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Learning foreign languages stressed during speech

Photo by Jeremy Leong

On Monday, Sept. 10, the recently appointed Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Tara Sonenshine visited Drake to talk about the importance of International Student Exchange.

A good friend and former student of Drake University’s own President David Maxwell, she began her career working as an intern at ABC News after being selected for the position by President (then Professor) Maxwell and several other faculty members at Tufts University. Following her internship there, she became an editorial producer of ABC’s Nightline while also working as a reporter for ABC’s World News Tonight. After a decade with them, she began working in the White House under the Clinton Administration. She knew it was time to leave there when her son’s first word was “beep” and set out working for various international organizations, among them the United States Institute of Peace, the International Crisis Group, CARE and the International Women’s Media Foundation. She is the recipient of ten news Emmy awards.

Sonenshine spoke to a group of roughly twenty people including current Drake students, allowing an intimate setting in which the attendants were able to ask questions.

During the discussion, Sonenshine focused on the benefits of both Americans studying abroad and international students coming to America, who serve not only as foreign ambassadors, but as large contributors to our economy. Sonenshine urged people to host exchange students, an experience that is beneficial for both parties.

Often times, those in power who make significant changes in their countries are former exchange students. Americans who study abroad also are more likely to succeed in their careers, gaining an advantage with their increased global understanding.

She also drew attention to the fact that what Americans learn abroad can be used to improve society in America as well, a fact first-year student Alexi de Lathouder admits to not having thought of before, saying that “(Sonenshine) inspired me even more to study abroad and made me think about what I could do for America.”

Sonenshine stressed the importance of learning languages, sharing how her own proficiency in languages has helped her while abroad. Specifically, she has made use of her Russian skills (a language she studied under Maxwell) while interviewing people living near a river in Russia that had been contaminated by nuclear waste, a fact hidden from them by the government. Her language abilities helped her to learn about the town and how its residents felt currently, rather than waiting to read a translated news article, for example. She admitted to asking a prostitute that she was interviewing whether it was “common for women to have sex with money,” while actually meaning to say “for money.” A mistake she didn’t realize until her language tutor pointed it out long after the interview. Still, she joked with a member in the audience that it’s important to at least “try to speak the language.” She added that there is a “serious lack of language” in the various government departments and there is a high demand for people who are competent in multiple languages.


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