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Alumni Spotlight Blog Series
January 21, 2021

More Information on SUSI and IVLP

International Visitors are current and emerging leaders who travel to the U.S. for programs that reflect their professional interests and U.S. foreign policy goals. Find out more about IVLP.

Study of the U.S. Institutes (SUSIs) for Student Leaders are five-to-six-week academic programs designed for foreign undergraduate students between the ages of 18 and 25 to improve their understanding of the United States and to develop their leadership skills. Find out more about SUSIs.

Entrepreneur Ana File-Heather looks back on her IVLP experience

Between September 7 – September 27, Ana File-Heather took part in the International Visitor Leadership Program’s Women and Entrepreneurship exchange.  Ana is from Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands, and is very active in her community as both a volunteer and local business operator.    We are delighted that she has offered to share her experience on the trip she took in September.


So this happened.  I spent most of September travelling to different cities throughout the United States of America on the U.S. Embassy International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP).

The theme of my program was Women and Entrepreneurship and, alongside 23 other women from 23 nations, my empowering journey began 7 September in Wash days in DC, our group ‘roadtripped’ to New York City, the city that doesn’t sleep. And neither did we! We had two fantastic meetings there and then our groupington DC.

This was the beginning where we all started to meet and introduce ourselves to each other awkwardly, unsure of what to expect. Being the only one from the Pacific Islands was daunting for me but I was keen for the challenge.

After 4 days in DC, our group ‘roadtripped’ to New York City, the city that doesn’t sleep. And neither did we! We had two fantastic meetings there and then our group of 24 split into teams of 6 and we embarked on our ‘city splits’. The options for city splits were, Greensboro, Indianapolis, Dallas or New Orleans. I was assigned to New Orleans (which I was secretly hoping for).

The team all reconnected in Kansas City in time for the Kansas City Tech start-up weekend and we finished off in the art mecca Miami.

There were several highlights and key learning opportunities for me on this journey.  Firstly, I really recognised and embraced my inner passion as an entrepreneur. Until this point I was struggling with the fact that I wanted to create several businesses and would try my best to hone-in my thoughts and focus on my current (but ever evolving) business. I was able to realise my passion of supporting women in business.

Over the 21 days on this program, we experienced 26 meetings including a Start- Up Conference, across 5 cities. I have highlighted key meetings that stood out for me:

Washington DC

Washington DC was the absolute perfect place to begin this program.  For any visitor to the U.S., DC provides a really rich historical base about how America was built and developed. We were fortunate enough to have a lecture at George Mason University with Professor Dr. Jeremy Mayer who provided a wonderfully insightful understanding into the political structure and federalism of the U.S. and its states and the role of the federal government and the vast differences between each state. For anyone who thinks political science would be a horribly dull lecture to take, you must meet Dr. Mayer. His wit and candid approach to the presentation was very enjoyable.

One of the final meetings in our DC experience was with Kathy Korman Frey, a professor and Founder of the Hot Mommas Project, which is the world’s largest case study library used to teach and mentor young women and men. Kathy has developed a curriculum using the case studies as a tool to encourage an increase in self-efficacy, communication tools, work/life balance and mentoring.

New York

After a road trip from DC (it took about 5 hours with traffic and stops – imagine 28 women needing to use the one loo at a 7/11) we finally arrived into New York. If you thought that DC was a busy place you definitely have not been to New York.

Turning the corner in Manhattan and seeing enough people to fill the auditorium back at home was an experience.

We found our hotel and as we tried to disembark and collect our bags, a cab driver would not vacate the parking area and it quickly turned into a yelling match between he and the hotel porter. “Welcome to New York,” the girls said.

Our first meeting in NYC was an absolute highlight. We met with Ms. Sunita Bajaj the Vice President and Treasurer of the International Women’s Entrepreneurial Challenge Foundation (IWEC). IWEC is a non-profit organisation, focussed on creating a global business network for successful women business owners, assisting them to expand access to international markets and is a platform for exchange and connectivity of women entrepreneurs around the world.  During this presentation we were so fortunate to also hear from two of the IWEC award winners, Dr. Sandi Webster and Dr. Bonnie Schnitta — amazing female business owners who have started multi-million dollar companies and spend their free time inspiring women in business by sharing experiences to promote preparedness for women entrepreneurs.

Our second and final meeting in NYC was with Women Entrepreneurs NYC (WE NYC), an initiative created to help women start and grow businesses in New York City. WE NYC assists over 10,000 small businesses a year by providing access to capital, skills development, legal services, networking and mentorship programs.

New Orleans

Well New Orleans, what can I say about you? Until I arrived, I was actually unaware of the perceived history of voodoo and vampires in the city. We only had three nights there and two full days, and after arriving from New York we were quite exhausted, but, we were in New Orleans!

Upon arrival, I ventured down to the French Quarter with my friend from Egypt to grab a quick bite before our planned tour. Intending on sandwiches we ended up having the traditional Creole gumbo and alligator tail. Always keen on trying something new, these went down a treat.

The tour of the French Quarter was invigorating. To see so much preservation go into these buildings from the 1800s was phenomenal. At home it is so sad to watch developers destroy beautiful buildings built with coral limestone by hand to make way for more modern development. It is a policy that many countries and territories could benefit from to keep their history and culture alive.

New Orleans provided some of my most interesting meetings. Among them, my favourite was Propellor. We met with Sydney Gray and I was introduced to my first co- shared working space and incubator and accelerator program.  Until this point I had been wondering what kind of services could be offered to young women in business in the Cook Islands to help them move past the initial start-up phase. This was it. This service has a number of success stories to its name even though it is still fairly young. They focus a lot on developing women in business and, in particular, minority women in business.

Another highlight in New Orleans was Hermione Malone from the Good Work Network. They run an extensive accelerator curriculum that assists business development, another tool I believe could be modelled and adapted for the Pacific context to assist women in business move from the start-up phase into small to medium enterprises.

We had lunch at Café Reconcile – a fantastic initiative almost like an incubator for young at-risk teens. The restaurant takes in kids and trains them in life skills, assists the process of getting basic working requirements, such as a social security number or bank account set up, and then trains them to work in the restaurant business. Working in the kitchen and back of house and then two weeks in the front of house. Once they have graduated from the program, they also try to assist the graduates to get permanent jobs.

Kansas City

Our transit to Kansas City took much longer than anticipated after a typhoon hit Texas. Although we were not travelling to Texas, we were still transiting there. After the flight was cancelled, we managed to get onto a direct flight to Kansas City, however we soon realised that the plane we were to board had to come from Texas so alas we waited until the weather was manageable and the flight could continue on to collect us.

Once in Kansas City, it was full speed ahead. Not dissimilar to the previous cities. A tech start-up event was being hosted and we had been registered to attend. At the spur of the moment, I decided to pitch an idea – a way to incentivise and gamify plastic recycling. My idea was selected and I then managed to form a team. My team then spent the remainder of the weekend, in fact till 10pm each night, working on our project.

Mentors were circling the event and we were able to meet with several mentors and get some insight into our project concept. Along the way we changed our focus from adults to children and created a prototype app and a design concept for a recycling bin that can tally the amount of recycling a child does over their entire school career.  There are different levels that can be reached and the more you recycle, the more rewards you gain along the way.

On the final night of the tech event, we had to present our idea to a panel of judges. We came in at second place. This was my first time at a start-up event and this was promptly added to my list of things I want to implement at home.

Other highlights of Kansas City were touring another co-shared working space Plexpod  (a huge space utilising a former school and another adjoining building) and meeting with the creator of InnovateHER, Lauren Conaway. Lauren runs a women-in-business network. It is mostly online but they also have monthly catch ups and workshops and events for members. Another one for my takeaway box.

And finally, Function Junction. The owner of Function Junction, Rebecca Merola was fascinating. Starting her business against the odds for a female in the 70s and multiplying it in just 10 months, this woman has a wealth of experience and she was more than happy to share it with us. A key point that stood out for me was how much online shopping, with the likes of sites like Amazon, have really damaged brick and mortar businesses such as Function Junction and that you really must be creative to get sales and keep a loyal customer base.


Miami was the perfect place to end this trip. Miami is a bit like a large-scale Spanish version of the Cook Islands: warm with smiley faces and coconut trees everywhere.  The perfect spot for me to start to get the feel of going back home and island life again.

A city known for its art, it was fascinating for me. Being in the creative industry, the whole art, architecture and music scene throughout all five cities was mind-blowing and it really made me realise how much this industry appeals to me.

A highlight in Miami was the marketing workshop with Nancy Allen from the Womens Business Development Council of South Florida.  There, we were able to spend a bit of time working on our business goals and a 90-day plan. My IVLP team has decided to share our 90-day plans with each other for accountability and continue these discussions and supporting one another to reach our goals.

And topping off this incredible program was the inspiring presentation by CEO of Celebrity Cruises Lisa Lutoff-Perlo. She is the first female CEO of a cruise liner and just smashes boundaries left, right, and centre in the cruise industry. She hired the first female captain, was incredibly instrumental in getting the first African woman on the bridge and is closing the gender gap in the cruise industry among many other accomplishments. There could not have been a better way to end this empowering journey.

The whole experience was a once in a lifetime trip and I strongly believe it will help my personal and business development and growth. I really need to thank everyone in the U.S. embassy for facilitating my attendance, World Learning and the Department of State for setting up the amazing meetings and locations, and the four wonderful liaisons that did an amazing job with logistics. I have made lifelong friends on the program from all corners of the world.

Damon's IVLP experience

“…I now have a large worldwide network of 43 counties and people that I can directly go to, to work in collaboration with them to reduce the threat to our various nations.”

Damon recently returned from his International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) in the United States where he explored the underlying issues of terrorism threat, violence and extremism alongside representatives from 43 countries! The beauty of people-to-people exchange programs is certainly the life-long connections made across the globe.

Damon in DC on an IVLP. Photo credit: Damon.
Damon in DC on an IVLP. Photo credit: Damon.

This special IVLP initiative explored transnational threat landscape and the role that global cooperation and partnerships serve to address them. Participants gained a deeper understanding of the pluralistic nature of the United States through exposure to all levels of the political system and to key security issues such as cybersecurity, disinformation, terrorism, countering violent extremism, transnational organized crime, energy, non-proliferation, human security, and regional threats.

Of the program, Damon says: “Throughout the conference these topics were presented in-depth by many high-level representatives of their agencies. The 43 countries that were represented by the 49 participants were heavily involved in discussions and questions and a large amount of information was received. The main benefit from this conference kindly hosted and funded by the US Department of State is that I now have a large worldwide network of 43 counties and people that I can directly go to, to work in collaboration with them to reduce the threat to our various nations. Also clearly obvious throughout this conference is that whilst all the countries have different cultures and slightly different ways of dealing with issues the underlying issues of terrorism threat, violence and extremism is growing and consistent amongst all of these nations.”

Sarah Lang’s IVLP experience in the U.S.

In September 2019, Sarah Lang took part in the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) in the U.S. on Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management. We are delighted that she has offered to share her experience on the trip she took in September.

International Visitor Leadership Programme (IVLP) on Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management - Photo credit: Sarah Lang, September 2019.
International Visitor Leadership Programme (IVLP) on Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management – Photo credit: Sarah Lang, September 2019.


My name is Sarah Lang and I had the honour of being selected for an International Visitor Leadership Programme (IVLP) on Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management in September 2019.

Prior to embarking on the programme, I had never heard of the IVLP, and on doing some research was humbled by the calibre of past participants (including Jacinda Ardern, Helen Clarke, David Lange from New Zealand and a raft of other global leaders) and the generosity of the USA to provide such an expert, content rich, and meaningful cultural programme to 5000 leaders from around the world, on an annual basis since 1940!

Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management IVLP Programme

I commenced my 3-week programme in Washington DC, where I met the six other programme participants who were leaders in disaster management from Fiji, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Pakistan.

During the first week, we received a detailed grounding in American history, politics and disaster management systems in the USA, and were fortunate to visit various state memorials, disaster simulation centres and enjoy a home hosting dinner with an American family.

The second week took us to Houston, where we learnt about Hurricane Harvey, its devastating impact on the city and how the citizens mobilised to recover from such a significant disaster.

Ironically, while we were in Houston learning about disaster management and mitigation, Tropical Storm Imelda hit, resulting in extreme flash flooding, and the group being stranded in Houston for two days while the floodwaters subsided, and the backlog of cancelled flights was cleared. We all felt that the IVLP programme co-ordinators delivering a real-life disaster for the programme was going beyond the call of duty!

After we finally escaped the floods in Houston we headed to Los Angeles where the focus turned to surviving mass-shooting attacks. Initially, I had thought this session would be irrelevant to New Zealand, however after the Christchurch Mosque attacks, it became very clear that nobody is immune to such tragic acts of terrorism. As part of our programme, we attended a local community workshop on how to survive an attack – learning that run, hide and fight are the best strategies; hopefully something that none of us ever have to put into action.

As an antidote to the serious nature of mass shooting attacks, we were treated with some downtime at the tourist meccas of Los Angeles including Hollywood, Universal Studios, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, and a very special home hosting meal with a local family. Staying in the historic town of Old Pasadena really brought home the Spanish history of the Californian region – something I had been unfamiliar with before the IVLP experience.

Our last stop was to Olympia and Seattle in Washington State. Here we learnt about what the communities are doing to mitigate against tsunamis and earthquakes, as like NZ, this state sits on the Pacific Rim of fire, and is overdue for a significant earthquake.

After completing the 3 week IVLP programme, my family flew up from New Zealand to meet me in San Francisco and we spent 10 days road-tripping to Yosemite, Death Valley, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon – achieving many bucket list ticks on the way!

Lessons Learnt

Although the USA disaster management system was considerably different from NZ and the other centralist countries represented on the IVLP, there were many useful lessons for the participants. Some of the most significant takeaways for me were;

  • the important role the private and philanthropic/faith-based sectors plays in disaster relief and preparedness in the USA
  • the growing importance of technology, artificial intelligence, data and social media to disaster relief and mitigation
  • the increased frequency and size of disasters due to climate change; changing infrastructure, changing workforces and changing landscape of volunteers
  • to build a culture of preparedness, mitigation and continuity, there needs to be a whole of community response to create a secure and resilience nation.
  • the importance of coalitions, frameworks and relationships in delivering disaster relief
  • the importance of keeping hazards in the public consciousness to reduce the risk of disaster amnesia/apathy

One of the opportunities provided through the IVLP is the ability to apply for grant funding to bring American speakers to New Zealand to share their expertise. I was very interested to learn about the Rockefeller Foundation and the work they are doing on infrastructure resilience and climate change – something I think could be of great relevance to New Zealand. I will certainly look into the possibility of inviting speaker from the Rockfeller Foundation to address the NZ infrastructure conference, Building Nations and share their experience with other local thought leaders in New Zealand.

How did my IVLP experience alter my perceptions of the United States and Americans?

Most IVLP programmes commence in Washington DC by providing a useful historical and political context to American society. I found this background information particularly illuminating, as it helped explain the importance of the state system to life in America – and the considerable differences in cultures and systems across the country.

Was the trip as you imagined it would be?

Overall, the IVLP experience far exceeded my expectations. The rich content programme, consisting of high level federal, state and local speakers across multiple states, the access to a multitude of public and private agencies and facilities combined with an array of cultural sightseeing opportunities, tourist attractions and home hosting evenings provided an incredibly holistic learning experience. In addition, travelling with other global experts for 3 weeks 24/7 provided a useful synthesis opportunity – not to mention friends for life!

I feel very privileged to have been selected for this opportunity of a lifetime and look forward to putting my learnings to good use in New Zealand and internationally.


Views of guest bloggers may or maynot represent the views of the U.S. government. The links contained herein are for informational purposes only and do not necessarily reflect the views or endorsement of the U.S. Government or the U.S. Department of State.


Dr James To on his IVLP experience – building dynamic connections and friendships

“It’s a real privilege to be a part of this global union, to develop and build dynamic connections and friendships with common interests – this is one part of my life where I’m definitely not looking back.” – Dr. James To, 2019 U.S. Foreign Policy Decision Making IVLP participant. Dr. To recently returned from International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) on U.S. Foreign Policy Decision Making. Hear what he had to say about his experience…

Have you ever tried walking backwards? I don’t mean taking a few steps – I’m talking about up and down different floors, along vast corridors, and through high-security checkpoints. And to do this while showcasing the world’s biggest office building? That’s exactly the job of our guide at the Pentagon in Washington DC, who explained the history and role of the Department of Defense, all while facing us throughout.

We were taken through the various divisions of the armed forces, saw displays showcasing America’s military relationships and alliances – including ANZUS (showing that blood is thicker than water) – as well as marking a sombre moment at the 9/11 memorial and chapel. We also had the opportunity to exchange perspectives with the Under-Secretary of Defence, and learn about the National Defence Strategy and what theatres Washington was preparing for in an age of shifting and uncertain geo-political developments.

For me, this was the highlight of a helicopter view of the United States’ foreign policy and decision-making processes – part of an intensive two-week State Department International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) across four cities.

Apart from being treated to a walking tour of America’s biggest employer (apparently the DoD has a payroll of 1.6 million staff), we also met with both state and federal level officials, think tank experts, lobby groups, and academics in a Track II/Track 1.5 environment – exchanging perspectives on the Indo-Pacific, the Quad, and the challenges arising from regional competitors such as China and Russia. We talked about non-traditional security threats such as climate change and illegal/irregular migration. We heard from civil society, business people, grassroot community organisations and chatted with everyday Americans at lunches and dinners. We met with a Rotary Club, volunteered at a foodbank, and shared a meal with a host family. These conversations painted a very rich picture composed of many perspectives from all walks of life.

Some speakers were surprisingly direct and explicit, while others a bit more guarded and measured – even though the meetings were off the record. We heard from a dutiful career diplomat whose role was to “serve the pleasure of the President”; to labour union reps and fair trade lobbyists openly critical of the Trump administration and lamenting the effect of the tariff war on farmers. We chatted with both Democratic and Republican policy advisers working to push through their agendas in a deliberately dysfunctional legislative system of checks and balances; we heard from desk officers and agents about their experiences in the field. I was particularly impressed with the high quality of public speaking and presentation skills of those we met – talking points were delivered in a relaxed manner that invited dialogue and sharing of views.

The objective of the programme was to impress upon us the nature of the American political and economic system, as well as its culture and history. So in addition to our formal briefings, there were a raft of visits to galleries, famous landmarks and shopping malls. DC was museum heaven with the Smithsonian collection freely available for public view – I could have easily spent a few extra days in this town. In New York we saw Broadway shows, wandered around the Guggenheim, and took in the expansive views of the Manhattan skyline from the Staten Island ferry. This big city life contrasted with our visit into the heartland of American beef, corn and soya beans – Lincoln, Nebraska was a refreshing change to the concrete jungle where we could take a deep breath of clean air and kick back with the locals at a jazz festival.

And to make sure our visit went as smoothly as possible, dedicated liaison officers from the State Department were fantastic hosts and guides where ever we went.  They took really good care of us, making special efforts to ensure we made the most of our time by offering suggestions, tips and tickets. Some had decades of service under their belt and were happy to share fascinating anecdotes about their postings around the world. They also provided useful context around the various people we met with, as well as their own views about the activities we did.

There were a few hiccups – mostly down to breakdowns in communication with the transport company in Seattle. But these were soon resolved. We also learned first-hand the sheer size of the United States. Our flights across the country went through hubs like Minneapolis or Denver, with layovers and travel times between cities taking up to twelve hours door to door. Another disappointment was the review process for IVLP, which is done by e-mail – unfortunately, some of my early survey invitations ended up in spam and expired before I could provide feedback. And while all our sessions involved a dialogue of sorts and included plenty of opportunity for Q&A, we were mostly in listening/receiving mode. Perhaps it might have been useful for the delegation to have a pro-active role in some of the discussions/activity – as a moderator or facilitator where it was appropriate. Or where our expertise might have been of interest to an American audience – to engage in a roundtable setting with a relevant theme.

Otherwise, this was a trip of a lifetime. Not was it just learning about the USA, but also the opportunity to hear about the countries and cultures of the various participants in our IVLP contingent. As a mixed bunch of journalists, analysts, lecturers, civil servants and politicians, we had plenty of opportunities to learn from each other as well. Our appreciation of geography grew tenfold – we harked from 17 countries around the world – most of which I had never visited before, and one that I had not even heard of (Benin, a Francophone nation in Africa). We were lucky that we all gelled – our What’sApp group is still going strong with posts popping up each day, and we’re already talking about a reunion in Greenland!

Apparently 55000 people take part in this programme each year, in a variety of themes and configurations. Since returning, I know of others who are IVLP alumni or about to join. It’s a real privilege to be a part of this global union, to develop and build dynamic connections and friendships with common interests – this is one part of my life where I’m definitely not looking back.


My SUSI experience was all that – and more than – I hoped it would be

Sam Englebretsen – From 8 June to 13 July I was fortunate to participate in the 2019 ‘Study of the United States Institute for Secondary Educators’ (SUSI programme) based at Amherst, Massachusetts. As part of a group of 18 secondary school teachers from all around the world, I spent five weeks engaged in many lectures, seminars, and site visits, all with the common theme of further exploring ‘Liberty, Equality, and the American Dream’. Our group was hosted by the Institute for Training and Development (ITD), and we spent our time between the ITD centre and the Amherst College campus.

Outside the ITD centre, Amherst, MA. (the author is at far left). Photo credit: Sam Englebretsen.
Outside the ITD centre, Amherst, MA. (the author is at far left). Photo credit: Sam Englebretsen.

Our schedule was certainly a packed one with, typically, lectures at Amherst College in the morning and seminars at the ITD centre in the afternoon. Lectures were delivered by a range of guest lecturers and their topics ranged from the Founding Fathers to Jazz and Culture, the US Constitution to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, FDR and the New Deal through to some of the current issues facing America and Americans. Afternoon seminars explored aspects of educational theory and practice and provided valuable forums for cross-cultural discussion and debate. Built into this busy programme were local site visits and weekend excursions to homestay families, Boston, and New York City. Additionally, all teachers were tasked with a project to develop a series of lesson plans for use in their own classrooms. As I teach History through to scholarship level at Napier Boys’ High School, my lesson plans were focused upon the 2019 History scholarship topic: ‘the role of populism as a historical force.’ Indeed, I found the additional time, research facilities, and expertise on this topic granted to me during my SUSI studies to be quite beneficial (as hopefully will my students).

As if the Amherst component of the programme was not already enough, the group spent its final week ‘out West’ in Utah before rounding-up the experience in Washington, DC. The state of Utah in the Rocky Mountains presented quite a contrast to the comfortable and leafy New England (as was the intention). Based in Salt Lake City we saw the imprint of the Mormons on the city and the state but also caught glimpses into the lives of ‘everyday’ Americans, most noticeably at the Oakley 4th of July parade and the rodeo held in the town that same evening. Hearing a heart-felt rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ sung to an attentive crowd in Oakley was also a spine-tingling experience. During our time in Utah the group also visited the Capitol Reef National Park, Union Station in Ogden, and, of course, the Great Salt Lake. A few members of the group also visited the Utah State Capitol and took in a baseball game (the Salt Lake Bees v. El Paso). All too soon, it seemed, the programme concluded in the nation’s capital with a tour of the US Capitol, visiting the famous memorial sites around the National Mall, and an afternoon at the impressive and inspiring National Museum of African American History and Culture.

I would like to thank the US Department of State and the US Embassy in Wellington for allowing me the wonderful and once in a lifetime opportunity to further enhance my professional and personal experiences as afforded by this programme. I would also like to thank the ITD staff, especially Dr. Mark Protti and Dr. Katie Lazdowski, for their generosity and facilitation of all aspects of the programme. Finally, I must thank Professor Frank Couvares, the programme’s academic director, for his wisdom in class and his companionship along the way.

Finally, to any New Zealand teachers who are contemplating applying for a SUSI scholarship in 2020, if you have an interest in America and the Americans, my advice is to go for it. You will be challenged by the intense nature and expectations of the programme, but you will also be rewarded in many ways, as I have been. Indeed, my SUSI experience was all that – and more than – I hoped it would be.

Sam Englebretsen
Teacher of History
Napier Boys’ High School



Views of guest bloggers may or maynot represent the views of the U.S. government. The links contained herein are for informational purposes only and do not necessarily reflect the views or endorsement of the U.S. Government or the U.S. Department of State