Student Exchange

US-ASEAN Connections in the Capital through Educational Exchange


The District of Columbia is fast becoming a center for exchange with Southeast Asia through its international student community and the rise of research institutions dedicated to studying the region. Growing recognition of the Indo-Pacific's importance in the federal district positions it as an increasingly vital center for US-ASEAN collaboration, extending beyond official channels to encompass the students who choose to make the city their temporary home.

In addition to being the political center of the United States, the District of Columbia (DC) draws students from all over the world. In their pursuit of higher education, they also immerse themselves in the rich heritage of the US federal district. In 2023, it was reported that one million international students contributed $40 billion to the US economy. Despite its small size, DC ranks 22nd among the US states in terms of international student population and hosted 11,457 international students in the 2022/23 academic year. Data from Open Doors, a report funded by the US Department of State, indicates that DC observed an 8.2% increase in international student matriculation in the same year, with the majority of students coming from China.

At the federal level, the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs manages the Fulbright and Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) programs, which attract top students from the Indo-Pacific region. The YSEALI program has produced notable alumni, including Pasay City Mayor Vico Sotto of the Philippines and Carrie Tan, a parliamentarian in Singapore. Among the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Vietnam ranks as the top sender of international students to the United States and ranked fifth globally in 2023 with 21,900 students studying abroad. Vietnamese Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son during his talk at Brookings Institution on March 26, 2024, underscored that academia is a driving force in the normalization and promotion of bilateral relations between the United States and Vietnam.

The Biden administration has likewise committed to strengthening US-ASEAN ties through expanded engagements communicated during the 2022 US-ASEAN Special Summit in Washington, DC. This included doubling the size of the YSEALI program in the next three years, extending the Billion Futures Scholarship program, doubling the Fulbright US-ASEAN Visiting Scholars Program, launching a new program called the “US-ASEAN University Connections Initiative,” expanding English language training programs in Southeast Asia, and establishing the US-ASEAN Institute for Rising Leaders at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

In December 2023, the US Department of State also celebrated the opening of the US-ASEAN Center in Washington, DC in partnership with Arizona State University. US Vice President Kamala Harris unveiled plans for the Center at the 2023 US-ASEAN Summit, which will act as a focal point for deepening engagements between the United States and its Southeast Asian partners. Aside from the newly established US-ASEAN Center, DC is home to the ASEAN Studies Initiative at American University chaired by former head of the US mission to ASEAN Ambassador Piper Campbell and directed by Dr. Amitav Acharya, Distinguished Professor at the School of International Service. The first of its kind to be established in the United States, the ASEAN Studies Initiative was formally launched at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia, on July 14, 2009.

Other initiatives by diplomatic missions, student-led programs, and higher education professionals also help establish the Southeast Asian community in DC. The Philippine Embassy in Washington, DC supports Filipino international students through collaborative events with students such as the Thanksgiving celebration it hosted last year with elements of a Filipino fiesta or party. The Southeast Asian League of Students (SEALs) at SAIS is a student-led initiative which brings Southeast Asian programming to their graduate community. International education practitioners such as Senem Bakar, Director of the International Student and Scholar Services at American University, highlight that certain barriers to admission such as grade point average conversion need to be addressed to make institutions of higher learning more accessible to talent from overseas.

The community of Southeast Asian students and scholars in DC is in a prime position to continue to expand and establish the federal district as a center for forming connections with the region. Through support from the US government, academia, and ASEAN member states, international students serve as local diplomats and can help facilitate greater connection in their current capacity as participants in educational exchange. As future professionals in their chosen fields, the time they spend in the United States will likely continue to guide their professional trajectory. DC’s charm and appeal is that it is a highly diverse and international city, and its growing Southeast Asian community helps the US federal district facilitate US-ASEAN exchange especially in light of the growing relevance of the Indo-Pacific region to US interests.

Kyle Ta-ay is a Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington and a Young Leader at the Pacific Forum in Honolulu. He is pursuing an M.A. in International Affairs at American University’s School of International Service. He is also an International Student Advisor at the International Student and Scholar Services, a Research Assistant for the ASEAN Studies Initiative, and the Vice President of Finance of the Graduate Leadership Council.