific region.

We must do better and we can do better. State Department recruitment and retention are important parts of creating more diverse diplomats, but even more fundamental is generating interest among Americans in Japan and the Indo-Pacific region from an early age. Given the language requirements to serve in most diplomatic and corporate positions in Japan and neighboring countries, in addition to significant cultural differences, early exchange experience is critical to building the competencies needed for future success.

That is why, for the first time, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo partnered with a historically Black college and university, Spelman College, to build a more diverse pipeline of American experts — beginning with undergraduates. Spelman is a global leader in the education of women of African descent and is committed to developing future professionals and global leaders by engaging them with the many cultures of the world. Spelman’s exchange program with Josai International University gives undergraduate students the opportunity to study, learn and experience in Japan.

More than 70% of Spelman students receive financial aid, and monthlong exchange programs do not come for free. Rather than deny interested and otherwise qualified applicants due to an inability to pay, U.S. Embassy Tokyo provided $20,000 to help support this summer’s exchange program. Our theory: The best chance of creating a more diverse workforce that understands Japan and speaks Japanese is to act before graduation.

This first-of-its-kind academic collaboration did not go unnoticed. Georgia U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock said, “Promoting opportunities for HBCU alumni to pursue careers in foreign service is a worthy pursuit. As a Morehouse Man and voice for Georgia in the Senate, I am thrilled that the people of Japan will see the best that our state has to offer in the form of these students from Spelman College.”

Who knows if these Spelman students will go on to become Japan experts? Maybe they will be the next generation of U.S. diplomats serving in Japan, or maybe their career paths will lead them elsewhere. Regardless, they are better for the experience, and we are better for investing in them.

The students join a long history of Georgia-Japan ties that started with President Jimmy Carter. He began building bridges during his time as governor when he welcomed the first Japanese companies to Georgia and the Japanese Consulate in Atlanta. He continued working for the U.S.-Japan relationship as president and after leaving office. In fact, he welcomed the emperor and empress to Atlanta as the first stop on their historic visit to the United States in 1994. We believe this U.S. Embassy-Spelman exchange partnership is a fitting tribute to President Carter’s legacy, and a steadfast commitment to these promising students’ futures.