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Foreign ambassadors wend way to Utah

By the time Utah hosts the 2002 Winter Games, many foreign ambassadors in Washington, D.C., will have already visited the state.

In 1996, Utah's Statehood Centennial Ambassadorial Program brought 43 ambassadors to speak to Utahns and meet with business, government and religious leaders. Now, Brigham Young University is riding the momentum of that program to regularly bring more ambassadors."There's really a great interest in coming," said BYU Dean of Admissions and Records Erlend D. Peterson, who coordinates the visits. "It's not difficult to get acceptance (to an invitation)."

Peterson worked with the centennial committee that operated the successful 1996 program that brought envoys from Norway,

Sweden, Latvia, Lithuania, Belgium, Japan, Poland, Thailand, Mexico, Argentina and dozens of other countries. He believes that continuing the program will pay dividends for Utah businesses, increase cultural exchange and help lay groundwork for the visits of heads of state during the Olympics.

This week, Indian ambassador Naresh Chandra spoke at BYU's David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies and hosted a public reception in Salt Lake City. Last week, the Egyptian ambassador spoke at BYU about current problems in the Middle East. Both ambassadors said they enjoyed their first visits to the Beehive State.

"It is a great day for me to be in this great state," Chandra said. He impressed students with his knowledge of Utah history, recounting the 19th century arrival of Latter-day Saint pioneers.

Chandra also spoke about the challenges facing India and India-U.S. relations. During his two-day visit, he met with the governor, was presented at the Legislature and ate dinner with LDS Church leaders.

For natives of India living in Utah, hosting the visit of a high-ranking diplomat was a significant event. The visit also increased awareness of business and humanitarian opportunities Utahns could pursue in India, said Babu Narasimhan, president of the India Forum of Utah.

"When we have a large visit like this, it helps our cause," Chandra said. "In some sense, it helps the psyche of the India-American community and helps keep the connection with India."

Chandra estimated there are between 300 and 400 Indian families along the Wasatch Front. The India Forum seeks to foster cultural awareness and appreciation, and Chandra's visit served that purpose well, Narasimhan said.

BYU's ambassadorial visit program is partially sponsored by the Kennedy Center. Students enrolled in international relations courses get credit for attending campus lectures by ambassadors.

"For students to be able to interact with people with that vantage point is very advantageous," Peterson said. "We see this as a modest beginning that we hope may expand as time goes on."

BYU budgets enough funds to host six ambassadors each academic year. Next month, ambassadors from Spain and the Czech Republic are scheduled to visit, and envoys from Israel, Great Britain and Bulgaria may come in the fall.

Peterson said that one ambassador remarked that BYU's program has an edge over an ambassadorial lecture series at Harvard University because BYU also sets up meetings with Utah business and political officials. The measure of how popular the program has become is reflected in the sentiment of Republic of Korea ambassador Kun Woo Park.

Park told Peterson, "It's really the `in' thing in Washington, D.C., among the ambassadors to talk about their trip to Utah. Before, I just had to listen. Now I can talk, too."

Since part of the responsibility of an ambassador is to visit the country to which they are assigned, the program is mutually beneficial, Peterson said. Many of the ambassadors probably wouldn't have had reason to come to Utah without the program.

The program is aided by the fact that the LDS Church maintains contact with many ambassadors. The church hosts an annual lighting ceremony at the Washington LDS Temple around Christmas, and many ambassadors and their families attend.

Also popular among foreign diplomats is an annual Western-theme event hosted for several years by the J.W. Marriott family at a ranch near the nation's capital. Those two events, along with LDS missionaries in their countries, are principal sources of knowledge about Utah among ambassadors, Peterson said.

For Peterson, the program also has benefits. After years of coordinating exchanges with Scandinavian officials as part of a scholarship fund and administering the ambassadorial visit program, Peterson was awarded the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit last year.