In June, I met 17 young Nicaraguans who were heading to the U.S. as part of USAID’s Scholarships for Education and Economic Development (SEED) program. This program provides training opportunities to young community leaders from disadvantaged and historically underserved populations. The students go to the U.S. to pursue an array of two-year technical degree programs related to the needs of their home communities — programs ranging from small business management to environmental technology.
These courageous young Nicaraguans, mostly from humble backgrounds in rural Nicaragua, leave family, friends, culture and country to embrace new opportunities and receive an education which can dramatically change their futures.
These youth spoke to me candidly about their hopes and plans to support their communities when they return. In turn, I spoke to them about their dual responsibilities, not only for their courses and classes, but also to learn as much as possible about U.S. culture, customs, traditions and our way of life, while sharing with Americans stories of Nicaragua’s rich culture, delicious foods and beautiful countryside. In short, I urged them to form the bonds that have united our two countries for so many years — “Estamos Unidos” (We Are United), as our Embassy slogan declares. These types of exchanges establish strong, enduring relationships between our countries.
The program also matches scholarship recipients with alumni, who mentor and encourage the next generation of exchange students and, in doing so, hone their own leadership skills. I have gotten to know some of these alumni mentors, such as Jaime García, who returned in 1998. I heard Jaime speak to a group of outgoing students about the struggles of adapting to a new culture, of being away from home and family, of the rewards he gained from the experience and how the friends and knowledge he acquired continue to play a role in his life. Jaime graduated from an Agriculture and Aquatic Food Products program at Santa Fe Community College in Florida and now works as head of food safety in Sahlman Seafoods, a shrimp factory in Nicaragua that won the Award for Corporate Excellence in 2011.
These types of programs are extremely successful. Of the more than 1,000 alumni of USAID scholarship programs, 100 percent have returned to Nicaragua, and nearly 100 percent are currently employed. My interactions with private sector partners confirm how much they value SEED alumni for their English skills and U.S.-based education.
It is my belief that our support to these young Nicaraguans helps them have a positive impact in their communities and creates a lasting positive impression of the U.S. as a friend and partner in helping them — and their country — on the path to development.