by senior contributor Brendan Kownacki
Photo credit: Brendan Kownacki

It’s not every day that you get to go to the White House, especially to discuss and engage on international policy issues; but this week, that privilege was reality for nearly 100 bloggers, writers, producers and educators from the travel space. The gathering, tagged aptly online as a summit for #WHTravelBloggers, was a full day of exploration and discussion about the benefits of cross-cultural educational and cultural exchange and boosting international student travel and study abroad.


White House Travel Bloggers at the Newseum – Photo by Jack Conroy/Turkish Airlines

From the start of the day, it was clear this was going to be an interactive experience rather than a typical one sided summit where experts speak at you from a stage. A lively breakfast on the top floor of the W Hotel (formerly the historic Hotel Washington) kicked off the melding of minds and thoughts. Participants were encouraged to…participate, sharing anecdotes and photos and every detail of the day on social media. Naturally, this gathering of digital media folks would have been hard to keep off of the internet; every last one vested in communicating and sharing experiences with people near and far for the collective benefit, and that spirit was necessary to tackle the international issues at hand. Each tagged post additionally became part of a growing mosaic highlighting top tweets about the day’s activities.


There was some time for tourism; with bloggers flying in from around the United States and the globe, this eclectic group wanted to soak in this experience, and the White House at Christmas makes a great backdrop, but then it was all down to business.

Lunch at the National Press Club courtesy of Hostelling International USA shed a strong spotlight on the idea of international travel and its connection to education. Guests exchanged stories about experiences traveling the globe and it became apparent that studying abroad was a first chance to many to step out onto the global stage and dive into a land or culture that had previously been foreign. The team from Hostelling International also explained the benefit of hostels as an affordable lodging for students and travelers alike, and this restarted many stories of time on the road, meeting strangers and leaving as friends with other weary travelers.


Fran Holuba

The next stop was the White House complex and the Old Executive Office Building for a briefing on all the aforementioned topics. This was by no means business-as-usual, this was a high level gathering to really dig into policy. Fran Holuba from the National Security Council who spearheaded organization kicked things off and introduced Ben Rhodes, Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor. Rhodes said that Americans need to get out of their comfort zones and on a whole, we need to broaden and deepen our cultural exchanges with people in other countries. Rhodes added that beefing up these exchanges about students and young people is a priority that both he and the President believe in, and that’s why the #WHTravelbloggers summit is critically important.

ben rhodes

Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor – Photo via White House Youtube Stream

Denis McDonough, Chief of Staff to the President gave remarks and took questions from the crowd, again talking about the asset of international experience in education, followed by Evan Ryan, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, Department of State. Ryan broke down some of the shocking numbers that put into context the challenge we were facing. While 50% of students enter college thinking they will go abroad, it is only about 10% who ever go.


Denis McDonough, White House Chief of Staff – Photo via White House Youtube Stream

By the time Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker took the stage, it was apparent that international travel, studying and engagement (of average people, not just diplomats) has serious political, economic, and security ramifications. “As a nation we should encourage our young people to travel.” Said Secretary Pritzker. “Our similarities vastly outnumber our differences,” she added regarding travel & people in other countries, and that strengthening relations from a young age will harden the backbone of or political and economic systems down the road. Pritzker also noted to remember that “America’s doors are open” for business, students, travel and visitors, and that example will hopefully serve as an example for other countries to reciprocate. Already, China has announced a broadening of visa exchanges with the US to increase business and educational opportunities on both sides.

penny pritzker

Penny Pritzker, Secretary of Commerce – Photo via White House Youtube Stream

The critical moments of the day came with the announcement of the new US Study Abroad Office which will work from the State Department to work with universities to let students know what options are and help them get abroad. Costs, language discrepancies and lack of awareness were highlighted as challenges to tackle, and with a more structured office to address the system, hopefully change will emerge and the 90% of students who never study abroad will be a shrinking number.


The day rounded out with panelists from the Travel Channel, National Geographic, the Peace Corps, educational institutions and advocacy groups who all wanted to weigh in and support the effort to teach young people to engage globally.

The event concluded across the city at a dinner after the summit at the Newseum, sponsored by Turkish Airlines who announced their commitment to bridging cultural divides and working with bloggers, writers and content creators like those present. So much so in fact, that they expressed a plan to send all the writers and bloggers to Istanbul to host the next summit.


Turkish Airlines, sponsor of the post summit dinner – Photo by Jack Conroy/Turkish Airlines

So where does all of it lead, now that the summit is done? With the federal government firmly looking at the issues and more than 6,000 tweets and posts in less than two days, the spotlight is in the right place to spread the message far and wide. Starting today, December 11, 2014—the message will expand as voices around the globe share their stories online with the hashtag, #StudyAbroadBecause, and encourage a new generation of students to hit the road and learn all they can, in the classroom and beyond. Share your story NOW.


One of the day’s panels – Photo via White House Youtube Stream

For more on the summit and a chance to listen to the speakers, check out the archived stream.