Featured Content

Foreign Affairs Day: From Exchange Students to Diplomats

International Flags with text, "American Councils Celebrates Foreign Affairs Day"

For 59 years, the United States Department of State, alongside its affiliated foreign affairs agencies, has dedicated the first Friday of May to commemorate the nation's foreign affairs professionals. Foreign Affairs Day stands as an annual tribute to the tireless efforts of diplomats and foreign affairs practitioners, who diligently serve in over 190 countries worldwide, to promote and safeguard the interests and security of the United States.

American Councils for International Education takes pride in its network of alumni who occupy roles within the United States Foreign Service, advancing a shared mission with American Councils of fostering a more interconnected and diplomatic world through people-to-people exchanges.

As part of the “50 Alumni for 50 Years” initiative, spotlighting exceptional alumni who have bolstered American Councils’ mission, the organization is proud to recognize the important work of Foreign Service Officers, diplomats, ambassadors, and other public servants in foreign affairs. For this Foreign Affairs Day, American Councils staff had the pleasure of speaking with alumni of programs administered by the organization about their work in foreign affairs and the important role international education plays in these careers. 

Erin Bourque, U.S. Department of State

Erin Bourque, CLS, RLASP, and NSLI-Y AlumnaErin Bourque, an alumna of the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y), the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program, and the Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program (RLASP) through the Boren Scholarship, embarked on her study abroad journey in 2014. Beginning in Yaroslavl, Russia, Ms. Bourque continued her studies in Vladimir, Russia, and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Her language immersion was pivotal in shaping her views on diplomacy and fostering cross-cultural connections, allowing her to share her unique "slice of Americanness" with host communities and share those experiences with loved ones back home in New Hampshire.

Regarding her humble beginnings with the NSLI-Y program, Ms. Bourque reflected on her initial struggles in Yaroslavl. "I was a true beginner," she said, recalling her difficulty in even uttering a simple "hello" to her host parents. However, through their patience and support, she found resilience and joy in navigating the challenges of language acquisition while immersing herself in their culture.

“We rolled pelmeni at the dinner table, hunted for berries and mushrooms in the forest, and enjoyed the ritual of the banya,” Ms. Bourque shared about her NSLI-Y host family. “And they weren’t the exception—of the five host families I’ve lived with, all opened their homes and hearts to me in the same way.”

Ten years after her first exchange experience, Ms. Bourque is now fluent in Russian and continues to carry the lessons she learned. Her time studying abroad fostered a commitment to listening, understanding, and finding common ground with people from completely different backgrounds. She shares that these experiences laid a foundation for her ethos as a Foreign Service Officer. 

"Exchange programs are instrumental in building these ties and, by extension, a foundation of mutual respect from which we can begin to find pathways to a more peaceful, prosperous world," Ms. Bourque emphasized. She advocates for students interested in foreign affairs to approach their exchange programs with openness and generosity, recommending journaling as a tool for reflection. 

Ms. Bourque credits her exchanges that were administered by American Councils for preparing her for prestigious opportunities such as the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship. She encourages those with similar career aspirations to explore international education programs that will allow them to fully engage with foreign languages and cultures.

Samir Hajiyev, U.S. Embassy Azerbaijan

Samir Hajiyev, FLEX AlumnusSamir Hajiyev, currently serving as the Strategic Content Coordination Specialist for the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan, is an alumnus of the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program.

 In 1999, Mr. Hajiyev embarked on an academic journey from Baku, Azerbaijan to Ukiah, California, an experience that forever changed his personal and professional trajectory. Having completed the FLEX program 25 years ago, Mr. Hajiyev attests to its role in enhancing his career, personal development, and command of the English language.

It was during this exchange year in the United States that Mr. Hajiyev discovered his interest in computer science and web design through a course offered at his host high school. This newfound passion led him to pursue further education in technology, leading to his involvement in pioneering online ventures, including the inception of Azerbaijan's first online shop. In 2012, Mr. Hajiyev merged his passion for technology and international relations by joining the Public Diplomacy Team at the U.S. Embassy in Baku.

Mr. Hajiyev continues to celebrate the impact of the FLEX program, recognizing the integral role exchange programs play in building stronger ties between nations. “It helps students to see the world, culture, and diplomacy, at different angles,” shared Mr. Hajiyev. “Through educational and cultural exchanges, we can build a better and brighter world based on mutual respect and understanding.”

When asked what advice he would give to exchange program participants interested in pursuing careers in foreign affairs, Mr. Hajiyev encourages them to be flexible and adaptable, and to demonstrate a commitment to serving their country. “Keep working hard and showing passion about the world, and always be ahead of developments to react fast to dynamic world changes.”

Carlo James Aragon, U.S. Embassy Lebanon

Carlo Aragon, CLS and NSLI-Y AlumnusCarlo James Aragón, an alumnus of the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) and the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program, currently serves as a Public Diplomacy Officer for Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. His journey with NSLI-Y and CLS significantly impacted his personal and professional growth, igniting a passion for the Arabic language. 

In 2011, immediately following high school, Mr. Aragón embarked on the NSLI-Y program in Rabat, Morocco. During college, he furthered his Arabic studies through the CLS Program in Salalah, Oman. Inspired by these experiences, Mr. Aragón co-founded the Noor Majan Arabic Institute in Muscat, Oman, at the age of 24. 

“These experiences then cultivated a deep belief in the value and work of diplomacy, leading me to pursue a career in the U.S. Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer,” Mr. Aragón reflected.


In 2020, he virtually took the oath of office from his home in Corrales, New Mexico, before commencing his first diplomatic assignment in Kathmandu, Nepal. In his current role as a Public Diplomacy Officer in Lebanon, his proficiency in Arabic has been instrumental in his diplomatic endeavors, especially when telling stories of what it means to be an American from the state of New Mexico.

Drawing from his upbringing, Mr. Aragón aims to lead with authenticity, inclusivity, and respect, guided by the value of Querencia, derived from the Spanish word for “to love.”  

“Querencia conveys a deep spiritual and emotional sense of belonging to one’s homeland and people,” said Mr. Aragón. “It's a value cherished by the Hispanos and indigenous people of New Mexico and is a value that rests at the heart of my work in diplomacy.” 

By embodying Querencia, Mr. Aragón bridges cultural divides, fostering trust, respect, and reciprocity in his interactions. His advice to aspiring foreign affairs professionals is to remain grounded in their values and lead with integrity. 

Mr. Aragón acknowledges the enduring impact of his exchange experiences, expressing gratitude to American Councils for facilitating opportunities that shaped his journey in diplomacy. His experiences with NSLI-Y and CLS continue to inspire him in his current role and beyond.

Editor’s Note: The views expressed by alumni of programs administered by American Councils are articulated in a personal capacity and do not reflect the official policy positions or perspectives of the U.S. Department of State. 

About the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program

The U.S. Department of State's Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program is a  funded summer language program for American undergraduate and graduate students. The Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program is an immersive summer opportunity for American college and university students to learn languages essential to America's engagement with the world.  Each summer, the CLS Program administers intensive study abroad institutes in over a dozen critical languages around the world. The CLS Program, through its CLS Spark initiative, provides beginner-level virtual instruction for Arabic, Chinese and Russian. The CLS Program is administered by American Councils for International Education.

About the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) Program

The Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) Program is a highly competitive, merit-based scholarship program funded by the U.S. Department of State. FLEX provides scholarships for high school students from 22 countries in Europe and Eurasia to spend an academic year in the United States, living with a volunteer host family and attending a U.S. high school. FLEX students gain leadership skills, learn about American society and values, and teach Americans about their home countries and cultures. Starting in 2022, FLEX also offers the opportunity for U.S. high school students to spend a fully funded academic year in four FLEX countries building global awareness and intercultural competency.  

About the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) Program

The National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y), a program of the U.S. Department of State's Educational and Affairs, provides critical language study opportunities to American youth through merit-based scholarships to spark a lifetime interest in critical foreign languages and cultures. Scholarships are available for students to study Arabic, Indonesian, Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Korean, Persian (Tajiki), Russian, and Turkish. Visit the NSLI-Y website for further detail.

About the Advanced Russian Language & Area Studies Program (RLASP)

One of the longest-running and most respected overseas Russian language and cultural immersion programs, the Russian Language and Area Studies Program (RLASP) combines intensive classroom instruction with a wide range of extracurricular activities, including living with local host families, internships and community service, regional field studies, cultural excursions, conversation partners, and discussion groups with local students.