Sharing America’s story

Today’s students, more than any other generation, have the opportunity to be “citizens of the world” and impact international relations, the Honorable Dina Habib Powell told SMU students April 4 during her presentation, “Changing America’s Face Around the World: Engaging the Global Community.”

Dina Habib Powell and Rick Powell

As the Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs and Deputy Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Powell leads the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which administers exchange programs including the Fulbright and Gilman scholarship programs.
Powell, who grew up in Dallas after emigrating from Egypt with her family at age 4, is married to Rick Powell (’89), managing director of Quinn Gillespie & Associates, who is spending the week in SMU’s Division of Corporate Communications & Public Affairs as Executive in Residence.

Here’s a sample of the assistant secretary’s discussion, which was sponsored by the Tower Center for Political Studies.

What is the government doing to tell America’s story around the world?

Karen Hughes (Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs) and I have spent the last 18 months trying to do everything we can to structure the government in the right way to tell that story. We’re making sure all of our ambassadors go out and tell that story; they don’t wait for clearances anymore before they do an interview.

We also make technology a huge priority: How do we communicate real time with young people all around the world in their mode of communication? For example, we now have a virtual gateway to Iranian young people where we do blogs and IM-ing with students, and that’s been wildly successful.

We also focus on exchange programs. We believe in the power of these exchanges to affect young people –– teachers, religious leaders, journalists, with a special emphasis on women, who can be the catalyst for change.

A part of the rude awakening of 9/11 was that the United States does need to encourage our students to learn foreign languages and to understand more about the rest of the world. It’s important that we all participate in this thing called public diplomacy. I encourage you to go to our Web site, It’s not the work of government alone.

Communication has become instantaneous and is expected 24/7. How is America handling that?

During the Cold War we were facing another ideological struggle. The importance of that struggle is similar to today, but the messages are very different. That was a case of a closed society, yearning for more information from the Western world, and we were able to be creative about how we gave that information.

Now we’re in an information explosion, with 170 satellite stations in the Arab world, the Internet, blogging – and we’re trying hard to respond.

One thing we’ve done at the State Department is create a Rapid Response Team, which analyzes what’s being said about us all around the world  –– at the major TV stations, newspapers, blogs. Then we produce a document, “Fact/Myth,” about what’s really going on and get America’s side of the story out as quickly and as effectively as possible.

Do you encounter skepticism in relaying America’s story?

This is a remarkably tough challenge at a tough time for a lot of people around the world. It is also a long-term challenge.

But it’s important to understand the stakes. I was in the White House on 9/11, when Secret Service ran into my office and said, “Take off your shoes and run right now.”

 I was eight months pregnant and waddled out of the White House. … I thought the world was going to end.

Not every decision since then has been perfect, but I know that every decision since that day was made to protect the American people. You just don’t get a second chance to make the right decision.

We have a lot more work to do explaining where we are and what we’re trying to do, but it’s important that we remember that our very way of life is at stake, and it’s going to affect every decision you make and I make.

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