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YFU Blog - Recent stories about Youth for Understanding

Filtering by Tag: Rachel Andresen

What Youth For Understanding Means to Me

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Archived letter from YFU Founder & Nobel Peace Prize Nominee, Dr. Rachel Andresen

Youth For Understanding is a dream come true. It is as strong as steel, as delicate as the moonbeam, as fragile as a butterfly wing, and as illusive as a will-of-the-wisp.

It’s built on faith, on hope for the future and love as deep as abiding as life itself.

To be 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.

We have learned to love and be loved, to trust and be trusted, to open our homes and our hearts to all people, everywhere.

Youth For Understanding has been like my own baby. I came to an early realization that here was a people-oriented program with an identity of its own, with tremendous possibilities for developing understanding with an ultimate goal of world peace, given to me to guide and direct through its formative years.

Why me? I will never know. I do know that I was given strength, courage and leadership to create and develop Youth For Understanding. I did not do it alone. There are people by the thousand who have given of themselves to make this dream come true. It became their dream, too.

I want to say “thank you” to students, to host families, to our school principals, superintendents, school counselors and teachers, to community leaders, to churches for their undergirding of the program and the network of staff and volunteers throughout the world.

My own private purpose has been to get the job done and to see that everyone involved grew in the process. Thank you again.

I love you.

-Rachel Andresen

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Lifetime YFU Friendships

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At first, we were just exchange students…

Jeanne and Laurie were both exchange students from Michigan, the original heart of YFU. Jeanne went from the cornfields of central Michigan to the vineyards of southern France in 1982-83, learning to ski in the Alps. Laurie stretched her mother’s apron strings – but only for a summer – to the far north of Norway in 1982. When Laurie was invited to be on an alumni panel at a volunteer training weekend in the fall of 1983, Rachel Andresen told the regional director “That girl needs to go again!” – and so she did, as a gap year student to Uruguay in 1984-85.

Both of us felt our exchange experiences were the most amazing (and educational!) experiences we’d ever had, but little did we know we would still be involved over 30 years later, or the tremendous friendships we would develop over the years, not only with each other, but many others as well.

And then we were invited to events….

In the 1980s, YFU had an amazing Regional Director in Michigan named Diana Follebout. She believed that the exchange experience doesn’t end when a student arrives back home, but it is part of them forever. She also believed that young YFU alumni can (and should) be part of the volunteer base. She starting having Jeanne (and then Laurie) attend events, putting them to work in the regional office and Pre-Departure orientations.

And then we were volunteers….

Somewhere along the way, we were both became full-fledged volunteers; Jeanne was the first Alumni Coordinator for Michigan, organizing social events, fundraisers and orientations. We kept running into each other at events, and even though we went to rival universities, we hit it off. Soon Jeanne had dragooned Laurie into almost everything, and the two of us were quite a pair! Our YFU volunteering was an important part of our college experience, and the camaraderie that developed amongst our alumni group was like our own fraternity. We went on ski weekends together, did fundraisers for American YFU students, did presentations, and organized and conducted American student Pre-Departures and Homecoming orientations. When Jeanne moved to Illinois to work for the YFU Regional Office there, Laurie took over as the Alumni Coordinator.

And then we were friends….

The connections we developed during those college years – working together to achieve goals and laughing along the way – have kept our friendship strong, even though we haven’t lived in the same state for over 25 years.  When Jeanne was married, Laurie was one of the bridesmaids, and when Laurie (finally!) recently got married, Jeanne was right there to help her celebrate. When Jeanne moved to Illinois and Laurie went in the Army, we didn’t connect as often as we had, but when Jeanne called Laurie to tell her about the National Alumni Council that was being formed, we picked right up where we had left off. Remember, this was before cell phones or email were common, and so YFU has helped us stay connected as friends. It unites us and gives us common ground, even though we are now so deeply connected that we are friends in all aspects of our lives.

Laurie on the left, Jeanne on the right

Laurie on the left, Jeanne on the right

And there’s always YFU…

Why do we stay involved? What motivates us to continue working with exchange students? For both of us, we especially enjoy working with volunteers, particularly young alumni, who are working with exchange students or promoting the exchange experience. We have gotten to do so many wonderful things in YFU, for YFU, for students, that we love to see it when others can have similar experiences. The development of the National Pre-Departure Orientation a few years ago has been a dream come true for us.  Not only do we get to spend three days providing year and semester American students with skills and knowledge to help them have the best year of their lives, but we are also training the next generation of volunteers. We feel it is our turn to encourage and coach young alumni who will take our place, never forgetting the faith and hope that Diana Follebout once had in us.

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.

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.

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Dr. 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

Original 1986 interview with YFU Founder Dr. Rachel Andresen

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.