By: Jim Chrisinger, Former IIC Board Member
Student Exchange Leads to Foreign Service
Speaking French, eating fondue and learning how to ski during a foreign exchange year in Neuchatel, Switzerland first piqued my interest in the world beyond my small-town Iowa upbringing. Later, I heard stories from embassies abroad from Foreign Service Officers while working for my home district Congressman, Jim Leach, who himself had been an FSO. Which later still prompted me to join the Foreign Service.
Little did we know when my family and I drove into Prague in the summer of 1987 that the world was about to be upended. Living behind the Iron Curtain, with our house and car bugged, heightened our appreciation of America and democracy.
The Communist Party controlled all local news sources. Czechs knew they were being lied to but had few options in those pre-Internet and pre-satellite dish days. So we few Americans were invaluable windows to the West, and truth. I ran a small American library, which contained real news – though Czechs knew they would be photographed entering and leaving, and likely harassed if they came too often. Serving there was the best, most rewarding job I ever had.
The Czechs admired America. We shone as a beacon of hope. While the Germans also supported democracy, they were willing to downplay it to benefit their commercial interests, echoes of which we are seeing in the Ukraine standoff today. But the Czechs could count on the U.S. to resolutely support their aspirations. When President Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” in Berlin, no one cheered more loudly, though privately of course, than the Czechs. And no one cheered more loudly than we Americans when the Czechs threw out the Communists in their Velvet Revolution of 1989. I can only hope we didn’t lose too much of our standing from 2017-2020.
America’s reputation as a dynamic magnet for peoples all over the world inspired the Czechs. America’s bedrock commitment to both pluralism and tolerance, along with our freedom and prosperity, was unique in world history.
After Prague, I directed Iowa State University’s agribusiness technical assistance projects in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Our approach featured “counterpart teams” of professionals, half the members from Iowa and half from in-country. These teams built bridges from Iowa to the post-Soviet world. Though the purpose of these projects was to support the locals in their transition to market economies, the participating Iowans came away with the sense they they had benefitted more.
I am so thankful that my own life has been enriched by all my international connections. America wouldn’t be America without the contributions of the world’s best and brightest who have helped build this country since before the founding. Iowa too. And given Iowa’s acute labor shortage, now would be a good time to welcome more of the world’s ambitious and hardworking immigrants to our land between two rivers.