The YFU experience is an open invitation to you. The opportunities are there. It is up to you to make the most of it.Read More
Filtering by Category: General Stories
I learned how to be more independent, how to face challenges alone, and how to be strong in situations that can make me feel really weak. I learned how to convert my weakness into strength, and yes, I learned never to give up.Read More
We sent our Director of Virtual Exchanges, Erin Helland, to Tunisia to explore how we might increase YFU activities in the MENA Region. Here's what she found:
Pre-departure: “Tunisia?” It seemed nearly half the people I told about my trip asked this one word question with raised eyebrows and an uncertainty that translated to both “I think I know where that is,” and “is it safe for you there?” I routinely responded, “Yes! Picture Africa. From left to right it goes: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt – I’ll be fine.” And, then for a brief moment, when stepping out of the airport and into the dry heat of this small, yet influential coastal country, this tiny voice in my head asked, “what are you doing here?”
First Impressions: I felt genuinely welcomed and comfortable in Tunisia. Everything was both less and more exotic than I imagined. There was an approachable-ness to the people and the culture – which much like here at home, consists of a large middle class. As a woman traveling solo I braced myself for the conservatism that might be visible in a predominantly Muslim country. I found instead a rather progressive climate where head and arm covering is optional based on personal choice, where it is perfectly acceptable to dine in public or conduct business in mixed company, and where women are strong and vocal community influencers.
Perhaps you'll recall the Arab Spring protests that spread across North Africa started in Tunisia. Considered the “success story” of the region, Tunisia formed a democracy after the revolution and has not experienced the same severe levels of divide, armed conflict and displacement as its neighbors. There is an overarching sense that though some are challenged by change, many are open to experiment with the latest ideas and opportunities. It is hard to describe the essence of this combined tentativeness and enthusiastic energy – it resembles the “possibilities” felt with the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the hope and anticipation following the historic 2008 US election. My general impression is that youth and adults alike exude a cautious hope for the future...and yet, according to multiple multinational government intelligence sources, this is the same country that sends—percentage-wise and in sheer numbers—the highest number of jihadists to ISIS.
Day One: The first day I was welcomed to the country by Yassine, the high schooler and YFU alum to Texas who introduced the concept of a virtual program to his teacher. We met in the courtyard of a traditional Arabic guesthouse in Sidi Bou Said, the infamous blue-and-white costal suburb where I was staying. In his exceptional English, he shared that his brother is now on exchange with his former host family, who put previous plans to visit Tunisia on hold due in-part to the terrorist incidents of 2015. We “nerded out” about the current state of affairs within and between our countries; like how, despite challenges and the long road ahead, he is proud of the strides Tunisia is making, and how he aspires to study abroad again and pursue a career path that will allow him to serve his people.
YFU On Ground: I was introduced via our global network to Pedro, a YFU alumnus from Spain whose exchange brought him to a farm in South Dakota in the early '80s. Now residing in Tunisia, he graciously stepped into the role of lead on-ground YFU volunteer and served as my guardian for the week. He conducted his own outreach to associations and educators—sharing about YFU, and arranging additional appointments in advance of my arrival. He acted as translator when necessary, drove everywhere so I wouldn’t have to bother with transportation, and even handed me a mobile phone pre-programmed with local contacts. Pedro is a world traveler, linguist, cultural enthusiast and family man, whose career has spanned from working for the UN in Yemen, to freelancing as an NGO consultant. He told me that he volunteers for YFU because it was one of the most influential experiences in the course of his life. I appreciate his friendship, and gained much from his insights before my arrival and during. YFU is fortunate to have him in our corner, passionately advocating for and representing us in country.
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Right Where We Want to Be: It was a rewarding and fruitful visit, and I’m so grateful to those who made it so. Indeed, along the way, this island of democracy proved that it is well positioned to act as our “home base” as we strategically develop a YFU presence across the MENA region. Our volunteer alumni, the teachers, and even the new friends I met on this trip have proven they stand ready to support our development within the country and beyond.
From what I can tell, the country’s stability lies in the continued creation of opportunities for the people—especially in providing a tangible, optimistic future for its youth—and perhaps our programming provides one avenue to supporting just that. YFU’s exchanges are beyond academic, more than fun pictures about food or holidays—they function as a means of engaging with “the other,” or that which is unfamiliar to us, helping to combat extremist views, and get youth engaged with the world. While sharing their own experiences openly, students have the opportunity to increase self-awareness, develop intercultural communications competencies, and learn for themselves that when you get right down to it, our similarities are greater than our differences.
Learn more about the Virtual Exchange Initiative at yfuusa.org/virtual-exchanges
Guest post from YFU Volunteer & Host Dad Andy
I was introduced to YFU slowly and without even realizing it. Some good friends of mine, Teresa and Jacob, had hosted several times, and they would have "barn parties" at their home that were always a lot of fun. It was a genius idea looking back--they gathered all of the exchange students in the area they could find, all the the families that wanted to come, and then all of their other friends and had a party. Just add food, drink, a few beers for the adults, a campfire and
The fall after my first trip to Germany, I met Hendrik, Agustin, Sandra, and a slew of other exchange students at the annual party. I struck up a short conversation with Hendrik, the boy from Germany, because Germany is where my family is from and I really enjoyed my time there. I found out that Hendrik lived near the same city as my family and it was really neat for me. Later that year, I saw a message from Teresa asking on Facebook if anyone would be interested in hosting a German boy for the rest of the year. She got my attention, we started messaging, and the next thing you know I'm a host dad. What a trip! In less than a week, I managed to find a dresser, desk, and other things I needed to outfit the spare room. I believe it was 8 days after Teresa posted her message that Hendrik moved in. It felt like an eternity, but then it was off to the races. It was Thanksgiving week, then a trip to Chicago, then Cincinnati, then Christmas.
Then, after nearly 7 months of doing everything we could imagine to do, it was time for Hendrik to go back to Germany. It hurt more than I ever would have imagined. But something so powerful and rewarding has to have a price. Due to some pending “life stuff” that I had to deal with and some travel, I did not plan to host in the Fall of 2015. However, I got a call from Judy Beach asking me if I would be a volunteer and be an area rep for a German boy named Martin. I was immediately interested. It gave me the opportunity to stay involved even though I couldn't host. Later that year I became the area rep for another student from Germany, Patricia. When I would take both of the students I repped out together, I’ll never forget when they mentioned how odd (and cool) it was that they were two Germans but they were speaking English together.
I love working with exchange students, because you never know what they are going to find interesting. Occasionally they can say something that stings a bit (why do you do X, that's dumb), but I've found that usually with exchange students the mundane becomes exciting. Even a trip to the grocery store can be an adventure. Things we take for granted or have long since forgotten we ever liked, such as Pop Tarts and Fruit Roll ups, become new again.
Getting involved with YFU was a life changing decision. There has been some pain along the way, but I think I have learned from it and grown as a result. I didn't realize the capacity I have to care for other people is essentially limitless. I didn't know that I could love an exchange student like a son, even though I don't have a son of my own. I think if more people hosted, if more people experienced cultural exchange, that the world would be a better place.
In late 2015 I found out that I would be a host dad again, this time for Damien from France. I thought hosting the second time would be similar to the first, and it was in a lot of ways, but it was also very different. No two people are the same, and so you start again with a completely new relationship. I quickly learned a lot about Damien and the country he calls home. WeI did a lot in the 5 and a half months he was here, sometimes it is hard to believe all that we managed to do. Going home does mark the end of the special time that is the exchange year, but it marks the beginning of a potential lifetime of friendship and memories.
My heart swells with pride when I think of my two host sons. The relationship isn’t always like a father and son, I’m still a bit young (34) and so sometimes it feels more like big brother and little brother, but it works. When I think of all the great things that I believe Damien and Hendrik will go on to do, I can’t help but be proud of them. I told them both that going on exchange is brave. Putting oneself out there in a foreign country is something I never could imagine myself doing as a teenager, but now I see just how valuable it is.
In the short time I have been with YFU as a host parent and volunteer, I have made some amazing friends both here and in countries around the world. One reason to get involved is definitely because of the exposure you get to the world. Just today, I've chatted with people in France, Germany, and Uruguay, in addition to the USA. However, when people ask me why I host, why I volunteer, or why they should consider hosting, I often will say "because you literally get to make dreams come true". Sometimes I get funny looks, but I think it is the truth. These young adults who want to come to the USA *are* dreaming about it. It is more important to them than almost everything else. They are often times (maybe even most times) delaying school a year to take another year of school. That is a passionate teenager. YFU staff, interns, volunteers, and host families ALL get to take part in turning that dream into reality. That's the good stuff, and that's why I do what I do.
“When he got here, he didn’t like hugging people,” explained Roni Sutton, host mother and long-time YFU volunteer about her exchange student from Jordan, Ahmad. “That was pretty much the opposite when he left.”
On the last day of his senior year, Roni recalled Ahmad’s emotion as he said goodbye to friends and teachers who had so warmly accepted him into their lives. His good heart and ‘hysterically dry’ humor quickly gained him the respect of his peers in the classroom, and the love and laughter of the Sutton family at home.
“It took a week or so for him to settle in, but we knew he was comfortable when he started to crack his jokes – just like he was really a part of the family.” The Sutton family learned, however, that beneath his ever-smiling face and relaxed attitude was a caring, observant, and humble young man. He was quick to apologize anytime he felt a joke was not received well, and asked many questions to help him learn and better himself for next time.
His caring and adaptive nature did not stop here. During the month of Ramadan, Roni remembers Ahmad’s quiet diligence to follow his prayer, washing, and eating schedule, all while still spending time with the family and his friends.
“Normally, I would leave a plate of food for him in the fridge for him to warm up after it got dark,” she recollected. “The one time I forgot, he was so understanding and asked how he could help make something for himself.”
By the end of the school year, Ahmad had succeeded not only in learning about American society and culture, but also in teaching his own religious and native customs to his peers and host family members.
Did you know that each year, YFU welcomes scholarship winners from several US Government sponsored programs? Learn more about hosting a YES Scholarship student like Ahmad and meet our incoming class of students today!
The Noble-Olsen family welcomed Maan from Saudi Arabia during the 2015-2016 school year to develop what they agreed would be “a lifelong friend in a different place.” Patricia his host mother, explained to us how their multi-generational household was perfect for a transitioning Maan, who was accustomed to living and interacting with his extended family in Saudi Arabia. For the family, this also meant multiple generations’ worth of learning and understanding of the Islamic religion and of Saudi culture.
The holy month of Ramadan, which occurred during Maan’s stay with the Noble-Olsens, naturally came with obstacles that required cooperation and an open-mind from Maan and his new family. Included in these were Minnesota’s long days, during which he had to fast, leading to an eating schedule that was inconsistent with the typical family mealtimes, and in respect to Maan’s religion, the elimination of pork and alcohol from their diet.
Patricia, who has a background in religious studies, thoroughly enjoyed the process of her learning from Maan about Saudi culture and religion, but specified how the extent of learning reached beyond just her and Maan.
“He very much enjoyed talking about religion,” she said. “He presented to his class about Saudi Arabia, and loved to learn about the religion of others.”
In the household, it was clear that Maan’s energy was special, as Patricia recalls finding him in conversation with her 4-year-old granddaughter.
“My granddaughter adored Maan,” said Patricia when asked of her favorite moment of his stay. “I remember the two of them sitting with each other at the dining room table talking. She reached up to grab his arm and said, ‘I love you,’ to which he said, ‘I love you too.’”
On the night of his departure, Patricia recalled her family’s final dinner for Maan as a heart-breaking experience. As he was leaving very early the next morning, each family member took turns saying goodbye before going to sleep for the night – but Maan had something else planned.
“I woke up the next morning to find a post-it note on the door to our bedroom saying, ‘Love you, Thank you!’ only to realize that there were countless notes around the house expressing Maan’s love and gratitude for individual members of the family. He left 96 notes around the house, and I was still finding them two weeks later,” Patricia reminisced.
The Noble-Olsen family found in Maan a perfect example of how an intercultural exchange program can convey such understanding and compassion in a family while showing a young scholar a world so different from their own.
Did you know that each year, YFU welcomes scholarship winners from several US Government sponsored programs? Learn more about hosting a YES Scholarship student like Maan and meet our incoming class of students today!
Guest post from YFU President & CEO Michael E. Hill
Where have the past 1,096 days gone?!
Today marks three years of service as President & CEO of YFU USA. So much has happened in these first three years. When I reflect on my work here, I often write about the impact of exchange, its possibilities to promote peace in the world, and the transformative equation of placing a young person with a loving family under the helpful assistance of an incredible volunteer advocate. And all of this remains as true today as it was the first day I walked into this office.
But this year marks a different milestone for me. In August, I welcome my exchange son from Finland to share my home in the United States. I have always felt a connection
The journey has been more nerve wracking than I thought it would be.
I agreed to host in February. It took me more than a month to get through the whole process, and at each step of the way, I got a little more invested. Seeing a young person’s story on my computer screen only gave me a glimpse of his story. Waiting to see if I passed the various tests and home visits – yes, they apply even to the President of YFU! –
The next few months will include getting to know him more, preparing his room, wrapping my head around parent-teacher conferences at his school, and thinking how I want to shape his year in America. And I know these “well-laid plans” will all change as his unique personality makes an entrance into my -- into our -- home.
I hope to share a lot more with you throughout the year about my first time hosting. But, until the third week of August, I want to say “thank you” for making my first three years at the helm of YFU USA such a rich and rewarding experience.
In a couple of weeks, we will celebrate Father’s Day in the United States. For all you veteran parents, any advice you have for this rookie is welcome at email@example.com. I look forward to sharing the best gems of advice I receive on my personal YFU Facebook page at facebook.com/michaelhillyfu.
Thank you again for all you do for YFU. I feel honored and privileged to have journeyed with each of you these past three years.
Why hosting matters: Hosting is a catalyst in making us all citizens of one world. It brings culture and a sense of adventure to you and your family while teaching valuable lessons about acceptance and global unity to your community. Hosting brings the world home to you.
Each year, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs brings almost 2,000 high school students, representing over 50 countries, to study in a local U.S. high school while living with an American host family. Become a part of this unique opportunity by hosting a YES, FLEX or CBYX student with YFU this upcoming school year.
May 15, 2016 – International Day of Families
To all of our host families, thank you! Please help YFU and the U.S.
With the opportunity to meet and connect with fellow alumni, you have the ability to remember what made your exchange the crazy, wonderful, developmental time period that it was. Your exchange experience didn't end the moment you stepped off the plane. The Alumni Chapters offer amazing ways to stay connected with the not only the organization, but also those precious experiences you had while abroad.Read More
Guest post from YFU President & CEO Michael E. Hill
Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege to meet with many of you during my listening tours in Boston, Massachusetts; Muskegon, Michigan; Charlotte, NC; and Clyde and Delaware, OH with Bill Malloy, our Director of Volunteer Programs. We have a few cities still to visit, but I always come away with the profound understanding that YFU simply would not exist without our volunteer family.
As I was preparing to write this note, I reflected on the impact our volunteers have on our students’ experiences. Often, when I speak to outside groups or individuals about our mission, consistently the one thing people are often surprised by is the sheer number of volunteers and their direct impact on our program, our students and frankly, the continued success of delivering a rich, meaningful cultural exchange experience. Others outside our organization either don’t understand – or are unable to comprehend the level of professionalism, passion and dedication of YFU volunteers.
Meeting volunteers, students, and host parents is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. On a recent trip through the beautiful state of Ohio—I was fortunate enough to spend several hours hearing directly from two remarkable groups of volunteers. At a gathering in northern Ohio, the personal stories of why YFU holds a special place in the hearts of our volunteers overwhelmed me. In that small country store where the event was held, you couldn’t help but feel the energy vibrating in the room! One volunteer in particular named Pat will always stand out in my mind. Pat’s vigor, dedication, and 30+ years of YFU volunteering illuminated the space. I was also equally inspired by Matthew, a volunteer in his early 20s, who attended the event while at home on break from his university studies. Matthew was joined by his mom, another YFU volunteer, and I was able to see firsthand how volunteering really does run in the family! These stories were especially poignant as later this summer, I will become a first time host dad. I’m incredibly excited about this new journey and am so thankful to know I will have the support and expertise of our volunteers to help guide me.
So as we celebrate National Volunteer Appreciation Week, I want to thank each and every one of our volunteers for the tremendous work you do throughout the year. From helping to place students, writing student profiles, interviewing students and families, serving as scholarship evaluators, leading as area reps, lending your expertise on regional volunteer leadership councils and the countless other ways you contribute to YFU, you continue to make a profound difference in the lives of the young people, host families and communities we serve.
I want to thank you, as well, for the many words of advice you’ve given my team and I as we head into our 65th year. Please know there’s not a day that goes by that I am not grateful for all you do and how hopeful it makes me to know that we will build a brighter future for YFU… together.
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
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
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!
Meg White Campbell, a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S.
Department of State, is currently working as an exchange diplomat (Transatlantic Diplomatic Fellow) at the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin, Germany.
At first, we were just exchange students…
Jeanne and Laurie were both exchange students from Michigan, the original heart of YFU. Jeanne went from the cornfields of central Michigan to the vineyards of southern France in 1982-83, learning to ski in the Alps. Laurie stretched her mother’s apron strings – but only for a summer – to the far north of Norway in 1982. When Laurie was invited to be on an alumni panel at a volunteer training weekend in the fall of 1983, Rachel Andresen told the regional director “That girl needs to go again!” – and so she did, as a gap year student to Uruguay in 1984-85.
Both of us felt our exchange experiences were the most amazing (and educational!) experiences we’d ever had, but little did we know we would still be involved over 30 years later, or the tremendous friendships we would develop over the years, not only with each other, but many others as well.
And then we were invited to events….
In the 1980s, YFU had an amazing Regional Director in Michigan named Diana Follebout. She believed that the exchange experience doesn’t end when a student arrives back home, but it is part of them forever. She also believed that young YFU alumni can (and should) be part of the volunteer base. She starting having Jeanne (and then Laurie) attend events, putting them to work in the regional office and Pre-Departure orientations.
And then we were volunteers….
Somewhere along the way, we were both became full-fledged volunteers; Jeanne was the first Alumni Coordinator for Michigan, organizing social events, fundraisers and orientations. We kept running into each other at events, and even though we went to rival universities, we hit it off. Soon Jeanne had dragooned Laurie into almost everything, and the two of us were quite a pair! Our YFU volunteering was an important part of our college experience, and the camaraderie that developed amongst our alumni group was like our own fraternity. We went on ski weekends together, did fundraisers for American YFU students, did presentations, and organized and conducted American student Pre-Departures and Homecoming orientations. When Jeanne moved to Illinois to work for the YFU Regional Office there, Laurie took over as the Alumni Coordinator.
And then we were friends….
The connections we developed during those college years – working together to achieve goals and laughing along the way – have kept our friendship strong, even though we haven’t lived in the same state for over 25 years. When Jeanne was married, Laurie was one of the bridesmaids, and when Laurie (finally!) recently got married, Jeanne was right there to help her celebrate. When Jeanne moved to Illinois and Laurie went in the Army, we didn’t connect as often as we had, but when Jeanne called Laurie to tell her about the National Alumni Council that was being formed, we picked right up where we had left off. Remember, this was before cell phones or email were common, and so YFU has helped us stay connected as friends. It unites us and gives us common ground, even though we are now so deeply connected that we are friends in all aspects of our lives.
And there’s always YFU…
Why do we stay involved? What motivates us to continue working with exchange students? For both of us, we especially enjoy working with volunteers, particularly young alumni, who are working with exchange students or promoting the exchange experience. We have gotten to do so many wonderful things in YFU, for YFU, for students, that we love to see it when others can have similar experiences. The development of the National Pre-Departure Orientation a few years ago has been a dream come true for us. Not only do we get to spend three days providing year and semester American students with skills and knowledge to help them have the best year of their lives, but we are also training the next generation of volunteers. We feel it is our turn to encourage and coach young alumni who will take our place, never forgetting the faith and hope that Diana Follebout once had in us.
Guest post from YFU President & CEO Michael E. Hill
Great literature has many references to “the ghosts of our past;” so, too, do great organizations. This is the week we celebrate our founding visionary, Dr. Rachel Andresen, and while all “Founder’s Weeks” provide a time to honor a very special woman and to reflect on her vast contributions to Youth For Understanding, this year’s Founder’s Week is particularly special as it marks the beginning of our 65th anniversary year.
When Rachel was called upon to form and support YFU shortly after World War II, there was no recipe for how an exchange program should operate. The founding premise was both much simpler and yet significantly complex: how could we bring young people
As we embark on our 65th year, in some ways, we find ourselves asking this question anew. While it is absolutely the case that our core programs in in-person intercultural exchange remain as powerful as ever, we do know that advances in technology have certainly provided greater access to the world – or at least the perception that this is so. And the evils that Rachel was trying to combat are far different than the ills of today’s world.
Andresen was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for her work in uniting young people and communities. According the Alfred Nobel’s will, which established the recognition, “the Peace Prize shall be awarded to the person who in the preceding year "shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
One of the central challenges
Those who lost their lives in the recent bombings in Brussels are victims of those that
When Andresen began YFU six decades ago, the world was a simpler place. Students travelled on boats across the ocean to live with host families. There were few rules of engagement then. There were no governmental offices that monitored regulations. Students wrote letters home to update their parents
In today’s hyper-connected world, students have access to volumes of information and can almost in real time gain insights into events and activities that are shaping global cultures. But technology does not provide a filter for bias and misinformation. Only through deep engagement – people to people – can disparate cultures understand one another.
I believe that the most important way we can honor
If we believe that the world’s future depends on interconnected citizens with an ability to see the benefits of different cultures, then we must find ways to allow the next generation to interact with those who may appear as “the other.” We must create vehicles for young people to dialogue and to take those skills into their adult lives when they become heads of state, heads of corporations, head of families or simply
A hyper connected world provides several potential solutions:
1) YFU has just embarked on its first “Virtual Exchange” program, harnessing the power of social media and technology to provide an asynchronous dialogue among young people of different cultures. Meeting youth where they most are living, YFU’s program is looking at curating conversations through social media and online platforms, but the pathway of that conversation is being most managed by young people themselves. What are they interested in talking about and how do use that imagination and interest to reduce barriers and increase understanding? Can we break through the packed educational agendas in schools to be a partner in delivering curricular needs through youth dialogue? If so, could this be one avenue for young people to realize they are more alike than different. YFU is starting a pilot program with the poorest school in New York City. The principal there, who also happens to be a YFU Trustee, posited that impoverished children in New York are a different form of “refugee.” We will attempt to link them up with young people in the Middle East and Northern African region, who is experiencing great upheaval and refugee migration of a different kind to explore similarities in hopes that the adult versions of these young people might contribute to a safer planet.
2) Corporations and individuals must step forward to provide resources to allow increased participation in traditional exchanges. Not only will it create the workforce most needed in an increasing global society, the return on investment is far greater than the cost of training adults in intercultural competencies later on.
3) Governments must promote a platform of intercultural engagement in societies and schools, encouraging an examination of other cultures to provide greater global security.
4) And nonprofit organizations that care about intercultural engagement must find new ways to link young people in dynamic dialogue and work in partnership with others to reduce the barrier to entry.
Rachel answered the call after World War II. In one of her speeches, she recalls being in Amsterdam when the lights were turned on again. She notes, “The work of YFU is ensure that the lights never go out again.” That must be a shared mission if the next generation has a shot at fulfilling that promise. During this Founder’s Week, let’s celebrate Rachel by finding new and increased ways to celebrate her dream.
It's always fantastic to hear about YFU alumni going far above and beyond their time abroad to apply the lessons they learn towards bettering the world around them. One such unique alum is Grace Wickerson, the winner of the 2016 National Jefferson Award. We sent Grace a few questions to see what kind of person can go from a few weeks in Japan to creating her own non-profit organization dedicated to helping victims of domestic violence. Read more about Grace's incredible story, and congratulations to her for winning the "Nobel Prize" of Public Service!Read More
Guest post from YFU Atlas Corps Fellow, Deepa Khatri
My Homecoming Abroad
This is going to be my first Holi here in the United States, I have been celebrating Holi for past 2 year’s back home in India. I’m
Context & Origin
In India, we have thousands of gods and stories associated with them, from which we derive some of our values, culture, beliefs and way of life. India is known as a country of festivals – in fact, we pretty much have them weekly – where we come together to live in the moment, celebrating various occasions to spread joy and happiness amongst our communities. For those, who may not be as familiar with my country and this ‘festival of color’ and why it’s celebrated, I’d like share some the Hindu mythology behind its origin.
The story behind Holi is a story of a prince and how his devotion depicted the victory of good or evil. Prahlad was the prince of Multan and his father Hiranyakashipu had been gifted with a blessing that made him virtually indestructible. He grew arrogant, thought he was God, and demanded that everyone should only worship him. Whereas, his own son, Prahlad was devoted to Lord Vishnu (one of the 3 main gods in Hindu Mythology who created the universe). This infuriated Hiranyakashipu and he subjected his own son to cruel punishments; none of which affected the boy or his resolve to do what he thought was right. Finally, Holika - Prahlada's evil aunt - tricked him into sitting on a
The date for celebrating Holi, changes each year because rather than being tied to a specific calendar date, it is celebrated at the approach of the vernal equinox, on the Phalguna Purnima (full moon). The festival signifies the victory of good over evil, the arrival of spring and
The celebration starts on the night before Holi with a ‘Holika bonfire’ where people gather together to sing, dance and party. The bonfire is a reminder of the symbolic victory of good over evil, of Prahlada over Hiranyakashipu, and of the fire that burned Holika. The next day when the fire cooled down, people apply ash to their foreheads, a practice still observed by some. Eventually, colored powder came to be used to represent this ash and celebrate Holi. The next morning is a free-for-all carnival of colors where participants play, chase and color each other with dry powder and colored water – some participants even carry water guns and colored water-filled balloons for their water fight. It’s a super fun festival for people of all ages, which is one of the primary reasons for its increasing popularity.
Power of Festivity in the Modern World
In today’s fast paced world, cultural traditions often become overlooked. I personally believe that these festivals and their festivities play an integral role in reminding us of the importance of coming together, celebrating our differences and similarities, and helping us to live every moment to the fullest. Irrespective of where they come from or which ethnicity one belongs to, Holi brings people together to share and celebrate a culture, a tradition, a history, a community.
By immersing oneself in another culture, you can begin to truly understand differences, a unique way of life, and to learn from one another. What you find is that it all boils down to one simple thing which is we all are humans and we share the same human emotions. There is no difference that puts one race above or below another; the mere difference is, how you treat your fellow human beings.
YFU and Cultural Exchange
This year I’ve had the opportunity to work at YFU and contribute to the vision of increasing intercultural understanding, mutual respect and social responsibility through educational exchanges for youth, families and communities. And what could be better than inviting everyone to experience Holi, the festival of color, love and joy this year with me. I encourage you to immerse yourself in my culture for a better understanding of the differences and similarities of the human race, to gain mutual trust & respect and to stand for one race called the human race and for its development.
Bura Na Mano, Holi Hai! ("Don't Mind, It's Holi!")
I strongly believe that change starts with individual actions, which start the ripples that leads to major impact.
A great example is my own story. When I was in seventh grade, my teacher took me by the hand and transferred me to an advanced class. She believed that I could achieve more. Thanks to her action, I am here today, participating alongside some of the most impressive nonprofit leaders from across the world and serving in one the oldest international exchange organizations, Youth For Understanding.
Coming from a small coal-mining town in Siberia, it is difficult for kids to dream big. Yet, this teacher taught me to think bigger and to challenge myself to do more.
Right before embarking onto my journey as an Atlas Corps Fellow, I returned to that very same classroom with that same inspirational teacher to talk to the current seventh graders about dreaming big and working hard for their dreams. When I was their age, I could not have even imagined that one day I would in the United States and speaking at the State Department. Now, look, here I am. I plan on returning to that school after my Fellowship to share more with these young students and to inspire them to dream even bigger.
It is important that we never quit dreaming because we can always achieve more. It is the same with civil society—civil society starts with educated youth that are not afraid to dream big. Just looking around this room, I see 80+ individuals who continue to have big visions and inspire one another to also believe in their abilities to forward positive change. It may seem overwhelming to try to solve all the major social issues of the world—we may seem insignificant as individuals. It is as a network that we are going to achieve results.
Russia is a great example. Russia is a country with more than 200 nationalities spread across a vast geographic region. While it is difficult to target the entire country, we can start with youth from small towns like Belovo. They can be a positive force in their own communities, which when united with efforts in the towns of other Fellow countries, will create the ripple effect that leads to major impact.
Dr. Rachel Andresen, who was the founder of Youth for Understanding, visited Amsterdam in 1948. There, she saw the streetlights illuminating the city for the first time after World War II. She was very touched and vowed to do everything she could with her life “so that the lights would never go out again.”
I also vow to light up the kids in my home town with the energy I get during this professional exchange, so that the lights will never go out again.
1. While walking home from school one day, bring home flowers.
2. ALWAYS ask if you're able to take a shower. This is courteous to do even in the comfort of your own home.
This is especially important if your host family has only one bathroom/one shower in the house. It’s a simple politeness that
3. "I'm too shy" is NEVER an excuse.
In most cases, you learn and grow from what you do and say. If you’re always too shy to open your mouth and take action, how will you grow?
4. "I don't know what to say" is also not an excuse.
Whenever I had time to myself, I worked on a note in my phone and wrote down every question (in French) that would start an interesting conversation. I would memorize two or three questions before each meal to start up a good conversation. It worked! Conversation flowed long after dinner was served. The more you talk, the more quickly you will get comfortable with your host family.
5. Treat your host room as if you were living in the family room.
Keep it clean. "I was never an organized person" is not an excuse. Even if you have the luxury of having your own room, you must keep it clean. While you’re most likely not required to vacuum every day, keep your things (such as dirty laundry) off the floor. In some households, it's also impolite to eat in one's room as well. Keeping your room clean shows that you appreciate having a room in the first place. So keep it tidy, make your parents proud.
6. Speak in the host country's language.
You're going to hear this a lot. This isn't a cliche-whatever rule, this is
7. There will be days when it feels like you've been living in your host country for ten years, and days when it feels more like ten seconds.
Make the best out of every minute of it. There will be more embarrassing moments than you can count. Make the embarrassment your friend, not your enemy. Every embarrassing moment will always (and I mean always) become a funny story later on.
8. Excuses don't work here.
Excuses are a popular way to justify failure to do something. This is never a good practice. Your exchange should highlight that. If you have done something wrong or forgotten to do something, like offering to do the dishes, do not to make yourself feel better by mentally feeding yourself excuses (i.e. "I'm too tired," "I didn't know how to say it in x language," "I thought she was going to say no anyways.") Baaaaaaad!
9. Show your gratitude.
You can never say thank you enough. It's better to say thank you too often than too little. If there's one thing you can overdo, it's saying thank you.
10. Suggest to make breakfast for the family one day.
Give them a taste of what it's like to be American -
11. There is always free wifi at tourism offices!
Okay, you don’t really need to know this to have a great exchange year. But if you're on the go and in desperate need of a wifi hotspot, tourism offices should have them for free. You don’t even have to go inside, simply standing near the entrance will do the trick.
(*****This knowledge is based off of my experience in Southern France
As I sit on the curb with my host sister and host aunt, I sing Disney songs quietly to myself to pass the time while waiting for the bus to come to take us home. It is five thirty in the morning and I’ve been up for almost 24 hours consecutively. I am on the verge of an emotional breakdown from exhaustion and culture shock, but in the middle of it I think “Well, this is what you signed up for as an exchange student.”
This is one of my favorite memories from the ten months I spent in Ecuador because it is such a clear marker of the ways in which my exchange changed me. I had been in country for maybe two weeks when my oldest host sister asked me if I wanted to go with her to a dance that night. It was a Friday so I had gotten up early to go to school and I was already a bit tired. I said yes anyways though because it was a new experience and that is definitely what I got. I had never been to any event even remotely similar and I spent the whole night sitting in a chair on the edge of the dance floor, completely overwhelmed by the intensity of the music and the sheer number of people dancing. I can’t say I enjoyed myself very much on that occasion, but in retrospect I can see it as one of the defining moments of my exchange.
Studying abroad allowed me to become much more independent and self driven as well as gave me a passion for travel and an understanding of the importance of international relations. The experiences I had in Ecuador were life changing and I want to help to provide this opportunity for many students in the future.
Some people cite the long plane ride overseas as the beginning of their exchange, while others say it was the first face-to-face meeting with their host family. For me, though, my exchange began the moment I turned away from my family in the airport terminal.
I had been raised to always do things passionately or not at all. My family and I both knew that I was independent enough to survive a semester away from home in the country of Sweden; that I would be driven to craft the best experience possible for myself; that I would persevere through anything that came my way. And so, I faced the future and never looked back.
That didn’t mean that I wouldn’t miss my family, nor did it imply that I wanted to leave behind my life in the United States; in fact, it was quite the contrary. By keeping my gaze fixed on the future, though, I was able to appreciate what I left behind while remaining open towards what lie ahead.
That important realization came into play for the first time when I met my younger host sister in beautiful Stockholm, where YFU held their Arrival Orientation. Light rain drizzled overhead as my host mother, Marie helped me collect my bags, leaving me to talk to 7-year-old Denice, who didn’t know a word of English besides the numbers from one to ten. I used my fragmented Swedish skills to offer her my favorite American candy (Reese’s Pieces). She accepted with a grin. On the first of two train rides home, we
Though I struggled with learning Swedish in the beginning, I was never dissuaded from making friends and learning new information. I specifically remember one instance when I was sitting in chemistry class, determinedly taking notes though I had only an inkling as to what they meant. I smiled to myself, though, first asking my classmates to help me translate them and then understanding that one day, I would be able to read the notebook and understand all of the information inside. I made hundreds of flash cards for words that would prove obscure: gräsmatta, skildhet, orkan. (Lawn, divorce, hurricane.) I studied verb conjugations, I listened to Swedish music, I read my textbooks out loud while I was home alone.
After a few months had elapsed, it all fell together; I began feeling comfortable being around my friends in school, my Swedish skills had skyrocketed, and I remained in close contact with other exchange students who became some of my best friends.
But YFU prepared me for homesickness and culture shock, too, which I readily accepted as a not-too-distant reality. About midway through my semester in Sweden, I had a very hard decision to make that cultivated in my move to another host family in the area. When I left the home of my first family permanently with a bittersweet wave of emotions washing over me, I turned away and never looked back.
By not looking back, I was able to move forward into bigger and better things. I made mistakes when it came to my first family even though I loved them immensely, but in my missteps I discovered the tools I needed to have a successful relationship with 15-year-old twins Victor and William and my new parents, Paul and Helene.
I could tell quirky anecdotes about my exchange all day if I had the opportunity, but more important are the lessons that I learned abroad. For one, I began to comprehend the significance of self-confidence. Without high self esteem, I could have never ventured out into the Swedish public with only enough skills to ask where the bathroom was. Nor could I have ordered my coffee in Swedish, traveled on public transportation alone, or even walked home two miles from the train station.
Perhaps the most valuable piece of advice I can pass along is to take advantage of every opportunity that is given to you. Fear can hold a person back or propel them forward, and though it was scary at times, I allowed myself to take risks. I never let something as petty as fear stop me from accomplishing my dreams. In short, I carpe’d the heck out of that diem.
The number of lessons I have learned since going on exchange is infinitely large, so I can only hope to scratch the surface through this blog post. But I know now that my exchange experience will always be a part of me.
Now, as a Campus Ambassador with YFU, I get the chance to give the community a little glimpse into what my life was like in Sweden. I was a meager teenager on the asking end of the questions once, too, and being able to impart my wisdom onto the YFU community helps me relive the best moments of my exchange. Being able to live overseas affected me in a way that I could have never predicted. I have a greater understanding on the workings of our society, and I believe that it is vital for youth to learn for themselves the true meaning of exchange.
I sit in front of my computer screen over a year later, reminiscing on the five wonderful months I spent living in Sweden, and I am glad that I never looked back.
Nearly three years later, when I look back at my year abroad, it’s a little overwhelming to think how a family of strangers took me into their home and cared for me like one of their own. And all they expected from me was for me to care, too.Read More