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WAC-DC Education Gala
'Illuminates Path to Greatness'

by Anna Gawel

The World Affairs Council of Washington, D.C., regularly hosts big names in the policy world to debate issues of the day, from ambassadors and authors to think tankers and other establishment figures.

Photo: World Affairs Council-Washington, D.C.

From left, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. and Mrs. Martin E. Dempsey, Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates and Mrs. Yousef Al Otaiba, and President and CEO of Lockheed Martin Marillyn A. Hewson attend the 2013 Global Education Gala hosted by the World Affairs Council-Washington, D.C. at the Ritz-Carlton, where Dempsey was the keynote speaker and Al Otaiba received the Distinguished Diplomatic Service Award.

But what sets it apart from the Beltway echo chamber is its focus on education and making sure the next generation of leaders is equipped to handle the challenges of a 21st-century world. Since 1980, the nonprofit has helped to increase global education and international affairs curricula throughout the country's school systems. In fact, the World Affairs Council-Washington, D.C. (WAC-DC), part of a 94-council nationwide network, is a recognized leader in professional development programs for educators.

To date, more than 1,000 U.S. and international high school educators have participated in 20 annual Institutes on International Affairs. And since 2001, more than 5,600 students from the national capital area have benefited from the council's youth leadership forums.

In addition to its high-level discussions — which over the last decade have featured more than 110 foreign ambassadors, 21 U.S. cabinet secretaries and two U.S. presidents — WAC-DC hosts teacher development workshops, youth seminars, Academic World Quest competitions, internships and international travel-study tours.

Both sides of the group were on display at its 2013 Global Education Gala, where captains of industry and top government officials gathered to celebrate WAC-DC's mission of promoting international learning.

This year's gala, held March 7 at the Ritz-Carlton, attracted some 1,000 guests, including several dozens ambassadors, making it the largest gala in WAC-DC history.

Photo: World Affairs Council-Washington, D.C.

Retired U.S. Ambassador William Courtney, a board member of the World Affairs Council-Washington, D.C., left, presents the Educator of the Year Award to Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, at the 2013 Global Education Gala.

John M. Duff Jr., chairman of the WAC-DC Board of Directors, said the huge turnout was a testament to the urgency of the group's mission to strengthen America's education system. He noted that today, "there is a major gap in high schoolers in what they learn about the world around them and what they should learn about the world around them."

To that end, the gala honored five individuals who symbolize WAC-DC's commitment to education. Some were obvious choices, like Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who has served as president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), since 1992. Hrabowski, who was presented with the Educator of the Year Award, was a child leader in the Civil Rights Movement and was recently named by President Obama to chair the newly created President's Advisory Commission on Education Excellence for African Americans.

Over the last 20 years, he's established UMBC as a school to be reckoned with. U.S. News & World Report has it the number-one "up-and-coming" university for the past four years in a row.

Other honorees were less obvious choices, though education is an undercurrent throughout their work.

Photo: World Affairs Council-Washington, D.C.

Frederick Thomas, founder and CEO of MHz Networks, accepts the Global Communications Award for helping to bring more international television programming into America than all other U.S. broadcast TV networks combined.

The Distinguished Diplomatic Service Award went to Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba of the United Arab Emirates, one of America's strongest allies in the Persian Gulf.

Despite the close political and economic relations between the two countries, including some $20 billion in two-way annual trade, Al Otaiba said a key part of his job is educating Americans about the value of this partnership and on his country, a wealthy, progressive Arab monarchy.

"When I came to Washington as ambassador five years ago, my country was not well understand," he told the audience. "So my team and I here worked very hard to build new relationships … in D.C. and around the U.S., traveling throughout the country to share the story of the deep ties that bind our two countries."

And that's partly why the ambassador was recognized by WAC-DC — because of his tireless philanthropic work that in particular has supported young people throughout the United States (also see "For UAE, It's Better to Give Than to Receive" in the December 2012 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

Among its many charitable projects, the UAE Embassy has helped to rebuild schools in Joplin, Missouri, after the city was devastated by a tornado in 2011, providing each high school student with their own UAE-funded MacBook laptop after the city's only high school was destroyed by the massive twister.

From left, Mrs. and Ambassador of Albania Gilbert Galanxhi join Ambassador of Nepal and Mrs. Shankar Prasad Sharma at the Global Education Gala hosted by the World Affairs Council of Washington, D.C., which is a recognized leader in professional development programs for educators.

The UAE Embassy has also spent millions building new wings in children's hospitals in Joplin as well as Washington, D.C. It funds soccer clinics and fields, supports Boys & Girls Clubs, and donated $100 million in direct foreign aid to U.S. relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina, part of which went to build technology infrastructure in New Orleans schools.

"These connections underscore the depth and breadth of the UAE's relationship with the U.S., the foundation of which was historically anchored in security and military cooperation," Al Otaiba said. "But this relationship has expanded," he added, "to include robust economic, social and cultural components."

Another honoree also set out to enlighten American audiences, though he took a far less conventional path.

Frederick Thomas, founder and CEO of MHz Networks, was given the Global Communications Award for bringing high-quality international programming to the nation's capital.

Thomas joked that his "half-ass broadcast station 20 years ago has now gone national." MHz Worldview features global programming in the United States through various cable and satellite affiliates, reaching a staggering 42 million households nationwide.

But delivering independent TV programs that were global and educational was not exactly an easy sell in the beginning. "What possesses someone to create an international channel in Washington?" Thomas reflected.

It was his father, who worked for the now-defunct U.S. Information Agency (USIA), who inspired him to scrutinize the world. He would bring home Soviet propaganda and Thomas, then a fifth-grader in Manassas, Va., would sit and compare U.S. and Soviet publications to understand what truth in news looked like.

From left, Ambassador of Barbados and Mrs. John Beale join Chad Rector of Marymount University at the Global Education Gala hosted by the World Affairs Council of Washington, D.C., a nonprofit that provides top-level presentations and discussions of global education and international affairs in the Washington area.

In accepting an award on behalf of Cisco Systems, Tae Yoo, the tech company's senior vice president of corporate affairs, pointed out how much the world has changed since the Cold War — and how much education has shaped that change.

She noted that in the last 50 years, almost 50 percent of the nation's economic growth has come from technology jobs. And STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are precisely where future growth lies, Yoo said, adding that the "new normal is lifelong learning."

That passion for learning was embodied by the evening's keynote speaker, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said there is "nothing more important in a democracy than education."

On that front, he had high praise for WAC-DC. "It's outrageously aspirational … that you would come together to try to build a global consensus around global education," Dempsey said.

"I think what makes this country great is that we dare to be great," he added, declaring that education "illuminates the path to greatness."

About the Author

Anna Gawel is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat and a contributing writer for the Diplomatic Pouch.



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