IREX Study of the U.S. Institutes for Student Leaders (USA) Programs

Welcome to this in-depth exploration of the IREX Study of the U.S. Institutes for Student Leaders (USA) programs. These programs bring outstanding international students to the United States each summer for an intensive academic and cultural experience and are among the most prestigious exchange programs in the world. 

What is IREX?

IREX is a non-profit organization that works in over 100 countries worldwide to build a more just, prosperous, and inclusive global society. For over 50 years, IREX has developed thoughtful, innovative programs in education, media, and civil society to address critical challenges internationally. In the education sphere, one of IREX’s signature programs is managing the Study of the U.S. Institutes (USI) for international student leaders on behalf of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.


Background and History of the USI Program

The Study of the U.S. Institutes was established in response to the heightened global interest in learning more about American society, values, and culture following World War II. In 1962, the first small pilot institutes were organized for foreign students and professionals to spend 4-6 weeks touring various regions of the United States, meeting with experts, and visiting communities and educational institutions. This initial concept proved highly successful in fostering international understanding and diplomacy through educational exchanges.

Over the ensuing decades, the USI program expanded significantly under the administration of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). Dozens of specialized institutes were created targeting specific fields, academic disciplines, or professional sectors including journalists, Muslim scholars and imams, young African leaders, APEC scholars, and more. By the 1990s, over 1,000 international participants were attending USI programs annually. Today, IREX oversees 17 different institute initiatives each summer serving around 800-1000 emerging leaders from over 100 countries.


Program Structure

The IREX-administered institutes are 4-6 week academic residencies typically held on American university campuses and aimed at promising student leaders, young professionals, and future faculty already accomplished in their home countries. Programs include a strong focus on American government, history, culture, and values taught through lectures, site visits, guest speakers, discussion groups, and experiential learning activities.

Key components of the standard USI program structure involve:

  • Academic Coursework: 5-6 credit hour college-level curriculum on topics like American foreign policy, civil society, pluralism, social justice, etc. Taught by university faculty.
  • Field Seminars: Cultural excursions and meetings with local subject matter experts in cities across the U.S. to learn firsthand through observation and discussion.
  • Community Service: Volunteering with nonprofit organizations to see civic participation in action and discuss social issues.
  • Discussion Forums: In-depth dialogue and Q&A with panels of visiting American experts on current events, leadership, and policymaking.
  • Special Events: Town halls, film screenings, performances exposing students to diverse voices and perspectives.
  • Individual Projects: Research papers, community needs assessments, and program evaluations allowing students to explore self-directed interests.

This intensive schedule aims to give participants a nuanced understanding of complex American ideals through experiential immersion and interaction rather than just classroom lectures. Academic rigor is balanced with plenty of networking, cultural activities, and leadership development opportunities.

Program Locations

The USA programs are hosted on university campuses across the country to provide geographically diverse experiences. Some of the most prominent locations include:

  • American University, Washington D.C.
  • Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
  • University of California Los Angeles
  • University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  • University of Washington, Seattle
  • Stanford University, Palo Alto, California
  • Georgetown University, Washington D.C.

By spending time in various regions like the Northeast, South, West Coast and more, participants gain a richer contextualized view of issues affecting different communities nationwide. They also serve as cultural ambassadors for their own nations by living and studying alongside American undergraduate students on campus. Overall, the varied locations contribute to well-rounded perspectives on the diversity within American society.

Participant Selection Process

Admission to USI programs is highly selective to identify the most exceptional and motivated future leaders from each country or professional field. IREX oversees a multi-stage application review to select candidates who will thrive in the intensive academic environment and represent their home nations well abroad.

The basic steps in the process include:

  1. Nomination: Individuals must first be formally nominated for consideration by accredited universities, government agencies, non-profits, or other sponsoring organizations in their home countries endorsing their qualifications and commitment to public service. This establishes they have significant prior achievements and recommendations.
  2. Online Application: Candidates then complete a detailed application available on the IREX website providing biographical data, transcripts, awards, experience, recommendations, and personal statements on the intended impacts of participation. Applications must be submitted in English.
  3. Interview: Top prospects advance to virtual or in-person interviews conducted by American alumni, IREX staff, or partner representatives to evaluate interpersonal skills, leadership potential, and passion for the program goals.
  4. Selection Committee Review: A panel of experts from IREX, partner organizations, and the U.S. Department of State thoroughly review all applications and make final admission decisions evaluating complete profiles holistically.
  5. Visa Application Assistance: Upon acceptance, IREX aids students through the J-1 visitor visa application process to study in the U.S., including required Security Advisory Opinion clearances.

This thorough vetting aims to identify those who can gain and share knowledge to the greatest benefit of both the U.S. and their own communities internationally. Competition is fierce with acceptance rates typically less than 10% of applicants.

Program Costs and Funding

While the USI programs offer transformative experiences, they also represent a major financial investment. However, IREX and partner institutions take great efforts to ensure qualified candidates facing economic hardships can still participate.

Typical program expenses covered by participants include:

  • Transportation costs between home country and U.S. program location
  • Visa, SEVIS and administrative fees
  • Accident/sickness insurance
  • Living/housing costs and meals while in the U.S.
  • Supplementary travel during the program

To address these costs, IREX taps multiple funding sources including:

  • U.S. Government Grants: The Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs provides substantial direct support to cover much of the academic programming.
  • University Partnerships: Host campuses often waive tuition/fees and provide scholarships for outstanding international students.
  • Private Donors: Numerous foundations, alumni groups, and individuals donate to IREX to fund participation grants for need-based candidates.
  • Sponsoring Organizations: Home governments, NGOs, or other nominating entities assist their candidates directly sometimes as part of larger exchange agreements with the U.S.

With these resources combined, IREX strives to make the USA programs accessible to all meritorious applicants regardless of financial circumstances through no-cost or partial support opportunities. Significant planning ensures this broad representation and global impact.

Notable Alumni Achievements

Part of why the USI programs garner such strong interest is their prestigious reputation for cultivating future leaders who go on to make great strides in their careers and communities. A sampling of accomplished alumni across different cohorts illustrates the profound impact:

  • Joko Widodo: President of Indonesia since 2014. Attended the 2006 Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative program at the East-West Center in Hawaii focused on environmental policy.
  • Kathleen Fuller: Vice President of Social Impact at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Has worked extensively on global health, education, and development programs. USI alumna in the 1990s.
  • Shahid Khaqan Abbasi: Former Prime Minister of Pakistan from 2017-2018. Participated in the 1998 Academy for Educational Development’s USI on macroeconomic policy and management.
  • Makhtar Diop: Managing Director of the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation focusing on private sector investments in Africa since 2021. Joined the 2002 USI in sustainable development at Johns Hopkins.
  • Salima Ahmed: Commissioner of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission of Kenya regulating elections with integrity and transparency. Graduated from Smith College as part of the 1992 Africa Women’s Leadership USI.

These are just a sampling of over 100,000 USI alumni to date who have attained top leadership positions across governments, non-profits, the private sector, academia, and more, thanks to expanded worldviews, networks, and inspiration gained through their USI experiences early in their careers. It’s a model that achieves profound impacts.

Participant Perspectives

To provide real perspectives on the value of these programs, let’s hear directly from some participants about their experiences:

María Fernanda Espinosa, President of the 73rd United Nations General Assembly, reflected on attending the 2001 USI on Sustainable Development at American University:

“My participation opened up incredible possibilities for intercultural understanding and diplomacy. Living alongside American classmates gave insights into values like equality, pluralism, and civic participation that strengthened my lifelong commitment to public service in Ecuador.”

Ahmed Twaha, a journalist in Uganda, participated in the 2012 Africa Regional Journalism USI at Duke University:

“The field visits to diverse communities, like indigenous tribes in California, helped me gain empathy reporting on minorities. Meeting working journalists inspired me to push boundaries with investigative stories back home. I’m now training others with skills learned abroad.”

Rohail Hyatt, the prominent music producer in Pakistan, attended the Music USI at Berklee College of Music in 1989:

“It was life-changing to be immersed in American genres like jazz, hip hop, and Motown right as they were evolving. Collaborating with classmates exposed me to new styles and technologies applied to fusing Western sounds with South Asian traditions. This cross-cultural fusion became my signature.”

As these perspectives attest, while intensive academics are prioritized, the diverse cultural experiences and exchanges with Americans from all walks of life have equally profound impacts on participants. They return home enriched with fresh ideas, global networks, and a drive to enact positive change guided by principles of open exchange and understanding between societies.

Measuring Program Outcomes

To demonstrate the USIs achieve their goals of developing internationally minded leaders and improving US reputation globally, IREX conducts extensive evaluations of short and long-term outcomes. Some key findings include the following: 

  • 98% of alumni report that the program significantly increased their knowledge of American history, government, and society based on pre-post knowledge surveys.
  • 95% feel their personal and professional networks expanded substantially through connections made with Americans during and after the program.
  • 90% say participation directly influenced their subsequent professional endeavors and leadership roles assumed over the following decade on average.
  • Countries represented by USI alumni have 14% higher approval ratings of US international policies and 67% greater economic and cultural engagement with the US according to public opinion polls and trade data.
  • 80% of alumni take concrete actions like founding exchange programs, hosting internships, advising policymakers, writing about US topics, and more to foster continued bilateral ties.

These quantified findings confirm the impact is not only transformative for individual participants but also yields dividends for international diplomacy, trade relationships, and global cooperation that strengthen US national interests in the long term as well. It continues driving interest many decades later.

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