Johnny Cash’s song is a tour through every two-bit town from Reno to Kalamazoo. My version is equally jam-packed but spans continents, almost all of them. Let me explain:
Amy lived across the hall from me in Houston, in the early 1990s. We were graduate students at the writing programs at the University of Houston. I was a poet. Amy wrote fiction and spectacular personal essays. I moved to LA after I got my degree and tumbled into public radio. Amy taught and wrote for a few years after graduation, but the poverty was grinding, so she took the Foreign Service exam, passed and joined the State Department. By 2015, she was the Director of Alumni Affairs, which meant she nurtured The U.S.’s long game in soft diplomacy by providing opportunities to those who had ever participated in a State Department funded cultural or educational exchange program.
Meanwhile, she had followed my career, too, and had become interested in the potential of podcasts to tell the story of these alumni and all the good they had created for their countries and the world. She discussed the idea with her colleagues and got the go-ahead for posts around the world to compete for cost-sharing funding from her office.
The result was a podcast series centered on exchange programs from conception to the present day. Originally, the idea was to travel to 8 countries over 2 years. I’d teach workshops on audio storytelling and podcasting, and interview alumni of the Cultural and Educational Exchange programs. Then both Amy and I needed to accelerate the timeline. So I went to all 8 countries in 6 months. While I was circling the globe, most nights I would write home to a select group of friends and family. In the coming weeks I’ll be posting edited versions of those letters. Watch this space.