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Kickin' Violence with YFU Alumna, Grace Wickerson

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My exchange experience: I went to Kagoshima, Japan as a Japan American Friends Scholar (JAFS) in the Summer of 2014. It was probably the most amazing six weeks of my life so far. I got to meet so many amazing people and see so many things that most average tourists wouldn't get to experience. Despite the fact I could barely speak any Japanese at first and had to communicate in terms of charades and Google Translate, I loved living with a host family. Overall, it was such a great experience. Without the scholarship from YFU, I probably wouldn't have been able to afford a trip to Japan. I actually kept a blog during my exchange, however, it's riddled with typos because my English temporarily became progressively worse while abroad. If you're interested in reading it, you can find it at: http://amazingly--grace.tumblr.com.

Since coming back, I've done my best to keep in touch with my host family and YFU. I've also been promoting YFU programs, especially the scholarships, in my school and my community with the hopes that others will apply and get to go abroad as well. My family also plans on hosting a couple exchange students once I'm out of the house, and they're planning on hosting through YFU which is super cool.

I guess right now I'm busy with my nonprofit "Kickin' Violence", and trying not to mentally break down as a senior in high school (haha).

1. What is your nonprofit Kickin' Violence and how did it come about?  What pushed you to become such an activist against domestic violence?

Kickin' Violence is a nonprofit I started that works mostly with middle and high school youth in order to combat the cycle of violence. We operate in the form of school-based youth community action teams. We also work to host summits and workshops in the community.  Our mission statement is: "Inspiring youth involvement in non-violence advocacy through education, service, and martial arts." You can read more at our website Kickin-violence.org.

I started Kickin' Violence as my Girl Scout Gold Award about three years ago. The idea for my nonprofit was inspired by my many years of martial arts training. Martial arts, to me, transcends the physical. As a student, I took an oath to exercise respect, to never misuse my training, and to champion freedom and justice. To do otherwise would have compromised my commitment to building a more peaceful world. And when I learned that worldwide, 1.6 million people lose their lives to violence, I knew that something had to be done.

2. What is the National Jefferson Award and how did you become involved? 

The National Jefferson Award, also known as the Nobel Prize for Public Service, recognizes individuals who have gone above and beyond in their service for others. I mainly got involved through a program they run called Lead360. Lead360 challenges young people to think of "BIG IDEAS" as they like to call them, that will change the world. My Big Idea was inspired by the service we do for violence survivors in my home community. I found out about the program through a couple of the youth activism channels that I follow on Twitter. I had to complete an extensive application to apply to Lead360, (which I submitted at the last second possible because I am a chronic procrastinator). 

4. Did you draw on any of your experiences abroad to start your humanitarian efforts? How so?

Maybe not to start my efforts, but studying abroad did help me to realize that the people I met abroad weren't all too different from myself. While we spoke different languages and lived in different societies, the problems we faced really were universal. Domestic violence is just as big of a problem in Japan as it is in the US. And while I didn't openly experience domestic or sexual violence while abroad, I still couldn't deny its existence. Studying abroad really has inspired me to take a global approach with my humanitarian efforts, and I am now not only working to expand Kickin' Violence statewide, but also internationally. I hope one day youth around the world can hear Kickin Violence's message, and join my mission to "kick" violence out of our society.

5. What was the single greatest thing you learned as an exchange student and how did it help you later down the road? 

I think the single greatest thing I learned is really how invigorating it is to go out of your comfort zone. I think our comfort zones are meant to be questioned, challenged, and broken. Too often we choose to stay in the known for fear of the unknown, which only ends up causing more problems than it solves. Most of the major global issues we are facing now stem from ignorance. Because we don't have the proper degree of understanding between peoples of different cultures and societal backgrounds, we are openly allowing prejudice, fear, and hatred to further ingrain themselves into the mindsets of each generation. 

Studying abroad made me realize just how much I still have to learn about the world. This quest for understanding drives me each day to be a better global citizen. I have become more confident in my ability to help people, regardless of their background, which remains my mission today. 

6. How do you hope to continue your public service in the future? 

I will be entering college soon, which is as scary as it is terrifying. I hope to study biomedical engineering and computer science with a little bit of international business thrown in there. I want to use engineering to solve the major global problems outlined in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, such as hunger, poverty, health, and energy. My ultimate goal is to create a think-tank where innovation thrives as the world benefits. This organization would actively work in financially supporting life-changing technology and also ensuring its implementation by working with partners within each key geographic region. In doing so, my initiative would bring us closer to fulfilling the UN’s goals by 2030 and ensuring a more sustainable future.

7. Do you have any words of advice for current students or future exchange students?

When you study abroad, you have to go all in. Don't hold back from trying something new, meeting someone new, or even eating something new. Studying abroad is all about embracing whatever culture you are living in with open arms, especially since the people of that culture are doing the same for you. My favorite memories from studying abroad are of when I did things that I would never be able to do back home. One that comes to mind is when I went to an onsen, otherwise known as a Japanese hot bath. The catch, it is also a nude, public bath. Now, while I was completely terrified of being naked in a public place with people who I could barely speak to since my Japanese was fairly limited, I didn't let that prevent me from enjoying the experience. I even went a second time, albeit to a much less crowded onsen. Really, my biggest piece of advice is to just enjoy yourself, because studying abroad really is an unforgettable and life-changing experience.