It was bitterly cold while walking to school that morning and even the snow seemed to protest as it made a nasty, crunchy noise with each step I took. I was a junior in high school and, while sitting in my French class, I day-dreamed of being in France and speaking French instead of freezing in northern Michigan while studying French. Quickly dismissing my brief flight of fancy, I went back to conjugating verbs.
In study hall later that day, I saw a magazine ad for Youth For Understanding offering an application form for a study abroad exchange program. Even though my family was of very modest means and no one had been further than 100 miles from home, I responded, not knowing how my life was about to be changed forever.
I completed the application and got accepted for placement in France. I then had to tell my parents, gain their support and figure out how to pay for the program. When I approached them and explained I’d been accepted into a study abroad program in France, they were dumbfounded. “Why do you always have to do things nobody else in this town has done,” my father wanted to know, adding, “You’ll miss the football season.” Slowly, I wore them down (as all strong-willed children can do) and got my way. I emptied my savings, relatives gave me gifts of money and my parents finally agreed to provide the financial help they were able to while opening our home to my French brother. Before I knew what had happened, I was stepping off an airplane in France and was being greeted by my host father and brother.
Although the entire experience was great, it was also filled with loads of challenges that made it absolutely perfect. My French mother wasn’t a fan of America and let me know it every day. I learned to smile nicely and nod in understanding. My French father made me read the newspaper to him each night, explain what I’d just read by using words different than those in the newspaper and, each time I made a mistake, he’d tap my knuckles with a ruler, just like the Catholic nuns must have done to him. I responded by working harder, getting better and got tapped less.
The first weekend I was there, the family took me for a ride to Villefranche. While walking through a shop, the camera which I’d had carelessly slung over my shoulder, knocked over a display of expensive glassware, which I had to pay for using up every penny of spending money I had to my name. I had to start doing small odd jobs for neighbors for cash.
Food in the home was also a challenge. For breakfast, my host family ate a very small Petite Dejeuner consisting of a small croissant and a quick cup of very strong coffee. Their favorite lunch (served beautifully and frequently) was a mound of raw ground horsemeat with a couple of raw eggs resting atop it and a salad of crisp greens. No matter how much Worcestershire Sauce I drowned my serving of Cheval in, forcing it down my throat was never easy. I learned how to hide most of what was left on my plate under a few lettuce leaves, offering to clear the table and scrape the plates. I quickly figured out where I could buy really good French street food inexpensively.
The YFU program, back when I was Junior in high school, was the single most formative experience in my life. After losing almost all my spending money I really learned how to stretch a franc. I began to understand that the US makes up less than 5% of the world’s population and that 95% of the world sees many things differently than we do. That one side/my side isn’t always right. I’d had two years of high school French and could hardly speak the language but, upon my arrival, I had no choice but to start cobbling nouns and verbs together in order to be understood.
My YFU program provided me a foundation of thrift, resourcefulness and resilience. It was the start of an inclusive world view, the ability to communicate with others, a fierce sense of self-reliance when confronted with challenging circumstances and aroused in me a curious mind that has taken me to more than 100 countries and cultures. The gift of experiencing and living in another culture and language proved to be priceless for me. That’s why YFU is an integral part of our family’s estate plan and why I’d urge all alumni to consider doing the same. Participation in YFU is a lifelong gift that should be repaid. For the record: I still don’t like raw horsemeat.
Jason Jennings is a New York Times bestselling author of eight books on leadership and business, USA TODAY has called him, “one of the three most in-demand business speakers in the world,” and he and his partner have visited more than 100 countries around the world. They continue to travel to new places and study new languages. He can be reached at Jason@jason-jennings.com.
Consider remembering YFU in your estate planning. Contact Director of Development, Rebecca Rorke, at firstname.lastname@example.org.