In the lobby of a Missoula hotel this week, Adam Meier prepared for a trip up the Seeley-Swan Valley to observe Montana’s expertise in building bridges, not across rivers and streams, but between people and nations.

Meier, with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, has measured the University of Montana’s part in hosting the agency’s Professional Fellows Program, and he likes what he’s seen.

“We just awarded a new project next year for UM,” Meier said. “This particular project is focused on five Southeast Asian countries and is part of a broader initiative to boost U.S. engagement in Asia. We anticipate even greater numbers moving forward.”

The Mansfield Center at UM has been awarded the exchange program for each of the past several years. More than 75 professional fellows from five Asian nations have passed through Missoula to explore the state while growing their understanding of U.S. culture.

Whether their stay places them in the office of a local nonprofit, a government agency or a small business, the goal remains the same: to make them stronger leaders and improve the world through person-to-person contact.

“They get a chance to build the skills they can use at home, but also observe American practices and American daily life,” said Meier. “We want someone with a track record that has demonstrated initiative and leadership through the work they’ve done.”

This month, Mayor John Engen hosted a fellow from Cambodia. The Lake County Community Development Corp. hosted a participant from Thailand, and the governor’s office hosted a fellow from Burma.

Across the state, 328 citizen diplomats in Montana have volunteered to host international students, scholars and visitors to their homes under the program.

During that process, international students in Montana contributed $34.6 million to the state's economy during the 2011-12 academic year alone, according to State Department statistics.

“The fact there’s real economic impacts for a state, as well as personal connections made between people from different countries and people from the U.S., is something we want to encourage and support,” said Meier.

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The Mansfield Center has successfully bid on the program since 2010, the year it was launched in its current form. It is one of 14 entities selected for the process, and its success is gaining attention.

“Our fellows are here looking at economic empowerment issues, and we give them a good grounding in U.S. society and culture,” said Deena Mansour, associate director of the Mansfield Center. “Part of our responsibility as a host is to measure the long-term impact."

The Mansfield Center maintains contact with its past fellows through social media and collaborative projects. Their progress in the program is measured at stages throughout the process.

Fellows are surveyed when they arrive on their understanding of the U.S. and their expectations of the program. At the conclusion of the program, they're surveyed again to determine how their perceptions of the U.S. have changed and how their leadership skills have evolved.

“One year after the program, we send them another survey to see what they’ve done with the experience,” said Meier. “We see that many go on to greater leadership positions in their community, start new NGOs, introduce new legislation in their communities, or change the operation of their work organization.”

The doors through the program swing both ways, and 50 Montanans have traveled abroad with similar goals.

Mansour said the Mansfield Center is currently accepting applications from Montana high school students to study food security and global climate change during an exchange in Thailand next summer.

The program will accept 20 students and two teachers. The application deadline is Nov. 9. For information, visit http://bit.ly/1DExGnR.

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