Making a difference in the world 'one handshake at a time'

Given the fact that George Drost's family fled communist Czechoslovakia for Chicago when he was very young, his interest in the world beyond America's borders is understandable.

The long-time Arlington Heights resident and community lawyer describes the transition as the "typical immigrant story - my mother was a cleaning lady and my father worked in a factory and went in search of the American dream."

A number of years ago, friends introduced Drost to WorldChicago, a non-profit that promotes Citizen Diplomacy through a variety of programs that try to advance "national security, economic development, and social justice."

Drost ultimately served on the board and rose to chairman, stepping down in 2012, but his involvement with international affairs, especially with his native Czech Republic, has not waned.

"It was intriguing. How do you bring people from Moldova or Kyrgyzstan and introduce them to America? How do you bring a group of Middle Eastern women and put them together with Israeli women? You do it on a person-to-person basis and not on a governmental basis and it provides hope for our world."

Half of the visitors that WorldChicago assists come via the Department of State's International Visitor Leadership Program. In 2017, WorldChicago helped host 669 program participants from 134 countries.

When I served abroad as a Public Affairs Officer in an Embassy, I thought the visitor leadership program was the sharpest tool in my public diplomacy toolbox. Let people see America for themselves, build relationships with Americans, and make their own judgments. When they return home, they are often the best advocates with the credibility to dispel the many misconceptions held by people abroad about the U.S.

During my time in Tunisia in the late 1980s, we sent a Muslim Imam on a religious leaders program to the states and he did a home stay with a farm family in Iowa. We were a little surprised when he fell in love with Midwestern farm life. He wrote nine lengthy and positive articles in a leading newspaper about life in Iowa.

Drost has hosted dinners for groups as varied as Iranian museum curators to legal officials from Botswana. And his daughter Julie Lokun, who is involved with a program that brings au pairs to America, has also hosted participants in the visitor program, making it a family affair.

The International Visitor Leadership Program was started in the late 1940s by Nelson Rockefeller and has brought well over 300,000 young leaders to America over the decades. More than 300 eventually became the leaders of their respective countries, from the U.K.'s Margaret Thatcher to Egypt's Anwar Sadat.

It is only one of a number of educational and cultural exchange programs run by the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development, which includes the Fulbright scholars program. Foreign students have pumped $1.6 billion into the Illinois economy and more than 1,600 Illinoisans have served as "Citizen Diplomats," hosting visitors from abroad.

The State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has maintain a flow of 4,500 to 5,000 individuals each year, though budget cuts mean that programs that once lasted a month in the 1970s and 1980s are now 10 days to two weeks. Today's average program costs $18,000 per person, with most of that money spent in the U.S. However, the budget pressure continues.

In its first budget, the Trump Administration proposed to cut the budget of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, including the visitor leadership program and Fulbright, by 75 percent. Cooler heads prevailed in the Congress, and the programs were preserved with a small increase in funding.

Drost notes that he is like a lot of current "Citizen Diplomats" who are getting older and he hopes that the younger generation will get engaged internationally. WorldChicago President Peggy Parfenoff says the organization is continually looking for new hosts. "As we say," said Drost, "we are trying to make a difference one handshake at a time."

Keith Peterson, of Lake Barrington, served 29 years as a press and cultural officer for the United States Information Agency and Department of State. He was chief editorial writer of the Daily Herald 1984-86.

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.