Interview by YFU Alumnus and Campus Ambassador Ronak Gandhi with YFU Field Director, Host Mother & Area Representative Kylie Neidich
Why do you believe that study abroad programs are not only beneficial, but also crucial for the youth of tomorrow? I believe that our youth are often unaware of the cultural differences, how different every country is, and I think that studying abroad can help them further in life. It also looks great on college applications and applications for jobs because of that experience.
What was your motivation for volunteering and hosting with YFU? I wanted my own children to learn about other cultures, while also getting to share our own. We love being able to share the kitchen with our students, as they teach us dishes from their own country. Believe it or not, I am the pickiest eater, but I have changed my eating habits due to my exchange students. When we moved to Texas we were the only family who hosted and I hated that our student couldn’t interact with others, so that got me more involved with volunteering. I’ve helped in planning events and in the growth and expansion of my field!
How has hosting a student impacted you and your family? We have tasted food from other countries that we would have never been able to otherwise try, and my kids have been introduced to several languages including Thai, French, Swiss, and German! We gain so much through hosting. It truly is life changing.
Can you share some of the best memories and unexpected surprises from your hosting experiences? The best memories would be watching them grow into sports that they may never have played before (esp. when they end up going to state championships), taking them to professional games, visiting the Alamo, and enjoying new holidays together. I don’t believe I’ve ever had unexpected surprises. YFU has been so VERY supportive and I couldn’t have asked for a better organization.
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.
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.
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!
1. While walking home from school one day, bring home flowers.
Or a cool plant. Or chocolates. Or their favorite food/drink. Whether your exchange is just a month or a year, surprise your host family with a small and simple gift that serves as a nice reminder that you’re grateful for them.
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 goes a long way.
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 a if-you're-going-to-do-one-thing-right-this-better-be-it rule. Unless it's an emergency, always speak in the host country's language. Don't "try", do it. I asked a lot of questions that I had memorized how to say even though I didn’t understand a lick of the answer I was given. It's always frustrating to not understand and to not be able to express yourself the way you want to, but that's how it is being an exchange student at the beginning of your exchange. And the more you talk, the more you learn and the easier it gets speaking the language. There will come a moment when it will all just “click” for you. It will be glorious.
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. Merci. Danke. Gracias. Thank you. One of the biggest issues between a host student and a host family is the lack of a display of gratitude. If you don't hear an acknowledgement after saying thank you, say thank you until you get one (as they may not have heard you the first time). For a great exchange, it is vital that your host family knows you're grateful.
10. Suggest to make breakfast for the family one day.
Give them a taste of what it's like to be American - literally! If you want to take it a step further, you could even offer to make a family breakfast on a regular basis. Whether it's weekly or monthly, how often is up to you. Making breakfast for your host family, even if just once, is a great way to assimilate yourself into family life and show that you are eager to participate and become more than just an exchange student in their home - that you want to become a member of their family.
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 chit-chatted as if we were actually sisters, and we drew pictures in a fluffy pink notebook to aid in communication with one another. Denice fell asleep with her head on my shoulder, and I knew then and there that a language barrier would not stop me from making Sweden my home.
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.
The realization of a dream is a surreal sensation. Reminiscing now, the memory of that realization is made of various fragments - the feel of a YFU lanyard around my neck, the travel pouch resting in my lap; the numbness in my toes after long hours of sitting; the melody of the song I was listening to when it happened.
Sweden seemed like a very abstract concept, merely a dream, until I first looked out the window of the airplane as I descended into Stockholm. Looking out over the beautiful archipelago, it hit me full force - I was about to spend ten months living in this foreign country. The song “I Can See the Pines Are Dancing” by A.A. Bondy came up on my shuffle and a feeling of awe transformed my small airplane seat into a holy place. Reverently I let my eyes trace the cobalt curves where the water hugged the land. My worries and fears quieted as the peace I felt told me I was where I was meant to be.
It was the first of many similarly momentous realizations. My entire exchange year was a series of eye-opening experiences. Every day was a new adventure filled with discovery; boredom only meant I wasn’t making the most of my time. I learned about the wide array of food the Swedes enjoy, everything from surströmming (pungent fermented herring) to kanelbullar (cinnamon buns). Not to mention the rules - like how one mustn’t stir the porridge, or how anything that fits on a piece of bread can be called a sandwich. I learned to be more reserved in public like a Swede, but similarly just as warm and welcoming in close quarters. I was adopted into an incredible family I love with all my heart. I discovered a love for the people, for my beautiful city Göteborg, for the culture and for the language.
Studying abroad provided me with a second home and a new set of eyes through which to see the world. I learned more about myself and became my own favorite travel companion as I navigated the emotional rollercoaster that is an exchange year. It was a transformative period in my life and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have studied abroad with YFU. My experience made it apparent to me once I returned home to the States that I had a responsibility to help other students get the chance to learn and grow the way I did, if for no other reason than to remember that sacred feeling of seeing Sweden for the first time from thousands of feet above ground.
My real homestay experience began two days after initially arriving in Japan, in which I was greeted by my host mother, grandmother, and sister at the train station after I had just taken my first 'shinkansen', or bullet train. Following lunch at a typical family restaurant, in which my culture shock ensued instantaneously upon seeing our tiny drinking glasses, we drove to my host grandmother's home, a stereotypical Japanese home nestled in a tight row of houses on a road so narrow, you wondered how there were no accidents in that area, with the homes creating a sort-of barrier between the main road and the endless miles of clean lime green rice fields. They led me to the living room, and I remember the awe I felt as I took in my settings: the low table and sofa with pillows to sit on, the room next door with the tatami mats and sliding paper walls with painted landscapes, and the screen door leading to a ledge where the wooden staircase was so steep and narrow that it took me three weeks to be able to walk up it without clutching the rail with both hands. Inside, me and my host mother – a tiny English teacher – engaged in small talk for some time before I heard a car door slam, and seconds later a ten-year old boy, one of my two host brothers, stumbled into the room, grinning, panting, and carrying a plastic bag filled with Japanese ice cream treats. The father followed in a slower manner to greet me - a tall, lanky figure - but as I would learn later, a very kind man who would attempt (and knowingly, but humorously, fail) to speak English. We all sat around that table, with the kids watching some children's anime they adored, and in an effort to combat my jet lag, I continued to tell many stories about my life in Kentucky, and I remember, in a blur, all of us eating a delicious dinner and laughing at anecdotes I can't even recall.
During my time in Japan, I would visit numerous temples, each incredible in their own right, attend high school and make close friends with whom I would stay in contact, wear a yukata, and watch a real firework festival. Yet I chose this moment to introduce you all to my life in Japan because of how at that moment, the time when I began to understand my trip had begun, I knew that I had only witnessed a single snippet of what I was to later experience. I visited many sites with friends and tried many things I would never have been able to do in America, but many of the golden moments I remember most vividly came from the beautifully mundane aspects of my everyday life living with strangers who decided to take me in simply to learn about a new culture and become my second family. Were it not for YFU, I would never had been able to live a second life, even if only for a fraction of my time. As a university student, I found that studying abroad in high school has helped me in so many ways, and I truly wish that more students could experience what I had. For those reasons, I am excited to be involved helping other students become a part of the YFU community.