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Exchange Program Turns 20

Congress-Bundestag Celebrates Partnership

Members of Congress and Germany’s equivalent, Bundestag members, as well as State Department officials recently marked the 20th anniversary of the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange program.

The Members of Congress who have devoted special attention and support for the program since its inception in 1983 were also recently honored at a ceremony marking the anniversary. Sens. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and Joseph Biden (D-Del.), Reps. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) and Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), and Bundestag member Dagmar Freitag were each presented with awards for their commitment to the program.

The Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange program offers full scholarships to 280 American high school students and 60 college students to participate in a yearlong exchange and home-stay in Germany. This program, funded by both the Bundestag and Congress, is unique in its reciprocal nature, inviting 400 German students to come to the United States.

“The program was proposed by Bundestag members in 1983 in honor of the 300th anniversary of German settlement in the U.S.,” said Robert Persiko, chief of the Youth Program Division for the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the bureau that administers the program.

Biden, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed his belief in the importance of youth exchange programs to help the future of international affairs. “There is a strong need for our children to get to know each other beyond the formalities of diplomatic relationships,” Biden said.

American alumni representatives from every year of the program were present at the event, and some came up to the podium to present the awards to the Congressmen and share their experiences. One woman was nearly brought to tears as she reflected on the significance of her experience in Germany and how it shaped her life.

In conversations with other alumni, Samantha Lamberth, who participated in the program, also known as CBYX, from 1997 to 1998, spoke of the confidence she gained in herself and her subsequent endeavors after her time spent in Germany.

“I now own a restaurant, which everyone always says is hard,” Lamberth said. “But, I found that the exchange gave me the confidence and knowledge that I could do this, to try it and succeed.”

The Congress-Bundestag exchange, one of many exchange programs offered by the State Department, has high school and college exchanges. The two programs are similar in that they require students to live abroad in Germany or in the United States with a family and take classes, but the college program enables students to participate in an internship related to their field of study while abroad. There are half a dozen private exchange organizations that work under grants from the State Department to administer the selection process.

“We will screen and select American participants and do an orientation program. We have a partner in Germany that does the same,” said Anna Oberle, program director for CBYX for Young Professionals at CDS International Inc. “Then we will recruit colleges, where the [German] students will study, to participate in the exchange and these colleges will find the host families.”

The CBYX program for young professionals uses mostly community colleges and generally spreads their students across the nation, having no more than two or three German students at the same campus.

“The guy I have this year is in diesel mechanics,” said Charles Grant, president of San Jacinto College North in Houston. “That’s why they use community colleges, because there are so many technical programs.”

The German selection process differs slightly from the American one. While German private exchange organizations do most of the screening like in the United States, Bundestag members also have a part in the process.

The exchange organizations “create a list of semifinalists and then members of the Parliament do the final interviews,” said Bundestag member Freitag, who has been involved with CBYX for 10 years. “We enjoy getting to know the students that we send to the U.S.”

U.S. Congressmen get the chance to interact with American and German exchange students as well. At the end of their year abroad, German students come through Washington before going home. “Often Senator Lugar will meet with German kids when they’re here or the American students when he is in Germany,” said Andy Fisher, Lugar’s press secretary.

Some German students participate in a Congressional Internship Program, a program within the Young Professionals exchange. Usually four to six students will come to Washington and intern for six weeks with a Congressman from their district. Upon their return to their host communities, they participate in another internship for the remaining time, Oberle said in an e-mail. This past year, there were five Congressmen who hosted German interns, including Regula.

Funding for the program has increased in recent years, but it generally hovers around $3 million. “In the early ’90s support waned for it,” said Fisher. “The view was, ‘Why are we spending this money?’” But Lugar and then-Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.), among others, said, “This is important,” Fisher added.

Although the stated origins of the program were to honor the 300th anniversary of German settlement, Biden referenced the rising tensions between the two countries in the early ’80s and a resulting necessity for such an exchange deemed for by the German government.

“What Senator Biden related to is true. There was a proposal by the German government that we needed to be much more aggressive,” said Fisher. “There was a whole new generation of Germans with no remembrance of the Marshall Plan. [Then-President Ronald] Reagan clearly jumped on the idea proposed by [German Chancellors Helmut] Schmidt and [Helmut] Kohl.”

“We really have a good thing going here,” said Lugar in his closing remarks. “So, I hope there will be a 30th and 40th anniversary celebration.”