IOWA CITY — Carroll Harrison of Nicaragua visited Iowa City in 1998 as part of a U.S. State Department’s National Council for International Visitors program.
His goal was to study community colleges, spending time with students and faculty at Kirkwood Community College.
Three years later, using what he learned on his visit to Iowa, Harrison co-founded Bluefields Indian & Caribbean University, the first university on the Atlantic coast side of Nicaragua.
Harrison’s 1998 visit was hosted by the Council for International Visitors to Iowa Cities (CIVIC), one of 95 non-profit organizations around the country, representing communities in 44 states, offering professional development programs for National Council for International Visitors.
“The program identifies potential future leaders from foreign countries, coordinating their visits to America to further study their specific interests,” says David Tiffany, CIVIC’s interim executive director.
Every year, the state department creates a list of projects operating under the leadership program. Topics can range from politics and law enforcement to education and youth involvement. From there, community organizations identify ways in which their community can assist visitors with access to programs, people and other resources, submitting proposals to the national program.
CIVIC relies on volunteer members to act as professional resources for proposals, as well as hosts and tour guides during visits.
“As a volunteer member, your role can be as much or as little as you want,” says Ann Christenson.
Christenson joined CIVIC about six years ago. She is certified to drive University of Iowa maxi buses to help with transportation, but has also housed visitors in her home.
Some of these experiences include taking a Japanese visitor to a farm to hold a newborn lamb and sharing a rhubarb pie recipe with a visitor from Africa.
“He promised to email me a photo when he makes it,” Christenson says.
Recently, Iowa City welcomed visitors from South Korea and Bahrain. The South Koreans were studying local politics while the Bahrainis focused on arts and culture. The two groups spent most of their visit pursuing these separate interests, although some group activities were planned, such as a Memorial Day picnic in Upper City Park.
“We try to include a home visit of some kind with every project,” Tiffany says. “Not all groups do it, but it’s mandatory for us. We want the experience to be educational, but also have them experience the flavors of the community.”
Des Moines’ Iowa International Center is the state’s other community group. Tiffany says CIVIC and the Iowa International Center are working together to create dual programs, which will increase the chances of the State Department selecting the state as a stop during future visits.
The State Department funds the visits, with CIVIC receiving grant money based on the number of visitors the group hosts each year.
Tiffany says more volunteer members also would increase CIVIC’s knowledge base, bettering the chances for future visits.
“The more topics we have experts in, the more programs we can apply for because we have those local resources,” Tiffany says.
Currently, CIVIC has about 80 members. However, the board of directors recently approved a new student membership fee for UI students. For $10 per calendar year, UI students can host visitors, act as tour guide, help with transportation or serve as a professional resource.
Non-student members have the same opportunity. Individual memberships are $25 per year. Family memberships are $45.
Tiffany credits CIVIC for opening his eyes to what Iowa City and the surrounding area has to offer.
“In order to write a good program proposal, we have to dive into what’s available and what we can offer, and it’s amazing how much you still learn,” he says.
“You learn so much more about your own community because you try to find activities that meet the interests of the visiting groups,” Christenson adds.