Guest post from YFU Alum Meg White Campbell
The idea to participate in an exchange probably began when my family agreed to host a student from France one summer when I was in elementary school. I couldn’t speak French, and Sanou couldn’t speak English, but we managed to communicate through acting and shared hobbies - It turns out French kids love ice cream, too. Then my sophomore year of high school, my mom came across and an advertisement in a brochure – these were pre-internet days – and she passed it along to me. Before long, and courtesy of a YFU and All Nippon Airways scholarship, I was off on an adventure to Japan.
I absolutely loved Tokyo. My 5’10” felt like 7’10”, but thankfully my gargantuan proportions didn’t prevent my host family from being gracious and hospitable. We laughed a lot together (or perhaps they were laughing at me and I simply joined in). In Tokyo, I saw the coolest things! I remember a man rollerblade-skiing down a busy street, a group of people dressed as Star Wars storm troopers in the shopping district, and an apple (the fruit, not the technology) on sale for the equivalent of $25. I participated in a tea ceremony, met a Koto player (see photo below), and hiked majestic Mt. Fuji. What struck me the most about the Japanese friends I made, and what I still admire about Japanese colleagues today, is their overwhelming graciousness and kindness. They are forever concerned how the other person is feeling.
To say the stay in Tokyo was eye-opening for me is an understatement. It broadened my horizons and changed my trajectory both personally and professionally. Since that first foray overseas, I have lived in eight countries and participated in three other exchange programs. As a result of my current Foreign Service posting, my children, whom I call “multicultural minions”, attend a bilingual school in Berlin, where they are reaping the benefits of easily moving between cultures and languages.
As anyone reading this well knows, exchange helps us see ourselves from the outside. This knowledge is an exceptionally powerful skillset in the world of diplomacy, where sometimes in our effort to do the right thing at the right time, we inadvertently act too quickly or fumble our messages. Sometimes even when we – and our policies – are well-intentioned, they are not always received the way we had hoped they would be. Through exchange we learn to ask better questions, to listen, and that it is ok to trust people who prefer Sarutahiko to Starbucks.
Exchanges have taught me grit and moxie. I survived high school in Bavaria amidst fast friends and a flurry of flashcards. It was trying, but there was a lasting sense of accomplishment once I had made it to the other side. This persistence means that, even today, when I make mistakes, I dust myself off, chart a new course, and…make all new mistakes. I have better sense of perspective now, too.
Learning foreign languages through exchange has opened my eyes to a new universe of people and possibilities. As my language proficiency increased, I also honed my empathy. I now know firsthand how taxing it is to work an entire day in a foreign language. Nothing is more humbling than spending three hours writing a short blurb in German to then attend a conference, where international colleagues give compelling speeches effortlessly in English.
Learning another language is a gift we can give each other, but there are other ways to promote intercultural dialogue. We can host international students, donate to YFU, or simply shout from the rooftops how much we love exchange. I have maintained contact with several host family members and friends met during my time abroad. My Japanese host sister stayed with my family in the U.S., and one host family sends my children Christmas gifts signed “your ¾ family”. Thanks to Dr. Rachel Andresen and her continuing legacy through YFU, these lifelong connections have enriched my life and have helped me learn, grow, and succeed.
If exchange is for you, find a way to make it happen. There will always be people who don’t understand how you could leave and miss Homecoming or basketball season. You have to weigh that for yourself, but you should also consider what you will miss if you don’t go. There’s a whole world out there waiting for you to explore. Ganbatte, and Viel Spaß!