THE BLOG
03/21/2016 10:00 am ET Updated Mar 22, 2017

A Lasting Legacy for Ambassador Christopher Stevens

The Aspen Institute has a 65-year commitment to foster values-based leadership and provide forums for the exchange of ideas and the search for common ground. While our guiding principles remain the same, new technologies provide new frontiers for our work. The Stevens Initiative, an international program managed by Aspen -- and named in honor of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens who was killed in the attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya --will engage the power of cutting edge digital and video technology to break down some of the cultural and geographical divides that tear apart our world.

The Initiative is animated by a simple idea with a potentially profound impact. As 16 year old Salma Bounsir told me last week at her high school in El Jadida, Morocco -- after participating in a Stevens Initiative pilot virtual exchange program with students from Chicago and New York -- she experienced something "new and something really huge."

We are announcing this week our first ten projects, in 17 countries from Morocco to Iran, bringing together students in 25 American States with peers in the predominantly Muslim countries of North Africa and the Middle East in "virtual classrooms." Virtual Exchange -- connecting classrooms using both synchronous and asynchronous technology -- is a new field, one in which the Aspen Institute will again be a leader in finding new ways to share ideas and find common values. Virtual exchanges are not limited to one type of technological platform or curriculum, but all of them are designed to provide a first-hand experience connecting peers from around the world. These shared learning experiences will enable young people to learn critical 21st century skills together, but also build greater empathy and understanding for those from other backgrounds.

These exchanges create a bridge between cultures where few or none exist today, but also promote collaborative-problem solving and give students here and abroad the tools and soft skills they will need to find meaningful jobs, hope and opportunity in a globalized economy where communication, language, digital competency, and critical thinking are essential. Virtual exchanges will establish relationships that transcend geopolitics. And from emerging research in this new field, and experience with vastly more expensive physical person-to-person exchange, we are also confident that forging such connections will reduce the temptations to violence and extremism and allow young people to develop the mutual respect that will lead to a more peaceful world.

The Aspen Institute was selected by the U. S. Department of State to manage the Stevens Initiative because of our experience in education and leadership development. The Bezos Family Foundation has pledged to match the substantial federal contribution, and other partners include the Stevens Family Fund, the MacArthur Foundation, and, so far, the governments of Morocco, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. We are also working with technology providers such as Microsoft, GoPro, Mozilla, and Twitter to help grow the field of virtual exchange with innovations such as simultaneous electronic translation and virtual reality. Fully $45 million is already pledged or committed to the Initiative; $5 million is being awarded in this first round of grants.

The projects we are announcing this week range from basic conversation in English and Arabic between students in California and Morocco, to designing solutions to climate change between Emirati and American engineering students, to experiencing a day in the life of students in Los Angeles and Jordan (including Syrian refugees) through virtual reality videos. Through these projects, students will learn together in diverse virtual classrooms, and share ideas that will allow them to develop mutual respect and understanding of other cultures. The Stevens Initiative thus brings the Aspen Institute's values-based leadership ideal to a new and innovative height.

As a lifelong public servant, Chris Stevens dedicated himself to understanding local cultures in the Middle East and North Africa and building understanding between them and the United States. His love for the region began as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. Person-to-person exchanges -- such as through the Peace Corps but also through study abroad programs -- change lives, create opportunities and build lifelong mutual understanding and respect. But such programs, as vital and transformative as they are, reach only thousands. Virtual exchange can reach millions and create windows to the world for every student. The students who participate in the Stevens Initiative today will be our global citizens of tomorrow.