Why Does the White House Want Help From Travel Bloggers?

Jo Piazza
·Managing Editor

The White House hosted more than 100 bloggers and digital journalists on December 9. (Photo: Thinkstock)

It sounds like the start of a bad joke: why did the travel blogger go to the White House?

To get to the other side? To make a meme of Bo Obama? To find out what Instagram filter works best in the Rose Garden? 

There was actually very little joking on Tuesday afternoon, as more than 100 of the country’s most prominent travel bloggers and digital journalists descended on Washington D.C. as part of President Barack Obama’s push to find new ways to encourage more Americans to study abroad. The Obama administration brought together the critical mass of digital nomads to leverage the extensive reach of the travel blogging community and target young people.

Related: You’re Never Too Old to Study Abroad

The purpose of the conference was to raise awareness of the administration’s focus on the benefits of cross-cultural education and cultural exchange, while boosting international student mobility across borders. 

The administration beseeched the group — which included our own editor-in-chief Paula Froelich and managing editor Jo Piazza — to help them brainstorm ways to move forward and increase both participation and diversity in study-abroad programs.

Paula Froelich and Jo Piazza at a lunch hosted by Hosteling International USA at the National Press Club (Suzanne Philion)

Fewer than 10 percent percent of students currently take part in study-abroad programs. Of the students who do take part, 76 percent are white.

“What we hear from you is going to be helpful for us as we design our policies,” said Ben Rhodes, the assistant to President Obama and deputy national security advisor for strategic communications and speechwriting. “How do we get more Americans engaged overseas, and how do we make sure we are looking at the whole world, including emerging destinations?”

Related: Bring Less! How You Need to Pack to Study Abroad

Rhodes posed four questions to the crowd gathered in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building:

  • How can we make the most difference in encouraging study abroad?

  • Where should we be looking regionally around the globe?

  • What kind of partnerships can we forge outside of the government?

  • How can we raise awareness for Americans of the value of study abroad?

President Obama’s chief-of-staff Denis McDonough underscored Rhodes’ points and queries.

Chief-of-staff Denis McDonough told the crowd that studying abroad in Spain during the lead-up to the first Iraq war influenced everything he did afterwards. (Photo: Jo Piazza)

“Our hope is that you leave here mindful of the fact that the President and secretary Kerry appreciate what you are doing. We can better influence world events because of what you are doing,” McDonough said.

Within the next month, the State Department plans to open a brand-new U.S. Study Abroad Office to manage study-abroad programs at schools across the country.

Related: You Don’t Have to Be Rich to Take a Sabbatical—Six Ways to Work and Live Abroad

“Study abroad is often considered the pivotal event of young people’s lives,” said Evan Ryan, the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. “It is the moment the world is opened up to them and their preconceived notions are turned upside down.”

The new office will focus on getting the word out to students about what their options are for studying abroad. 

"We want to make sure that all universities have the right resources available to students," Ryan said. 

The President’s commerce secretary Penny Pritzker made the economic argument to the crowd about the importance of traveling beyond U.S. borders.

“In this day and age more and more employers want to hire people with a true world view,” Pritzker said. “Exposure to destinations and people outside the United States can have a profound effect on people’s perspectives. We need your help to get the word out to make it clear why it is in a young person’s interest to spend time beyond our borders.”

The day concluded with a dinner hosted by Turkish Airlines at the Newseum, during which bloggers were able to mingle and discuss the day’s events with members of the Obama administration.

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