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YFU Blog - Recent stories about Youth for Understanding

Filtering by Tag: Michael Hill

Celebrating 1,096 Days

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Guest post from YFU President & CEO Michael E. Hill

002016-05-10T14:40:00Z2016-05-10T14:40:00Z14112349Youth For Understanding USA195275514.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:12.0pt;font-family:Cambria;mso-ascii-font-family:Cambria;mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;mso-hansi-font-family:Cambria;mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}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 to this mission. Much of that comes from the countless hours I have spent with host families, volunteers and students. People that are involved with YFU speak so passionately about their experiences in our programs, and I feel lucky that they have so openly shared their journey with me. But this year, I become a program participant at YFU.

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! – were all markers in preparing myself mentally for my exchange son’s arrival. And then came the day we could first speak. I think only then did my new son move from “an idea” to someone who would join my family.

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 president@yfu.org. 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.

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Happy National Volunteer Week

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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.

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65 Years of Vision

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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.

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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 to the United States in such a way as to have them return to their home countries believing in the hope of a brighter tomorrow? One of the things that we celebrate this week is the tremendous success that Rachel had in answering that question.

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 for today’s youth is that “standing armies” are not the preeminent threat to a peaceful co-existence. And while this is certainly the case, the heart of conflict has not changed all that much: namely conflict and terror exist when people move from a place of fear to a place of hatred to a place of violent action. 

Those who lost their lives in the recent bombings in Brussels are victims of those that believe a way of life is threatened or when values are not shared or at least respected. In this frame, young people are facing a future where conflict is resolved not through traditional methods of discourse and when or if that fails, conventional warfare, but rather are subject to random acts of terrorism, destabilizing the world and causing some to retreat into hyper-nationalist views that impede a much broader agenda for peace.

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 on their experience abroad, and, if they were lucky, called home once during the experience, often to arrange a reunion time for when they would arrive back home. Schools accepted young people because a local citizen wanted to have their exchange son or daughter attend. And technology was most likely referring to a car, not a mobile device.

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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 Rachel’s legacy is to double down on finding new solutions to help heal a broken world. So as we celebrate our 65th year, and the very special role that Rachel played, let us recommit to our founding promise.

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 every day citizens.

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.

A Tale of Two Cubas through the Eyes of Two Leaders

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Re-entry.

A simple word that any YFU student knows is anything but simple. We’ve been back for two weeks from Cuba, and just this past week, we held our “re-entry orientation” with the program participants. Historically these YFU sessions are for teenagers, who experience great reverse culture shock when they return to their native countries. This version would be with 40-plus adults who were gone for a much shorter time but who experienced no less intense a transition home. 

Part of the reason for that tough transition was in the duality of Cuba itself, which in some ways can best be illustrated by our visits with two key figures: a private dinner with Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the Chargé d'Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Havana (our de facto Ambassador); and a lunch with Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro and the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education.

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Both leaders were hopeful for the future of Cuba and predicted very different pathways for the nation. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, Ambassador DeLaurentis was very pragmatic about what he saw after the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba. He summed it up by saying (and I’m only slightly paraphrasing), “What will happen next depends on the Cubans.”

I met Mariela Castro at a private luncheon for our delegation on Day 7 of our trip. We had thought that she might stop by during our meeting with CENESEX days prior, but we were told that in addition to her role as Director of CENESEX, she also was a member of the Cuban Parliament, which was convened that week. As she walked into our dining space, she said she had recently had significant back problems, showing us a small brace and noted that this was the first day she was really allowed to be out and about. Cuban politics are still an artform in managing perception and power.

Castro shared with us a nearly 40-minute treatise on realizing LGTB civil rights in her country. It was easy to see how people could be charmed by her and her family. Her speech was warm, hopeful and extremely practical. While she cited that the only way to create new civil rights in a society is by changing attitudes from the ground up (versus the government down), she did note that in some of her efforts, when a group disagreed, “sanctions” were necessary. I found her to be a compelling leader, even if I didn’t agree with her government’s stance on achieving the means to the end.

Truth be told, we were “stage managed” through much of our public appearances in Cuba. It was seldom lost on our group that the public presentations were intended to give us exactly the view the government wanted on US-Cuban relations, but the complexity of another Cuba shows up in talking to the people.

Young people, in particular, are frustrated with the pace of change. Those we had a chance to talk to believe two things quite powerfully: 1) that the embargo never hurt the Castros at all, despite that being its intent. As they note, the ruling class continues to lead very comfortable, lavish lives, have never been without food and don’t experience the housing shortage, and 2) the Castros and the current leaders will only allow things to normalize and free-up if it also can happen with them still being firmly in control.

Mariela herself hinted at this when we asked if she thought Wal-Mart or Starbucks would be welcomed on the island as restrictions ease. “Cuba will decide what comes to Cuba. We aren’t going to welcome Wal-Marts just because they want to come if it’s not best for the ideals of the Revolution.” (again, only a very slight paraphrase). I was struck by the way she evoked Fidel Castro’s name as if a Biblical figure: “As Fidel said in 1974…” The Revolution was very much alive for many.

There was much to wonder about for the future of the country. The infrastructure is way behind, as is the economy overall. We were stuck in the Havana airport for an extra four hours, we later found out, because communication between the island and the United States was down: the passenger manifest had no way to be cleared by Homeland Security to allow us to depart. So much work was needed. As Ambassador DeLaurentis noted: it was up to the Cuban government whether normalization of relations would do much to fix that.

One of the Cubans we met put it more starkly: “The sad thing is that too many Cubans believe the normalization of relations is going to fix all the ills of the current Cuba.  That’s not going to happen if the government feels it will lose control in the process.”

Part of any exchange experience is asking participants to see a culture not through one’s own eyes but also through the eyes of the people you are visiting. At YFU, we conduct a workshop called “Colored Glasses,” which refers to the well-known analogy of the sunglasses, which represents the cultural filters through which we observe and interpret reality. Re-entry has been so hard for our group because our visit challenged us to find our own truth about Cuba, and in many ways, a new or revised truth about our own country in the process.

Two leaders: a US diplomat and the daughter of a founder of the Revolution. Both have great hopes for Cuba, and yet both see different roads to the same destination. For our group, we fell in the love with the people and the culture. As the US and Cuba open up to one another again, I can only hope we attempt to see the future through the “colored glasses” of the other. If we do that, perhaps both the US and Cuban peoples have reason for esperanza.

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Cuba: Day 7

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Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program. 

Day 7 –Friday, July 17

A week goes by too fast. We had one last full day to take in more of Cuba’s history, and this day would plunge us into some of the complexity of the island’s struggle with religion.

We started the day at the church of Nuestra Senora de Regla, one of Cuba’s most frequented pilgrimage churches, which houses the statue of the Virgin of Regla, who is black and cradles a white infant in her arms. She is the patron and protector of sailors and considered the equivalent of Yemaya, the goddess of the sea in the Yoruba religion. When we arrived, there was a Catholic mass happening inside the church. Since Raul Castro’s presidency, relations with the Catholic Church have thawed a bit. President Castro, himself, recently told Pope Francis, who is visiting the nation in September, that he might consider a personal return to the Catholic Church. It only underscored the tension that Cuba is experiencing as the Revolution morphs with time.

day 7_1

day 7_1

Following our church visit, we traveled a short block to the Municipal Museum of Regla. Each township has a municipal museum that chronicles the history of the town, its people and important moments. We learned of a raid on the town during the festival honoring the Virgin of Regla, where four young men were killed. The cousin of one of our guides was one of the four, which brought the story closer to home.

While there, we experienced the ritual dance of Santeria, the religion brought to Cuba by African slaves. Despite misconceptions that Santeria was blended with Catholicism, many practice the religions in parallel. The ritual dance was high spirited and ended with our delegation dancing along with the ceremonial dancers.

day 7_2

day 7_2

One cannot fully participate in Youth For Understanding without a love and appreciation for young people. That afternoon, following a spectacular lunch at a historic club, we were treated to a dance performance by the Bebe Compania Project at the Bertolt Brecht Theater. Children ranging in age from five to their teens put on a great performance for us, after which GMCW performed for them. Little did we know, all of us would end up on stage learning traditional Cuban dances by the end of the day. The children were patient teachers!

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day 7_3

lunchrestaurant

lunchrestaurant

The Chorus would officially end its performance tour at Casa de las Americas, the most prestigious cultural venue in Cuba. We were met there by international media, including a crew from NBC, who had followed us through much of Cuba for a later documentary on the trip. I was so proud of these guys who had performed more than 20 times that week. Their songs of freedom and equality would no doubt have an impact on all those who heard them for some time to come. They were incredible musical ambassadors for our nation and for LGBT people.

Casadelasamericas

Casadelasamericas

As we departed the theater, Alex Lopez, our Travel Director and trip mastermind, had arranged for us to ride to our farewell dinner in a parade of vintage cars. Cruising through the streets of Havana, with the wind in our faces, was a perfect finale to a remarkable week. As we looked out onto the street, we raced by so many places and faces we had seen that week. The site of 20 or so convertibles with “crazy Americans” screaming in them caused quite a stir on our route. What a blast!

parade of cars

parade of cars

A farewell toast on the roof of Ambos Mundos Hotel, Hemingway’s first home in Havana and one of his favorite places to grab a drink, Alex was pushing us to leave for dinner. We should have known that his earnestness meant another surprise was in store. He decided a simple walk would not do, and arranged for stilt walking performers to lead us through the streets. It didn’t take long before we had created a “Carnival-like” parade, picking up people as we went to dinner at Café Del Oriente Restaurant, overlooking the Plaza de San Francisco, the site of our first day in Old Havana. Things had come full circle.

stilt walkers

stilt walkers

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Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 12.30.12 PM

We spent our last dinner in Cuba paying tribute to our amazing guides. I was most moved to hear our YFU volunteer, Rick Withem, describe his experiences traveling with the Gay Men’s Chorus and how he now better understood the exchange students he had hosted for many years, as he felt as if he had just finished an exchange year in a week.

rick withem

rick withem

This last photo shows the staff crew from both organizations that helped pull off this remarkable journey, and they deserve to be listed and celebrated (from left to right):

  • Dr. Paul Heins, GMCW’s Assistant Music Director

  • Chase Maggiano, GMCW’s Executive Director

  • Dr. Thea Kano, GMCW’s Artistic Director

  • Next to me, Gina Palmisano, Recruiting Manager for YFU’s Study Abroad Program

  • Alex Lopez, YFU’s Director of Travel, who unlocked his country of birth to his adopted US home

  • Scott Messing, YFU’s Vice President of Administration and the Exchange Experience

  • and Kirk Sobell, GMCW’s Director of Patron Services

Planning crew

Planning crew

These men and women worked tirelessly to make this historic journey possible. I have this photo framed on my desk as a reminder of what’s possible when people dream with one another, because, for many of this, the trip still feels like a dream.

I will write one last blog about our departure day and share some very special news of another visitor in Cuba, but as I close this Friday night in my mind, I cannot help but think of our friend Hemingway. It’s obvious to me why he fell in love with both countries.

The Day’s Takeaways:

  • Cuba seems to be in a perpetual state of “tug-of-war” with itself. On this day, I was reminded that the role of religion is just one of many unsettled questions for the nation and its people, but like most things in Cuba, the Cuban people find a way to navigate around the politics of any situation.

  • Dancing with people erases so much distance and division that politics can create. Whether with our Santeria dancers or the young people at the Bertolt Brecht Theater, laughing while we tried to match steps had us almost forget 50 years of division.

  • I am so lucky to work with incredible volunteers – thank you, Rick! – and a team of professionals – see that great looking group in the photo!

Previous Blogs:

Cuba: Day 6

brandpointyfu

Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program. 

Day 6 – Thursday, July 16

Esperanza.

No word could greater symbolize our voyage to Cuba during this historic time than the Spanish word for “hope.” That emotion would come crashing down on us like a ton of brinks on Day 6, as we visited Convento de Nuestra Senora de Belen, an 18th century convent in the middle of Old Havana, which now houses a senior center with a health clinic and pharmacy, physical therapy for the elderly, services for youth with disabilities, an eye care center, a location for meals for those in need, support for single mothers, occupational training and an onsite daycare for workers.

Welcome

Welcome

We were told that GMCW would sing for a group of senior citizens but that they had also prepared musical and dance numbers for us. As we walked into the central courtyard, more than 200 senior performers met us – they were in full costume and cheering loudly as we arrived.

I was invited to greet the group as YFU’s President and said that our journey so far had me drawing one simple conclusion: two peoples with so much to give to one another should no longer be kept apart. The audience erupted into applause, and I filled up with tears. To see hundreds of faces that had remembered life before our two countries stopped diplomatic relations was a stirring thought. What had these men and women seen over 50 years, and what esperanza did they have for this new future?

Esperanza

Esperanza

The Cuban performers were entrancing, throwing their entire hearts into a series of welcome performances. As GMCW concluded its set, many of the Cuban seniors joined them on stage, and then the entire audience broke out into a song for us again.

day 6_1

day 6_1

To hear hundreds of voices sing to us with tears running down their faces struck the most powerful chord of the week. One woman came up to me after the exchange, screaming “El Presidente! El Presidente!,” with tears rolling down her cheeks. Through an interpreter, she shared with me, “We’ve been waiting for you for 50 years!” – the time period of the embargo.

The senior citizens shared so many stories with us that day: stories of pain and loss, of children that had left for the United States, of relatives who still hoped to reunite, of a deep hope that perhaps a new day had dawned. It was the perfect scene to summarize so much of what we had seen. Esperanza indeed.

Later that day, we had a chance to walk around the city without guides. It was somewhat surreal to see a replica of our own Capitol Building, built originally as the site of the Cuban Parliament by Batista. Even more ironic, it is going through a similar renovation to its dome as is our own Capitol in Washington, DC. Starting this year, it will again be used as the seat of Parliament in Cuba, the first time since Castro’s Revolution in 1959.

Capitol replica

Capitol replica

After our walk, we would visit the Museo de Bellas Artes, dedicated exclusively to Cuban artists from the mid-16th century through the modern day. I have always believed that the arts capture moments in history better than any other medium. To see the story of the Cuban people play out on canvas and in sculpture was among the best history lessons one could get in an hour.

Lennon

Lennon

Cuba is a nation shrouded in history. Ever since Spanish occupation, there has been a special nightly celebration from the 18th century San Carlos de La Cabana fortress, a tradition evoking the announcement of the closing of the gates of the city and of the channel at the entrance to the city’s bay. What a stunning view of Havana and another window into her soul.

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day 6_2

We ended the evening at a quaint jazz café, taking in even more music. The city and the country breathes its music.

As the day concluded, I found myself wondering about all the people of this island nation had seen and the genuine hope they’d expressed for the future. So many have asked what I think will happen once diplomatic relations are normalized. I’ll share those thoughts in my last blog post about Cuba. I ended this day just praying that the hope that we had seen on the faces of the senior citizens would be realized. They had indeed waited for 50 years. Could our two nations deliver on the promise? As President Clinton once famously said, “I still believe in a place called Hope.”

The Day’s Takeaways:

  • It is indeed possible to have a flash mob/dance party with 200 senior citizens!

  • Our seniors often possess the greatest wisdom. Through their eyes, I understood the true meaning of hope.

  • Art tells a story that other media cannot. What would the canvases of the Cuban artists of tomorrow say about this time?

  • All of us on the trip wanted desperately to believe in the promise of esperanza. Could our governments fulfill the wish?

Previous Blogs:

Cuba: Day 5

brandpointyfu

Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.  Day 5 – Wednesday, July 15

There are vivid reminders of the once closer ties between Cuba and the United States. Certainly some of that comes through the stories of those who remember the interaction pre-embargo, but as with so much of this trip, art, served as a great reminder of the ties that bind.

Ernest Hemingway fell in love with Cuba and lived much of the last part of his life there. It’s where he wrote “Old Man and the Sea,” as well as a “A Farewell to Arms.” We started day 5 with a visit to Hemingway’s home in Cuba. Located about 12 kilometers outside of Old Havana, Hemingway initially did not want to live in the home. His wife, however, worked to set up a paradise in Cuba before convincing him to make the move. It was exciting to see the house where this iconic US author had completed some of his best work.

For any one that loves the written word, to see where Hemingway wrote was a true thrill. Ironically, although his wife had a separate tower building/office built for him where he could see all of Havana, he liked to write standing up in a guest bedroom. On the site was Hemingway’s beloved boat “Pilar,” which in his time was docked at the nearby town of Cojimar, the inspiration for the “Old Man and the Sea.” In addition to the estate, which his wife donated completely furnished minus a few paintings to be a museum, we got a chance to see where his beloved pets were buried on the grounds. All of this helped to shape our impressions of the man who found a way to love both Cuba and the United States, regardless of policy differences. His example may serve us all well, at least that part of his example.

cuba day 5_1

cuba day 5_1

After visiting the museum, we rode to have lunch at Bodega de las Brisas “Paladar” in Cojimar, a restaurant near the water that inspired his masterpiece. Local artist studios now take the place of other trade in this historic fishing village. It was exciting to see artists still trying to capture the beauty of the place as Hemingway had done decades before.

Later that afternoon, we returned to ICAP to have a discussion with leaders of CENESEX(the National Center for Sexual Education), the Cuban governmental agency that oversees the education and research of topics of human sexuality in Cuba. We received a presentation on LGBT rights in Cuba and were afforded a chance to ask some fairly pointed questions about the struggle that gay people experience in Cuba.

day 5_2

day 5_2

After the presentation, it was exciting for GMCW to sing with Mano a Mano, Cuba's first openly gay chorus. Mano a Mano was assembled differently than GMCW, which is a community, all volunteer chorus. Mano a Mano is supported by a grant from the government and its members are paid. It will be interesting to see if the model can sustain itself, but the performers themselves were fantastic. The US and Cuba choruses even performed together, as international media covered the whole event. I was excited to have our YFU volunteer, Rick Withem, chronicle this trip through his amazing photography. Not only was Rick an amazing documentarian for us, he brought his considerable skills as a YFU educator/host dad to bear in helping us navigate culture shock issues. Rick picked up some 20 new friends this trip! (He’s the one with the gray beard in these photos).

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 5.09.49 PM

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 5.09.49 PM

Later that night, our hotel, Quinta Avenida Hotel, sponsored a concert for GMCW, setting up a stage in the lobby. We were so moved by the combination of rainbow and Cuban flags in the hotel. The men of GMCW were again in wonderful voice, and we were pleasantly surprised and touched to see some of the performers from our first day in the lobby to root us on. They asked musical as well as diplomatic questions; our efforts to break down barriers through music were starting to have an impact.

day 5_3

day 5_3

Day 1 performers return

Day 1 performers return

The exercise in going to Cuba was as much about people to people interaction as anything else. We were starting to see an impact despite the layers of political and social issues. I am so often struck by the simple power that YFU holds: bring people together and let the inherent desire for peace play out. While it’s often not that simple, sometimes the ingredients are right to have a transformative impact. I hope that this is what is happening through our visit to Cuba.

The Day’s Takeaways:

  • The US and Cuba share a seminal artist in Ernest Hemingway. What can artists see that we can learn from in approaching diplomacy? How do they see beauty where we see only conflict, and what can we learn from their approach?

  • People to people exchanges have a chance to supersede politics. Our artist friends from day one wanted to support their new friends. Could we find a way to do that once we normalized relations?

Previous Blogs:

Cuba: Day 4

brandpointyfu

Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.  Day 4 – Tuesday, July 14

By Tuesday we had had some intense experiences and were grateful for a day that was mostly educational. At this point, the Chorus had sung so many formal and informal concerts; they were ready to let their voices rest.

We left our hotel at 8:30 am to travel to Las Terrazas, a rural experience of a sustainable development project in a mountain area located within the Sierra del Rosario biosphere reserve in a newly named province of Artemisa (created when they split the greater Havana area into a new set of provinces).

Signage

Signage

The area’s history is fascinating. Once serving as a coffee plantation, it was decimated after the fall of the Soviet Union took out much-needed resources. The Las Terrazas Community Project was developed to restore the area while providing jobs, and creating a new industry of “eco-tourism” for that part of Cuba.

UNESCO named it a world heritage site in 1985 in acknowledgement of the success of the effort.

We started our day with a presentation on the reserve and its importance as an economic driver for the region. What an exquisite and lush landscape, and what a contrast to Havana!

day 4_1

day 4_1

After a brief bus trip through the reserve, we were fortunate enough to be able to take a brief swim in a sulfur water area. Crossing the footbridge, we got a chance to see why this was a popular eco-tourist hot spot. From a hotel nestled into the trees to smaller and more primitive huts, visitors to the area could swim, zip line or go hiking. Farm animals were raised in nearby houses to provide food for residents and tourists alike. It was stunning!

day 4_2

day 4_2

It turns out that the Gay Men’s Chorus wouldn’t get a complete break, as they gave a mini-concert from a tree-tophutto those swimming with us.

Thea conducting

Thea conducting

After lunch, we visited an area near the old coffee plantation and took in a studio of a local landscape artist. All in all, it was a nice diversion to what had been some deep thinking about Cuba-US relations the days before.

Later that night we would go to a local club and restaurant for dinner (and, of course, some more singing!). As we settled into the evening meal, the club’s local performer came out. This would become a moment when this being a YFU-sponsored trip would come in handy. As the performer entered the dining area, you can see the shock of many of our delegation. While the performer, herself, was black, her exaggerated makeup made her look as if she had come out in “black face.”

We had several African American delegates on our trip, and it created an atmosphere of some confusion. Some in our delegation left the restaurant for the hotel. The next day we were able to discuss with our Cuban guides the history of this type of performance in their country and to learn about some very different connotations. This gave us a chance to talk about YFU’s training called “Colored Glasses,” where we talk to exchange students about seeing a culture not through our own lens but of that of the host country being visited. I was proud of the dialogue and reminded that exchange is challenging even when the two nations don’t have as difficult a past as Cuba and the US. This would not be the first or the last of the culture shock on our trip!

The Day’s Takeaways:

  • Nature is never so far gone that something beautiful cannot emerge from the ashes.

  • Interpreting culture is never easy. We bring so much of our own history and experiences into our travels. It’s not easy but so vital to try to see a people through their own lens as much as we do through that of our own. This is why YFU exists!

Previous Blogs:

Cuba: Day 3

brandpointyfu

Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.  Day 3 – Monday, July 13

Reading about the Cuban Revolution helped me understand some of the positive things this movement brought to the Cuban people. For instance, the nation’s near 98 percent literacy rate combined with their near universal access to health care are laudable attributes for any society. Day 3 of our journey also brought reminders of just how “controlled” Cuba’s system can be.

We started the day with a mandatory visit to the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the People (ICAP). The session, which focused on Cuban/US relations, is a required component of all trips to Cuba by citizens from the US. I had met Kenia Serrano Puig, ICAP’s President, briefly the day before, but didn’t have a strong sense, at that point, of the organization’s mission. Its expressed purpose is to reach out to the international community and form ties of friendship between Cuba and citizens of other countries who are either sympathetic to, or open minded about, Cuba’s post-revolutionary ambitions. We now would have an attendant from ICAP attend most of our concerts and presentations throughout the rest of the week.

Cuba Day 3_1

Cuba Day 3_1

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC would have two performances today: one at the National Library of Cuba, a significant cultural facility for the nation situated very near Revolution Square. The performance itself was held in a lovely intimate theater. Many members of Cuba’s LGBT community came out for the performance, and while the Chorus was “in great voice,” as it was throughout the trip, the real power of this session happened in the question and answer period following the performance. One gentleman jumped up and excitedly said he never thought he’d see the day a gay chorus was performing in the National Library. Another gentleman asked our delegation how it had formed a safe gay community in the United States and what the path might look like to “feeling heard” by one’s government and people. It was a powerful reminder that the yearning for human rights is inherent in people.

Cuba Day 3_2

Cuba Day 3_2

After a brief bus ride, we made our way to Casade la Cultura – or the House of Culture – in Arroyo Naranjo. Sections of each city have Houses of Culture to organize activities for neighborhoods or broader regions. These government-sponsored arts centers organize classes in dance, music, theater, etc. We were met there by several international camera crews. At this point, word of our visit was starting to generate some greater media attention. The House of Culture itself has a courtyard, classroom space and large, sky-blue central gathering/performance space. The electricity was out during much of our visit, which meant the major source or circulated air – fans on the wall – were out of commission. All of the artists – GMCW and the young people who performed for us – were in great spirits as we shared performances as a sign of greeting for one another.

Cuba Day 3_3

Cuba Day 3_3

Our attendant from ICAP led the audience in a song of greeting for us. This would be the first of many such stage-managed moments he would lead, and while our delegation was aware of how differently this was handled in Cuba versus the US, we never doubted the sincerity of warmth of the everyday Cubans called upon to express these moments of welcome.

Audience sings to us

Audience sings to us

Later that evening we would attend a block party organized by a local CDR, or Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. Originally established by Fidel Castro to provide block-by-block monitoring of counter-Revolutionary activities, we were told the modern-day CDR has morphed into units to help organize community festivals, voluntary community projects and organize community attendance at mass rallies. That night, I had a chance to greet residents of the CDR, and our delegation was received with songs by children and performances by adults, including a gifted flutist who was attending the National University of the Arts in Havana.

Cuba Day 3_4

Cuba Day 3_4

Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 11.06.57 AM

Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 11.06.57 AM

We spent a few hours sharing songs and refreshments with the designated CDR, as well as bringing toys and other supplies for the children of the neighborhood. While I think many in our delegation initially struggled with how this neighborhood organization played a role in Cuba, we soon defaulted to a universal truth: governments and people are different. We danced and laughed a great deal that night, and as we boarded our buses for the hotel, thought much less about the differences in our political systems and much more about the commonalities of two peoples seeking peace.

The Day’s Takeaways:

  • All people yearn for community, which can take many different forms depending on culture.

  • The quest to be valued as a person will always find a voice, even when systems or society is not quite ready to hear it.

  • Even if we disagree on how a society is organized, we are wired to want to find a place of unity – even if it’s simply through dancing or sharing a song. Sometimes it just takes us decades to get there.

 **Series will continue on Monday, picking-up with Day 4.

Previous Blogs:

Cuba: Day 2

brandpointyfu

Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.  Day 2 – Sunday, July 12

We tell all YFU students that there is an arch to their exchange experience, with the first days being the “honeymoon” period. You spend so much time planning for and thinking about an exchange experience that you almost can’t believe you’re actually in your destination country. That was certainly my experience on our first full day in Cuba.

We started our very balmy morning with a tour of “Old Havana,” the historic center of the city first built up during the period of colonization from Spain. UNESCO declared this area of town a World Heritage site in 1982, and it was easy to see the reasons. The architectural landscape of Old Havana is a case study in extremes. Recent efforts had some of the historic structures brought back to life while others looked as if one slight touch of a hand could topple them down.

Day 2 Cuba_archetecture

Day 2 Cuba_archetecture

The City Historian’s office has been spearheading a building-by-building renovation of the historic structures. This was also the first moment that the Cuban Revolution and its history struck me. We were told by our incredible guide, Elisio, that a famous visual artist had struck a deal with the early Castro government to spend her own money to renovate a major mansion as long as she could live in it until her death. This was the only deal struck, as we were told, it went against the ideals of the Revolution.

Old Havana, in many ways, encapsulated a history of this nation: from colonization of the Spanish and British to the period when Fulgencio Batista first served as the elected president of Cuba and later held it as a dictator until the Cuban Revolution. You could see the triumphs and the scars etched into the buildings, with each facade telling some part of the story of this remarkable nation.

Day 2 Cuba_Mural, Trumpeter

Day 2 Cuba_Mural, Trumpeter

After lunch, we traveled by bus en route to Casa de La Amistad (House of Friendship), where we would present the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC for their first concert. On our way over, we stopped at one of the Cuban Revolution’s most signature monuments in Revolution Square. The equivalent of our Washington Monument, the square is dominated by a tribute to Jose Marti, a poet and journalist who is seen by many as the “Founding Father” of Cuba. Opposite to that monument is Cuba’s Ministry of Defense, which is emblazoned with the image of Camilo Cienfuegos. Although he officially stepped down as Cuban President in 2008, Castro is omnipresent in Cuba. Speeches refer to him as simply “Fidel,” with a messiah-like connotation. Everyday Cubans we got a chance to speak to believe nothing significant will change in Cuba until after his death. It was a stark reminder of the impact – for better or for worse – that one human being can have on a society. I found it chilling.

Day 2 Cuba_fidel, monument

Day 2 Cuba_fidel, monument

The story of Case de La Amistad is one of love and scandal. For our delegation that day, it was only the former. There we shared a concert with Mariana de Gonitch Chorus, a group of young Cuban artists who had prepared an entire set for us in English. I had a chance to address the crowd, talking about the importance of this trip at this moment in history. Throughout the trip, we had a profound sense of the importance of being in Cuba in this specific week: one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. It would play significantly in our experience. The Mariana de Gonitch Chorus immediately blew us away with their talent and warmth, no more so than when they broke into song with our US National Anthem immediately following a performance of their own. Tears rolled down our delegations’ face, as we knew that singing the US anthem would have been unheard of in year’s past. Throughout the next two hours, we shared songs of our respective countries and ended up singing “We Are the World.” One couldn’t help but wonder if the promise of the lyrics would hold true for the relationship between our two nations after so many years of division.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 1.28.14 PM

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 1.28.14 PM

We tell YFU students that they should take advantage of a country’s iconic culture when visiting. Later that night we concluded our day with a performance by the Buena Vista Social Club at El Tablao de Pancho restaurant. Many of the lead singers of the group have been performing with it since before the Cuban Revolution. I couldn’t help but imagine what they had seen over the past 50 years and what they would hope to see as our two nations tried to find a way back together. We were even invited to share the stage with them.

Day 2 Cuba_BVSC

Day 2 Cuba_BVSC

It is said that art, in its many forms, is the quickest way to the truth. I ended Day 2 wondering what further truths I would find by sharing our music, our struggles and our stories.

Q.A

Q.A

The Day’s Takeaways:

  • Architecture can be one of the most objective storytellers in a country. Battles and triumphs often find a way to etch themselves into buildings in a society.

  • One person has the potential – for better or worse – to forever alter the lives of thousands.

  • Language barriers are surmountable when we share culture from the heart. It’s amazing what hearing one’s own national anthem sung by another people can do to erase feelings of isolation and division.

  • Art and artists are sometimes the best ambassadors. Sharing culture through song, even if you don’t understand the meaning of the lyrics, finds a way to stretch out a hand to another human being.

Previous Blogs:

Cuba: Day 1

brandpointyfu

Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU's first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.  Day 1 – Saturday, July 11

90 miles. As a former resident of western New York state, I would drive 90 miles regularly to get from my home in Olean to Buffalo to fly out of the airport or to take in a show. That amount of mileage for anyone who has ever lived in a rural area is as common as being stuck on the Beltway for two hours in Washington, DC.

But 90 miles had a much larger significance for me as I woke up at Miami International Airport Hotel at 3 a.m. with 20-plus delegates from Youth For Understanding and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC who were headed to Havana, Cuba – 90 miles away. We would be in the air only about half an hour, far shorter than the four hours it took to get through all the paperwork and logistics of our charter flight to the capital city of Cuba.

cuba airport

cuba airport

The first sign that this was not a normal airline trip came through the many hours of prepping to simply board the plane. While some travel restrictions have been lifted, you can still only take charter flights to Cuba from the United States. It gave a sense of anticipation to the beginning of our journey, and, if I’m being honest, heightened my expectation for what I might see when I arrived. For more than 50 years, the US embargo of Cuba had created an invisible fence between two neighbors. I couldn’t help but wonder what existed on the other side of a policy-created wall and whether it would live up to the reporting we see in the United States media. The guys from the Chorus decided to whittle away some of the time by singing an impromptu performance at the airport. Their roles as musical ambassadors had already begun.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 10.19.18 AM

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 10.19.18 AM

I had the great luxury of sitting with Dr. Thea Kano, GMCW’s Artistic Director, on the plane ride over. YFU and GMCW share a common element to our missions: both organizations believe that when we open up our hearts and minds to the “other,” something transformative can happen. For YFU, this trip wasn’t a political statement: it was a chance to live deeply our mission: bringing people who did not understand one another closer together. I have seen the impact of people to people exchanges so many times at YFU. This trip had the potential to really move the needle for those that participated.

We had been planning this trip together for months. To sit on the plane at this moment was somewhat surreal. About a half hour in, Cuba came into focus through our plane window.

Approaching Cuba

Approaching Cuba

Landing in Havana was an experience in contrasts. To look out our window on the tarmac and to see an American Airlines plane, reminded me that much of the rest of the world has no restrictions on coming to Cuba. To have a jet titled “American” smacked of irony. Getting our bags reminded me of the impact of the embargo and the recent loosening of restrictions. Mixed among our bags were medical supplies, wheelchairs and electronics, all neatly wrapped in plastic blue bubbles.

Airport Cuba 2

Airport Cuba 2

Alex Lopez, YFU’s Travel Director and a native Cuban, was the architect of our trip. I would later come to realize the profound role Alex has played over 40 years in trying to bring the Cuban and US people together. He greeted us at the airport and got us settled into buses for the ride to the hotel, where we were supposed to receive an arrival orientation. It was a lot of fun to travel in the shoes of exchange students who go through a similar journey: pre-departure and arrival orientations, all administered through folks at YFU. We were living a sliver of their experience.

We would stop at a park and for lunch before getting to the hotel. So much of Cuba is trapped in a time warp. The park, full of children and a few adults, were playing tug to loud, thumping music and seemed more than a little curious about two busloads of Americans who had invaded their summer-time fun.

Tug

Tug

It was, in effect, a cultural “stare off.” Two peoples who have been kept apart for so long. And here we were. What else would the trip hold?

We had lunch at El Tocororo Restaurant, housed in a former mansion in the Miramar section of the city. An eclectic space, it has been frequented by artists, writers and other cultural leaders. The walls were adorned with corkboards ascribed with the names of famous guests. We were invited to add our delegation to the wall, drawing our shared symbol of the merger of both of our flags with the rainbow/pride heart. It would be nice to think our presence will be a part of the place for a while.

Signage

Signage

As I mentioned in my previous blog, we were greeted at the hotel by both the United States and Pride flags. The hotels are government-run in Cuba, which made the gesture seem that much bigger.

Later in the evening we headed to Paladar La California for dinner. The leaders of our delegation were privileged to share an intimate dinner with Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the Charge d’Affaires at the now US Embassy in Cuba (it was still the US Interests Section when we were there). It was fascinating to hear Ambassador DeLaurentis describe this time of transition in diplomatic relations. This was his third stint at Cuba. I asked him why he kept coming back (other than being assigned, of course!), and he said he has always believed there was a way through the political standoff, and he wanted to be help if could. He seems cautiously hopeful. “Hope” would be a theme for our trip.

Ambassador

Ambassador

We spent two hours at the restaurant before heading back before a very long day two. The Ambassador inquired about the music we would be bringing to Cuba. Our delegation was more than happy to oblige his curiosity with what was an anthem for our trip: “Make Them Hear You.”

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 11.19.42 AM

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 11.19.42 AM

Would we actually “hear” one another on this trip? We weren’t sure, but the early clues of day one made me curious to find out.

The Day’s Takeaways:

  • A short distance can be a huge hurdle when mistrust, stereotypes and a lack of real-life information stand in one’s way.

  • The human need to help another cannot be embargoed. Watching medical supplies show up in the baggage claim reminded me that political policies have a truly human impact.

  • The joy of children playing tug in the summer knows no international boundaries. If we can find a way to capture that innocence and curiosity of “the other,” we have a shot at deeper understanding.

  • If there is a hope, there is a chance at peace.

Previous Blogs:

Flags Are Powerful Symbols

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A note from YFU USA President & CEO Michael E. HillToday, the Cuban and US flags will be raised over their respective outposts in each country’s capital, marking the transition from having “interests sections” to full diplomatic embassies.

Cuba Flags

Cuba Flags

Just last week, I was privileged to join a US delegation of Youth For Understandingand Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC participants on a weeklong visit to Cuba. Our seven days in and around Havana were packed with educational, cultural and deeply meaningful encounters. I’ll be writing about my experiences all week but wanted to share one image on the day that flags will fly as a symbol of hope and promise here in Washington, DC and in Havana. 

This trip marked firsts for both YFU and GMCW. For YFU, it was our first adult study tour in our nearly 65-year history. For GMCW, it was a historic invitation to be the first openly gay choral group to be invited to sing on the island. For both organizations, however, it signified something much deeper: an opportunity to break down barriers while raising intercultural understanding about LGBTQ and human rights through song and deep personal engagement.

When we arrived at our hotel – which was government run, as all hotels are in Cuba – we were greeted by a rainbow/pride flag – the sign of LGBTQ people – flying alongside the US flag. We were told it was the first time a Pride Flag had ever been flown at a government building in Cuba. To say we were floored by its presence would be an understatement, as there are actually very few Pride Flags even available in Cuba outside of their “International Day Against Homophobia.”

Flags are powerful symbols. So, too, are people who reach a hand out to one another after 50 years of bitter disagreement. I look forward to sharing my thoughts throughout the week, but find myself thinking today of a journey our Founder, Dr. Rachel Andresen, took to South Africa at a time when that country was going through renewed diplomatic relations. Ironically, she, too, took a chorus – the YFU Chorale – to spread a message of hope, love and intercultural understanding.

May our respective flags serve as a reminder that people engaging with one another’s cultures have a shot at changing the world for the better.

Two Years of Discovering the “Goodness”

brandpointyfu

A note from YFU USA President & CEO Michael E. HillReflections on his two year YFU work anniversary 

Today marks two years since beginning my tenure as President & CEO of YFU USA. It is incredible to think that 730 days have passed already. I have been reflecting a great deal on this time with a dear friend visiting from Sweden –- one of the best parts of working at YFU is that you create friendships around the world! And while there are many memories I could share from my own two years at the helm of YFU, I think it’s more fun to think about these two years in the arch of the entire history of the organization, a history that spans close to 65 years.

YFU’s Founder, Dr. Rachel Andresen, in many ways was an accidental leader. She couldn’t possibly have known what she was getting herself into in 1951 when she was asked to coordinate the effort of bringing 70+ German young people to the United States in the aftermath of World War II. Her earliest writings tell of her great trepidation at being responsible for these young people. Her later writings, however, show a deep appreciation for the outcome of our program. She moves from talking about the logistics of exchanges to seeing the bigger picture: through the conduit of exchange, these young people would gain the skills necessary to change the world.

David Gergen, Professor of Public Service and Co-Director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, recently wrote an essay for the World Economic Forum’s compendium “Outlook on the Global Agenda 2015.” In his reflection, “A Call to Lead,” Gergen argues that leaders today must have a global perspective if they are to serve the greater good. “From the US to Europe and Asia, there’s an agreement that having a global perspective is the number one skill for any strong leader in 2015,” he writes. “Collaboration emerges as another key trait … while communication was a strong contender.”

YFU provides the perfect prescription for Gergen’s search for leaders in today’s society. Over the past two years, I have seen firsthand how a YFU program transforms participants from a resident of one nation into a global citizen. YFU participants leave their home cultures and are immersed in “the other.” Through the work of host families and volunteers, they discover the goodness of people from another land, experiencing the ultimate reality check in a world too often viewed through stereotypes. They have to work within new communities to be active members of their schools and new homes, and they must learn how to effectively communicate – in another language! – to break down barriers that could prevent a successful exchange year. And when they go home, they bring those new tools with them.

In the past couple of years, we have ramped up our alumni outreach. It’s incredibly uplifting to talk to YFU alumni, who credit the program with setting them on a path to be leaders in government, business, nonprofits or even in their families. All of our alumni credit YFU, in big and small ways, with changing the course of their lives while giving them advanced skills to use later as adults.

While YFU was founded amidst the ashes of war, our impact today can be even greater.

Gergen writes, “We need moral, effective leadership, collaborating and communicating across boundaries – business, non-profits and political leaders all have a role to play.” And so does YFU – perhaps now more than ever.

Thank you for a great first two years. I look forward to being a part of this movement for many more.

MEH Collage

MEH Collage

Two Countries One Home – Welcome to the United States

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A note from YFU USA President & CEO Michael HillThis is one of my favorite times each year: the time when we get ready to receive the list of students who want to come on exchange to the United States through a YFU program. At YFU USA, we are the proud recipients of close to 2,000 students each year, who come from more than 50 countries and who express hundreds of cultures.

MEH Selfie

MEH Selfie

While many of those students have already signed up to make the world their home, there is still time to take this adventure of a lifetime! Why might you want to do that?

The world is becoming an increasingly connected place, and your future success will depend on your ability to adapt to the world and its various peoples. Coming to the US will give you a chance to experience a typical American home, to make new friendships that will last a lifetime, and to experience up close what makes the US such a special place. But you’ll also have a chance to share your culture. In YFU communities across the nation, we have host families and schools who are interested in learning from you.

One of the great things I get to do as President of YFU USA is talk to students before, during and after their program. Here’s some of what I hear from those who came here on exchange:

  • It changed my life and gave me a second family and group of friends. I will never see myself just as a citizen of my own country again; I now belong to two cultures and two nations.

  • When I got ready to apply to college, my exchange year set me apart from others. Not only did the colleges and universities know that I could handle anything that came my way, they knew I had already proven I had the curiosity and drive to succeed.

  • I still keep in touch with my host family. They visit me, and I still visit them. The world is truly my home now.

MEH student collage

MEH student collage

There are a ton of reasons to consider a year with us in the United Sates. Whatever your reason, know that we’re ready to help you take this adventure of a lifetime. We can’t wait to say, “Welcome to the United States!”

Very truly yours,

Michael E. HillPresident & CEOYFU USA

Celebrating International Education Week

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IEW Collage

IEW Collage

A note from YFU USA President & CEO Michael HillDear Friends, I’m thrilled to be writing you as we enter the 15th annual International Education Week (IEW). Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and the Department of Education, IEW provides an opportunity to celebrate the benefits of international education and exchange worldwide.

Students who participate in exchanges increase their communication skills, grow in self-confidence, expand their foreign language proficiency, and foster greater tolerance and international awareness. Here at YFU, we continue to support people of all ages to take advantage of these life-changing opportunities that not only open minds and hearts, but also help to make us citizens of one world.

At YFU, we see these stories come to life every year. Take a look at YFU YES student Abasse from Senegal who celebrated IEW last year by sharing information about his home country with a class of 70 elementary students. Word is the students were so curious and full of questions that they had to limit them to one per student! He even came back and made a traditional African dish for a 2nd grade food and nutrition class.

Then, there’s Farjana from Bangladesh, who during her exchange not only made regular classroom presentations to share her culture but also taught her friends how to write their names in her native bangla and prepared traditional dishes for her host family.

Our US students are making impressions abroad, too. Dominique from Richland, WA, has been keeping friends and family back home up-to-date with blog posts about her adventures as a student in Ecuador. She even came up with a fun educational project to improve her own language skills by drawing various items, labeling them in Spanish, and then having her classmates label them in English; providing a joint learning opportunity.

These stories are just a few of the hundreds that exist, highlighting how curiosity about the world expands cultural awareness and acceptance of other ways to live, which in turn leads to broader perspective and greater understanding. Our students become teachers while on program, educating host parents, schools, and entire communities, modeling and explaining their indigenous cultures. It’s amazing to think about how these young people are shaping our world … and their own!

Happy International Education Week, and thank you for joining us in being catalysts for positive global change.

Time Flies When You’re Having Fun

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A note from YFU USA President, Michael HillSometimes old adages are true! Today marks my one-year anniversary as YFU USA’s President & CEO, and it’s been an incredible 365 days!

It’s hard to believe that I showed up last year in the middle of our placement cycle, the time of our program year where we place close to 2,000 young people from around the globe. My earliest days were spent learning their stories, seeing in them a desire and a dream to experience an exchange year in the US and knowing we had a lot of work to do to get them here. Thankfully, they made it, and they – and I – have had an incredible journey together.

That’s one of the best parts of YFU: you get to see the world through the eyes of young people who want to participate as global citizens. They come here and many others leave FROM here because they know that life is bigger than their own communities. What happens on that program year will forever change them. Many return to their countries with a whole new world view and a desire to bridge differences. All of them go home with a greater understanding that the world is not quite as big as they thought when they left. And, if we do this right, they create enduring friendships that will last a lifetime.

My program year has had me meet hundreds of our incredible volunteers, staff across the country, international partners around the globe and having the chance to ask big questions about the future of exchange.

So as my second June rolls around, I cannot help but find myself reflecting about the students that will head home, excited about the new class that will soon arrive and ever-grateful for the many people who made this inaugural year as President so rich and rewarding.

Thank you all so much for taking this journey with me. Onward!

Thank You Volunteers!

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A Note to Our Volunteers from YFU USA President, Michael HillIt is often said that YFU simply would not exist without volunteers, and a truer statement could not have been penned. As you may know, I have been traveling to visit other YFU organizations around the globe. I’m always struck by the commitment and passion of volunteers worldwide. Most often, we are met by a volunteer at the airport holding a YFU sign, a simple task with a profound welcome that I know many have undertaken throughout the years.

And while I’m excited to talk about volunteers throughout the global network, I’m particularly interested in sharing a new statistic just released by Independent Sector (IS), a non-profit representing non-profit leaders and philanthropists in this country. IS recently announced the 2013 estimates for the value of a volunteer hour at $22.55, a 41-cent increase from 2012, nearly a 2 percent increase from the previous statistics. If you’re interested in reading the full report or seeing specific figures for your state, you can visit the report here.

If we estimate that we have 1,200 volunteers (the number changes depending on our season), and if each volunteer works even five hours a week (and we know many of our volunteers work much more), the total monetary value of YFU volunteers would reach close to $8 million each year!

This value of volunteer time is just one way to measure the impact of the more than 1,000 YFU USA volunteers each year. The report’s release is particularly poignant as we celebrate National Volunteer Week (April 6-13, 2014). This is the 40thanniversary of this very special celebration and one that I look forward to mark with our volunteers every year.

So as we celebrate National Volunteer Week, I want to thank all our volunteers for the tremendous work that 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 me as I head toward my one-anniversary as YFU’s President & CEO. 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.

Happy National Volunteer Week to you all, and thanks for all you do for YFU!

volunteerWeek2014

volunteerWeek2014

Happy Founder's Day

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Rachel Andresen

Rachel Andresen

A note from YFU USA President, Michael HillIsaac Newton, the great physicist and astronomer, said, "If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

This week at YFU, we celebrate Founders’ Week, honoring most significantly the work of Dr. Rachel Andresen, YFU’s Founder and longtime Executive Director. Shortly after I was appointed President & CEO of YFU USA, I stopped by the physical office that I would occupy. My predecessor had left me a file with Dr. Andresen’s written memoirs, which I took for some reading materials to prepare for my new assignment. The modern novel has nothing on the heroics found in the novel of Dr. Andresen’s life. In those pages were stories of determination, compassion, a great love for students and all the traditional “stuff” that goes with being a non-profit CEO: worrying about where the money would come from to continue offering programs, issues with staff and boards … and the list goes on and on.

As my colleagues and I work to ensure that that the next 60 years of YFU’s life is as robust as its first, I so often think of the stories of the pages from Dr. Andresen’s life. The parallels are uncanny. She welcomed a group of German students after World War II to try to ensure a more peaceful world. We welcome young people from countries where our government struggles politically today. Both times the desire outcome was the same, and in both cases, our students left changed. Dr. Andresen talks about caring volunteers who ensured that young people on exchange had a transformative experience. Our 1,200-plus volunteers in the US still carry on that legacy with the same determination, grit and tenacity of their forebearers. In her days, schools were sometimes reluctant to open their doors to a temporary visitor, and like today, they did, and their communities were richer for it.

Dr. Andresen had a deep passion for this work, and because of it, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. One of my favorite quotes from her says,

“Youth For Understanding is built on faith, hope for the future and love as deep and abiding as life itself. To be a part of it brings out the best in all of us. Each of us who has shared the magic of its being has contributed something bigger than we are.”

Those words are still true today. As we attempt to carry on the legacy of our Founder, let me offer some simple words of my own in her honor: "We change the world when we change... One person at a time.” Dr. Andresen, thank you for changing our world for the better. We celebrate you most by carrying on your mission, and I personally thank all of you joining us in this mission.

Join us in celebrating Founder's Day and commemorating Rachel's birthday by making a gift in her honor to YFU. Support Rachel's legacy of youth exchange and intercultural understanding.

YFU - In the Spirit of the Games

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A note from YFU USA President, Michael HillToday, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, will capture the time and imaginations of viewers worldwide. While the media has focused a great deal around issues of human rights and safety in the lead-up to these games, I can't help but think of the parallels between the Olympic movement and the goals and aspirations of international exchange. The Olympics aim to create peace and understanding by bringing people from different cultures and backgrounds together for sporting events. Emphasizing what is common and good among our cultures, the Olympics themselves attempt to break down walls through friendly competition while preserving pride for one's place of origin.

Our work in international exchange sets its eyes on this prize, as well. Every time we send a YFU student to another nation for a semester or a year, we are asking them to bring the best of their culture and be open to learning about the best of other cultures. Our students are on an endurance race of high emotions with great payoff, and success will set them on a dynamic path for the rest of their lives.

So as you gather around televisions to watch the 2014 Olympics — or if you're lucky enough to watch in person — let's use the games as a shared celebration of trying to understand one another a bit better. Truly, in this way, perhaps we can shrink the globe for a time, just as YFU students do year round.

Farewell 2013. Hello 2014!

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A note from YFU USA President, Michael HillAs we come to the end of one year and welcome another: I wanted to share my thanks with you; our students, supporters, host families, volunteers, alumni and partners for your continued dedication, courage and enthusiasm for YFU.

2013 will always hold a special place in my memories as the year I was first welcomed into the YFU family. This has been a year of transition, planning and excitement, and while I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, I do want to let you know that we’ve listened and 2014 is going to be a great year for YFU! Stay tuned for more details in future blog posts.

As I leave my first calendar year as YFU’s President & CEO, I look forward to a 2014 that continues to provide transformative life experiences and celebrates our unique and varied perspectives. YFU’s success is your success, and we wouldn’t be where we are without each and every one of you.

Do you have a favorite YFU memory from 2013? Share it with us (I love reading them as does our entire team)! I am ever-grateful and proud to lead this vibrant organization.

Wishing you and yours a very Happy New Year.

Michael Hill & Rabia

Michael Hill & Rabia

YFU President & CEO, Michael Hill and Rabia at YES Scholar orientation in Washington, DC.