25 Years Later - My YFU Story
My YFU story is less about my exchange but rather what happened later. However, without my summer exchange to France my YFU story would not have been possible. Twenty-five years ago on June 22nd, 1988, I stepped off a plane in Paris, France, exhausted after traveling across the US and the Atlantic Ocean with a plane full of exuberant fellow YFU students. I too was excited, but that first day I was also frustrated because I did not understand a word of French despite two years of study. In fact, I could not even communicate with a four-year old. I wondered what I had gotten myself into. I hoped the next day would be better after I got some much-needed sleep. Little did I know at age seventeen that my YFU experience would become a core element of who I am and what I do in my life.
I spent eight amazing weeks in France with my host family who were a seasoned YFU family – I was their seventh exchange student and all three of their daughters had been YFU students to the US; the youngest was to return in a couple of weeks. My host family was wonderful! I experienced a lot in eight short weeks – living in a village of only fifty people, managing to purchase stamps on my own, exploring Paris with my host sister who lived there, camping in the Loire Valley and living on an island for five weeks. I slept in a tent at the beach and explored the island on a bicycle. It was my idea of an amazing summer – a perfect match. My host family stretched my taste buds; they encouraged me to be less shy and to forget about being perfect when speaking. In the end, I felt as though I belonged, I was a member of my French host family. Not only did I begin to actually understand what was being spoken around me but also eventually, I was able to speak back in French. I was thrilled to understand 100% of what was said my first day back in French class at home; my exchange was a success.
As I said, my YFU story really began six years later when I received a newsletter about volunteering with YFU. I had just graduated from college and needed something to make my life have meaning. YFU was just what I was looking for to invest my time and energy. I was fortunate enough to be a part of a field with amazing volunteer managers who embraced me at age twenty-three as a volunteer and gave me meaningful tasks. It was here that I began to see the whole picture of YFU and the impact a student can have on a host family; it is not just about the student experience. I also began my lifelong passion for working with our American students to prepare them for this life-changing journey and connecting with them upon return to see how they have changed.
I have been fortunate through Facebook to reconnect with many of the YFU alumni and volunteers I have worked with over the past nineteen years. When I look at my friends on Facebook, I see students from many years ago who I interviewed and orientated. I see students who thought orientation was a waste of time and then returned to volunteer the next year because they came to recognize the value of YFU’s orientations. I see alumni who volunteered as interviewers and orientation facilitators. I see people I met randomly and helped become a YFU volunteer. I see alumni volunteers I helped chaperoned an international student trip with. I see alumni I worked with to plan orientations and reunion events. I see amazing alumni who I worked so hard with to bring meaningful alumni involvement to YFU. I see co-workers, a student whom I hosted for two weeks, one of my host sisters and my host mom. I see volunteers and staff who encouraged me to find my voice, leadership and passion. I see me.
YFU is an integral part of who I am and how I view and navigate the world. Without YFU, I would not be who I am today. I thank YFU for the opportunity, my host family who made it possible and the volunteers who welcomed a young alumna into their volunteer regimes and gave me something meaningful to do. I know that I make a difference in this world.
Lisa Chinnery Staff member and Volunteer YFU USA
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