Before leaving for Washington last month I spent a couple of days in Canterbury with a very special group of folks … the 2010-2011 Luce Scholars. I myself was a Luce Scholar back in the stone age (1984-1985), before the current class of Scholars was born, and I thoroughly enjoyed reconnecting with an important part of my early personal and professional development.

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The 2010-2011 Luce Scholars.

The Luce Scholars Program promotes and broadens an awareness of Asia among young future leaders. Launched by the Henry Luce Foundation in 1974, it targets Americans under the age of 29 across a variety of professional fields including medicine, science, public health, journalism, law, the arts, and policy studies. The participants are chosen through a rigorous multi-step process that emphasizes leadership potential and adaptability.

One of the unique elements — and great strengths – of the Program is that it is targeted at young leaders who have had little or no experience of Asia, and who otherwise might not have an opportunity in the course of their careers to come to know Asia. Thus, it attracts a dynamic, eclectic group of people-in-progress rather than a homogenous group of already-Asia-focused careerists.

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My new friend Michael, installing solar infrastructure in a village in Laos.

The other defining feature and great strength of the Program is that it is oriented around individualized, year-long professional placements in Asia, rather than academic study or general travel. Using its extraordinary network of relationships, the Asia Foundation finds a job for each Scholar based on the person’s individual career interests and experience.

Back in 1984, for example, I was placed in the office of the Hon. Koji Kakizawa, Member of the Lower House of the Japanese Diet and Parliamentary Vice Minister for the Environment, because of my interest in environmental law and policy. One of my Luce compatriots worked on a medical helicopter team that flew into the jungles of Borneo. Another worked for the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong.

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My new friend Ouleye, at the Child Rights Protection Shelter in Chiang Khong.

The Class of 2010-2011’s placements were as diverse and exciting as ever. For example … implementing village-based solar power projects in Laos … producing Shakespeare at the Seoul Metropolitan Theater … working at an environmental NGO in Ha Noi … researching end-stage liver cancer in Ulaanbaatar … producing and hosting an English-language radio program in Jakarta …

… preserving Malay classics at the Asia Film Archive in Singapore … staffing an anti-trafficking-in-persons shelter in Chiang Khong … helping launch a social entrepreneur institute in Shanghai … working at the Legal Aid society in Phnom Penh … developing molecular diagnostics for viral encephalitis in Bangkok … evaluating primary school teaching techniques in Taiwan … just to name a few.

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My new friend Jesse, commuting to work in Mongolia.

Each Luce year starts and ends with all of the current Scholars and the Program’s coordinators meeting together for a week of discussion and group activities. At the end of my year as a Scholar, we convened in Bali for several days of presentations, sightseeing, and goodbyes.

When my friend Helene, godmother of the Program, attended my swearing in at the White House in December 2009, I invited her to bring one of the future groups of Scholars to New Zealand for their wrap-up. She started the wheels turning, and her successor Ling made it happen this year.

The 18 Scholars and several Luce directors flew into Christchurch and proceeded to the Terrace Downs resort in the high country of Darfield. The Scholars spent three days presenting reports — many of them with videos and other creative visual aids – about their individual work and cultural experiences. Dr McWaine and I were able to join the group for one of the days.

My new friend Henry in the clinic at Chulalongkorn University Hospital.

My new friend Henry, in the clinic at Chulalongkorn Hospital.

I smiled to myself throughout that day’s presentations because the room was filled with the same excitement, sense of accomplishment, frustration, camaraderie, complaints, changed perspectives, and uncertainty about the future that I recalled when my own group met on the beach in Bali 26 years ago. In fact, the de ja vu was so strong that I found myself associating certain of my old cohorts with particular current Scholars as they spoke.

A Luce wrap-up, of course, is not all work. After a long morning of presentations we went for a vigorous hike into and through the Rakaia Gorge, spent time talking and comparing notes, and had a barbeque dinner in a sheep shed near the resort. At dinner I gave a speech about innovation in the diplomatic arts, with more undiplomatic examples and asides than I would normally employ. Thereafter ensued a rollicking Q&A discussion with my unruly fellow Lucers.

My new friend Michael, demonstrating yoga positions above Rakaia Gorge during our hike.

My new friend Michael, demonstrating yoga positions above Rakaia Gorge during our hike.

After three days in Canterbury, the Luce brigade traveled north by bus and ferried across the Cook Strait. In Wellington we arranged meetings for them with various policymakers and my student advisers. Unfortunately, I missed a dinner for the group hosted by Dr McWaine at our official Residence because I had to fly to Washington to prepare for Prime Minister Key’s visit.

The Scholars’ two days in Wellington marked the official end of their Luce year. As my group did more than two decades earlier, they scattered back into their separate lives with bittersweet memories, life-long friendships, changed perspectives, new strength and confidence, and a sense of excitement about what comes next.  A few planned to remain in Asia for awhile, a few took time to explore New Zealand or Australia, and a few flew straight home.

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My new friend Michelle, making herself a nice frog dinner after a hard day at work.

The Luce Program was one of the turning points in my life. It was exactly what I needed in 1984 … a productive break from school, an opportunity to work in my chosen field without fully committing, and total immersion in something mindblowingly different. The year reoriented my thinking and priorities, including in ways that I didn’t recognize until many years later. If I hadn’t been selected for the Luce then, I would not be sitting in Wellington now.

That explains in part why I’m such a partisan of youth and education exchange programs … particularly the old-school, people-to-people types that truly give folks time to learn, experiment, and explore without economic expectations.

I’ll take a relationship over a transaction any day. And my Luce year helped teach me that very important lesson.

DH Sig