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Our Founder, Our Inspiration

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Article reprint from 1986 interview with Rachel Andresen

OUR FOUNDER, OUR INSPIRATION

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Her home in South Lyon, Michigan, is likened to Grand Central Station. She says that if her kitchen could talk, “boy, what stories it could tell.”

The home – and the kitchen – of Rachel Andresen is where Youth For Understanding began in 1951, and it continues today to be the center for memories, memorabilia and the inspiration which has served YFU for 35 years.

Rachel Andresen changed her life that year as she agreed to help locate families to host 75 German and Austrian youths invited by the State Department to live in the United States. World War II was over and efforts were aimed at reconstructing not only cities and governments, but friendships and human relations as well.

In 1951, when Dr. Andresen founded YFU, youth exchange was still an experiment. Her response was immediate and the results were dramatic.

“When I was asked to help place the first group of 75, I said ‘yes, I would help.’ It was the turning point in my life,” says Dr. Andresen, who has since seen the exchange experiment become one of the world’s most effective ways of promoting world peace and international and intercultural understanding.

“Sometimes I wonder, what if I had said no.” The more than 100,000 alumni who have participated through the years are glad she didn’t say no!

"I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned first of all about myself. Then I’ve learned about people. It has made my life much richer and fuller than I had ever anticipated.” 

Dr. Andresen was, at that time, executive director of the Ann Arbor/Washtenaw Council of Churches in Michigan and had been working for many years with numerous community and church organizations. She was suddenly faced with two full-time jobs.

“When you are building an organization, you are looking for what I call the grape-vine system. I have a firm belief that every community is so rich in resources, that if you follow your trail, it will eventually lead your to the people you need,” according to Dr. Andresen.

Beginning her trail with the overseas families of the first international students who arrived in 1951 and the families of the first American students who went abroad in 1955, Dr. Andresen paved her way to the development of an international network for YFU programs. By 1964 she had formally established YFU as an independent, non-profit organization which is, today, one of the world’s largest international student exchange organizations.

“Everything I’ve ever done in the past, I was able to use. It made the work that I was doing, not a job, but something I loved to do. I worked with people in so many different ways,” recalls the founder and honorary president of YFU.

“It wasn't just work, but a living experience, a tremendous one. Developing exchange programs was an exciting and stimulating experience.”

Although she retired from her position as YFU Executive Director in 1973, Dr. Andresen has since been a continuing source of strength, support and inspiration for the further development of YFU programs.

Recalling the more than 35 years of YFU history, from the exchange program’s conception through its growth and to its maturity, is one of Dr. Andresen’s current projects. She is writing a book about the early years of YFU, which she hopes to finish this year.

“It is a first-person narrative, a history and a story about people at YFU,” says Dr. Andresen.

Dr. Andresen admits that there were few directives for YFU’s growth. “We’ve just developed. We wrote out own directions to ourselves, discarding some, of course,” she says, stressing that there are lessons to be learned from such an approach.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 1.07.15 PMDr. Andresen’s book will be the story of the growth and development of programs, “with emphasis on students and families. YFU is students and families. You can’t have one without the other. We are always keeping in mind why we’re doing this,” says Dr. Andresen, looking back on the years when the kitchen table in her home, or in the home of any host family, was where problems were talked out.

“Whenever problems arose with students or families, the first thing we would do is review – ‘Why do we do this? Why did you bring a student into your home?’ And to the student, ‘Why are you here? Why did you want to do this?’ When you asked these questions, the problems were not so great. Many problems are solved by reviewing the basics.”

It is in the home, says Dr. Andresen, that people share everything and discover who they are. “It’s the 1001 things that go on in a family every day that say who we are and what we believe. There are no secrets in the family. It’s pretty real.”

Discovery involves all members of the family, but it is perhaps most profound for the exchange student.

“I think the greatest thing that happens to the student is that he will gain a new appreciation for who he is, what his special talents are and what things he has to offer.”

“When he goes through the experience, he learns to stand on his own two feet, he has to make decisions for himself, perhaps for the first time. It does wonderful things for a person,” says Dr. Andresen.

Dr. Andresen says her life has been influenced and enriched by the many people who she has met and worked with over the years. In fact, her own experiences with people worldwide parallels the experience of exchange students.

“I have made lifelong friends all over the world. The people, families and students I have met have all been special to me, “says Dr. Andresen. Although her father was a tremendous influence in her life, so were her “teachers.”

“My teachers were students and families. Everyone you meet in life, everyone who teaches you something, is special,” she says.

For the exchange student, the actual experience of living with a family is short, “but all your life, after an experience like this, you recall those situations and people that have influenced your life and your thinking.”

“Decisions we make are personal ones, but they are based on a wide variety of learning and experiences,” says Dr. Andresen.

Rachel Andresen looks at YFU as an organization that grew from the strong interest in the family. The exchange program spread from family to family and from community to community and around the world.

YFU has succeeded as a family-based organization, as well as a volunteer based organization, “because giving and sharing is close to the hearts of people. Families initially take students to give something, and then they receive so much more than they give. Their family life is enriched, their knowledge of the world expanded and their appreciate of another country and of its people increased,” says Dr. Andresen.

Of YFU volunteers, Dr. Andresen says they are part of the organization “because they love people and have a real concern for others. The people involved in the program are on a real grassroots level of the operation, and they are an invaluable resource.

“Idealistically, it’s a peaceful world we’re working towards. A world in which people can live together, play together, do things together…and learn and know about each other in a very real way.” 

“Volunteers are basic to YFU, its operation and its continuation. We couldn't operate our program without volunteers not one day in the year.”

No matter what role one plays in the youth exchange experience, the opportunities are shared by everyone, according to Dr. Andresen. “This program is an opportunity for an expression of the idealistic part of our own mind. It’s an opportunity for us to give the very best of what we are and to share that with somebody else.”

YFU Founder Rachel Andresen has received decorations and citations from the governments of West Germany, Mexico, Finland and Brazil, among others, for her contributions to international understanding and cultural exchange.

Original 1986 interview with YFU Founder Dr. Rachel Andresen