By Elizabeth Thorp | August 25, 2015 | Culture
The State Department's Experience America program takes foreign ambassadors on VIP tours outside the beltway to discover the 'real' America.
Guests of Experience America enjoy the views from Montalto, overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains.
When you think of the US Department of State, you typically imagine foreign service officers conducting top-level negotiations, discussions of foreign policy, or, perhaps, standing in line to renew your passport. But the State Department also has a significant responsibility to the 180 members of the diplomatic corps—the ambassadors to the US from other countries (known informally as the “dip corps”). In addition to extending the first hand to welcome presidents, prime ministers, ruling monarchs, and other world leaders to the United States, the State Department’s chief of protocol is the federal government’s liaison to foreign dignitaries engaged in diplomacy or cross-cultural exchange, as well as the president’s personal representative to foreign ambassadors in Washington.
Ambassador Peter Selfridge has been the chief of protocol since May 2014. “One of the best parts of my job is that I get to build relationships, and even friendships, with nearly all of the ambassadors,” he says. “Throughout the year, I really do work with almost all of them, whether it’s during a visit from one of their leaders, through events my office does with the diplomatic corps, or just simple courtesy calls.”
The Office of the Chief of Protocol’s Diplomatic Partnerships division engages with diplomats via several programs, including Experience America, a privately funded initiative that gives foreign ambassadors the opportunity to travel outside the Beltway and into the “real” America, allowing them to explore our diverse country, experience its rich culture and history, and investigate trade opportunities with various regions. “Our Experience America trips are probably the best opportunity for me to spend more time with the ambassadors than I usually get to,” Selfridge says. “As we explore a new city together, I learn a lot about them in a more informal setting. That can be very insightful.”
Experience America is like an adult field trip on a national scale—with VIP access. In the last year, the program has taken foreign diplomats to San Francisco, Austin, and Seattle. This summer, Capitol File had an insider’s look at the program, joining 52 diplomats (the largest group to date) and some of their spouses on a day trip to Virginia. Here’s our field report, highlighting visits to the State Capitol, Monticello, and the Executive Mansion, where Governor Terry McAuliffe hosted the delegation for lunch.
The convoy awaits passengers outside the State Department.
7:32am: The participants pass through security and check into the State Department, receive their credentials, and head to the Delegates Lounge for breakfast with Ambassador Selfridge.
7:55am: The diplomats are escorted to three large luxury buses—in alphabetical order by home country.
8:00am: Water and snacks are distributed, and a member of the chief of protocol’s staff announces the route and the day’s schedule.
8:06am: After waiting for latecomers, we roll out of DC with our police escort.
8:10am: A welcome video from Virginia’s governor, Terry McAuliffe, is played.
10:15am: The buses arrive at Ginter Park Elementary School in Richmond. The diplomats’ spouses disembark for an education program hosted by Virginia’s first lady, Dorothy McAuliffe.
10:30am: The diplomats arrive at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond and are escorted into a meeting room, where refreshments await. Secretary of State John Kerry welcomes the group by video message.
The rotunda of the Capitol.
10:35am: Local businesses—including Dominion Virginia Power, the cybersecurity firm FireEye, and Tranlin, a US subsidiary of a Chinese paper company— offer presentations about industry in Virginia.
11:00am: Q&A time with the businesses, with queries from Bulgaria’s Ambassador Elena Poptodorova and others. A common comment: “We would love for your company to come to my country.” Business cards are exchanged.
11:05am: Maurice Jones, Virginia’s secretary of commerce and trade, leads a discussion about business opportunities in the Commonwealth. He assures the ambassadors that “Virginia will go the extra mile to help foreign businesses succeed in the Commonwealth.” Jones also makes a pitch for local tourism. “Just as you’re here, we want all the citizens of your countries to come right here,” he says, noting that tourism brings almost $22 billion to Virginia every year.
Inside the Senate chamber of Virginia’s Capitol in Richmond.
11:25am: A tour of the State Capitol includes the Senate and House chambers. We learn that the Capitol’s dome is really a faux dome and that the statue of George Washington in the rotunda is the only one he agreed to pose for.
11:45am: A group photo op on the steps of the Capitol with Governor McAuliffe is followed by a brief walk to the Governor’s Mansion. The ambassadors and their guests form a receiving line to greet the governor and his wife.
The governor and first lady welcome guests to the Governor’s Mansion.
12:00pm: A buffet served on the mansion’s lawn showcases Virginia’s finest: oysters, crabs, wine, beer, and peanut soup, as well as local cheeses, hams, and vegetables. It’s a plentiful picnic, and the diplomats happily indulge.
12:30pm: Ambassador Selfridge welcomes the group to the Executive Mansion and thanks Governor McAuliffe for his hospitality. The governor is presented with a map of all the countries in attendance. Guests explore the mansion. Asked why he wanted to bring Experience America to Virginia, McAuliffe says, “My number-one priority from day one has been economic development and building a new Virginia economy. I am happy to say that many of the countries represented at this year’s Experience America event are already economic partners with our Commonwealth, but we’re always eager to build on our existing foundation and find new ways to work together.”
Fresh shucked Maryland oysters.
1:30pm: The governor and the first lady dig into some Rappahannock oysters and chat with guests. The first lady sips a local ale. The governor sneaks his golden retriever a piece of ham.
The diplomatic corps arrives at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
1:45pm: The Experience America participants reboard the buses for a visit to Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello. The police block streets for the delegation and use their sirens to expedite the trip out of Richmond center.
3:30pm: The group arrives at Monticello and pulls right up to the front of the house, something the bus driver says he’s never seen in his lifetime, noting that our group must be very special. We’re met by the executive vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Ann Taylor, and several other members of the Monticello staff and embark on a private tour of the home and its artifacts. Monticello is Jefferson’s architectural masterpiece. He began building it when he was just 26 and continued refining its design for more than 40 years. The estate’s gardens were a jewel of the property, and Jefferson had an impressive collection of art and Americana.
4:40pm: In a light drizzle, the group huddles on the steps of Monticello for a photo, then we head to the David Rubenstein Visitor Center, where The Shop at Monticello is located. Part museum store, part luxe Virginia boutique, the shop offers everything from reproduction Monticello furniture to jewelry, books, foodstuffs, seeds, kitchenware, gifts, and, of course, Virginia wine.
The group is ferried to Montalto.
5:30pm: The group boards smaller buses for a trip up the mountain that Jefferson named Montalto, again with a police escort. (The winding roads overlooking the countryside can’t accommodate large vehicles.) Rising 410 feet above Monticello, the mountain is home to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s world-class education center. Totally renovated in 2011, the 11,000-square-foot building atop Montalto was once a house called Repose—the final stop.
Ambassador Selfridge thanks the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s Ann Taylor.
5:40pm: Some of the foundation’s executives greet the dip corps, who are treated to a reception featuring Virginia’s finest foods, beverages, music, and even Thomas Jefferson himself (or perhaps just an actor playing him).
6:15pm: Ann Taylor greets the diplomats. Next, Ambassador Pisan Manawapat of Thailand offers remarks on behalf of the diplomatic corps: “ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] is always proud of its well-known hospitality when it welcomes delegates or visitors to Southeast Asia. The State Department, under the great team of Ambassador Selfridge, has shown that the US can indeed be second to none when it comes to offering splendid hospitality and meticulous arrangements. EA Virginia is a journey to rediscover what makes this country great.” He adds that the principle that “all men are created equal” continues to spark the dreams and aspirations of people all over the world.
6:45pm: The ersatz Jefferson mingles and has his photo taken with guests.
Thomas Jefferson bids adieu to the ambassador of Costa Rica.
7:30pm: Enjoying the haven of Montalto, the group needs to be wrangled for the return journey. As we descend the mountain, everyone discusses the incredible beauty and historical significance of our afternoon. (A few weeks later, Ambassador Kairat Umarov of Kazakhstan sends an email remarking that he was so impressed by the business presentation that his country’s minister of agriculture is planning a visit to Virginia. “Without any doubts,” he writes, “this clearly shows that the Experience America program works!!!”)
7:40pm: The diplomats board the buses for the trip back to DC and receive a biography of Thomas Jefferson. An hour into the return trip, everyone is asleep.
10:15pm: We arrive at the State Department. Each participant is given a basket of Virginia’s culinary delights. Several of the ambassadors have their cars waiting but first offer thanks and congratulations to Selfridge and the Office of the Chief of Protocol. Many hug each other farewell.
photography by daniel swartz
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