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Filtering by Tag: The Light

The Summer of 66

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Written by YFU Alum Alicia Pond for The Light

“If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That’s the best I can manage.”  -- Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

 AliciaPondProfile

I had been on an airplane only once before the departure of the 50 member, 1966 YFU Chorale to Latin America. During the 60’s, air travel was out of  reach for most people. No shorts or pajama bottoms on board; flying was so noteworthy you dressed in your best. There were no check-in lines, TSA agents, wands, x-rays, or limits on your luggage.

In order to reach the first city of our tour, Santiago, Chile, our flight itinerary started in Detroit and included stops in New York, Trinidad, Buenos Aires, Cordoba, Mendoza, and finally Santiago. There were many unforgettable experiences en route, like the lay-over in New York’s Eero Saarinen-designed TWA terminal – a dramatic, curvaceous and futuristic structure. Saarinen himself described it as “a building in which the architecture itself would express the drama and specialness and excitement of travel.” Another memory was the amazingly “sympatico” Argentine pilots who invited us to visit them, one by one, in the cockpit for a tour. Those were innocent times.

The most unsettling memory was the pilot’s announcement that there had been a military coup in Argentina while we were in the air. Neither the airline crew nor our group of parochial Michigan teens knew exactly what to expect when we landed in Buenos Aires. At the bottom of the stairs we filed off the plane and were met by a gauntlet of soldiers with rifles and bayonet tips. After gawking at our armed “hosts,” we were allowed to continue on to Santiago.

The Andes had me transfixed when we traveled to Sewell – a copper mining town no longer inhabited but is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We were at an altitude of almost 8,000 feet, a dizzying statistic for Midwest flatlanders. It seemed as though I was standing on top of the world surrounded by jagged, snow covered peaks– in June!

I recall a concert in the coastal town of Valdivia because only six years prior, Valdivia had suffered from the world’s worst recorded earthquake (a magnitude 9.5) and rubble was still visible. I was interviewed in Valdivia by the local press about the Chorale and my photo appeared on the front page equal in size to that of Salvador Allende, President of the Chilean Senate and soon to be elected President of Chile.

We went on to sing in Uruguay. In a suburb of Montevideo, I stayed with a family who had a teenage son who remained my pen-pal for years. My family here wanted to gift me with a custom-made suede ladies’ suit (fine leather products were a source of pride to Uruguayans). They took me to a dressmaking shop where I was given a pile of fashion magazines and told that I need only select a style I liked from the magazine and it would be recreated for me in just two days. I was rather flustered when I had to strip down to my slip in front of the male tailor, but was further mortified as the entire family joined me in the fitting room. Standards of behavior in the US were rather different in 1966.

 Pond in Guatemala on a medical mission earlier this year

Our final stop was Rio. The friendship I developed with my host family has turned out to be one of the most consequential and durable of my life. So much of that stay in Rio de Janeiro is seared into my mind, so many firsts and so many lasting impressions. Forty-nine years later, we Skype frequently, my husband and I are godparents to one of my host-sister’s sons, we visit each other frequently and I consider myself to have one of the best Brazilian music collections in the Midwest!

It’s not as though the music-making and the Chorale did not leave wonderful impressions, but getting out of my comfort zone, opening myself to all that was new and different during those nine weeks, led to enduring friendships, heightened insights and new paths in life. It made me the person who has built homes in Tajikistan, performed election work in the Ukraine, Macedonia, Kazakhstan, Kosovo and Russia; visited Bhutan, India, New Zealand, Botswana, Japan and more. There is no doubt much of what is “me” can be traced to the experiences from the summer of ’66.

Many Chorale items have been donated to and are now archived with the Library of Michigan. To search the archives, go here. If you have stories, journals, pictures you would like to share, please contact John Favazzo directly at jfavazzo@yfu.org.

A Remarkable Gift

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It was bitterly cold while walking to school that morning and even the snow seemed to protest as it made a nasty, crunchy noise with each step I took. I was a junior in high school and, while sitting in my French class, I day-dreamed of being in France and speaking French instead of freezing in northern Michigan while studying French. Quickly dismissing my brief flight of fancy, I went back to conjugating verbs.

In study hall later that day, I saw a magazine ad for Youth For Understanding offering an application form for a study abroad exchange program. Even though my family was of very modest means and no one had been further than 100 miles from home, I responded, not knowing how my life was about to be changed forever.

I completed the application and got accepted for placement in France. I then had to tell my parents, gain their support and figure out how to pay for the program. When I approached them and explained I’d been accepted into a study abroad program in France, they were dumbfounded. “Why do you always have to do things nobody else in this town has done,” my father wanted to know, adding, “You’ll miss the football season.” Slowly, I wore them down (as all strong-willed children can do) and got my way. I emptied my savings, relatives gave me gifts of money and my parents finally agreed to provide the financial help they were able to while opening our home to my French brother. Before I knew what had happened, I was stepping off an airplane in France and was being greeted by my host father and brother.

Although the entire experience was great, it was also filled with loads of challenges that made it absolutely perfect. My French mother wasn’t a fan of America and let me know it every day. I learned to smile nicely and nod in understanding. My French father made me read the newspaper to him each night, explain what I’d just read by using words different than those in the newspaper and, each time I made a mistake, he’d tap my knuckles with a ruler, just like the Catholic nuns must have done to him. I responded by working harder, getting better and got tapped less.

The first weekend I was there, the family took me for a ride to Villefranche. While walking through a shop, the camera which I’d had carelessly slung over my shoulder, knocked over a display of expensive glassware, which I had to pay for using up every penny of spending money I had to my name. I had to start doing small odd jobs for neighbors for cash.

Food in the home was also a challenge. For breakfast, my host family ate a very small Petite Dejeuner consisting of a small croissant and a quick cup of very strong coffee. Their favorite lunch (served beautifully and frequently) was a mound of raw ground horsemeat with a couple of raw eggs resting atop it and a salad of crisp greens. No matter how much Worcestershire Sauce I drowned my serving of Cheval in, forcing it down my throat was never easy. I learned how to hide most of what was left on my plate under a few lettuce leaves, offering to clear the table and scrape the plates. I quickly figured out where I could buy really good French street food inexpensively.

The YFU program, back when I was Junior in high school, was the single most formative experience in my life. After losing almost all my spending money I really learned how to stretch a franc. I began to understand that the US makes up less than 5% of the world’s population and that 95% of the world sees many things differently than we do. That one side/my side isn’t always right. I’d had two years of high school French and could hardly speak the language but, upon my arrival, I had no choice but to start cobbling nouns and verbs together in order to be understood.

My YFU program provided me a foundation of thrift, resourcefulness and resilience. It was the start of an inclusive world view, the ability to communicate with others, a fierce sense of self-reliance when confronted with challenging circumstances and aroused in me a curious mind that has taken me to more than 100 countries and cultures. The gift of experiencing and living in another culture and language proved to be priceless for me. That’s why YFU is an integral part of our family’s estate plan and why I’d urge all alumni to consider doing the same. Participation in YFU is a lifelong gift that should be repaid. For the record: I still don’t like raw horsemeat.

jason-14A-preview

Jason Jennings is a New York Times bestselling author of eight books on leadership and business, USA TODAY has called him, “one of the three most in-demand business speakers in the world,” and he and his partner have visited more than 100 countries around the world. They continue to travel to new places and study new languages. He can be reached at Jason@jason-jennings.com. 

Consider remembering YFU in your estate planning. Contact Director of Development, Rebecca Rorke, at rrorke@yfu.org.

The Summer of 66

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Written by YFU Alum Alicia Pond for The Light

“If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That’s the best I can manage.”  -- Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

AliciaPondProfileI had been on an airplane only once before the departure of the 50 member, 1966 YFU Chorale to Latin America. During the 60’s, air travel was out of  reach for most people. No shorts or pajama bottoms on board; flying was so noteworthy you dressed in your best. There were no check-in lines, TSA agents, wands, x-rays, or limits on your luggage.

In order to reach the first city of our tour, Santiago, Chile, our flight itinerary started in Detroit and included stops in New York, Trinidad, Buenos Aires, Cordoba, Mendoza, and finally Santiago. There were many unforgettable experiences en route, like the lay-over in New York’s Eero Saarinen-designed TWA terminal – a dramatic, curvaceous and futuristic structure. Saarinen himself described it as “a building in which the architecture itself would express the drama and specialness and excitement of travel.” Another memory was the amazingly “sympatico” Argentine pilots who invited us to visit them, one by one, in the cockpit for a tour. Those were innocent times.

The most unsettling memory was the pilot’s announcement that there had been a military coup in Argentina while we were in the air. Neither the airline crew nor our group of parochial Michigan teens knew exactly what to expect when we landed in Buenos Aires. At the bottom of the stairs we filed off the plane and were met by a gauntlet of soldiers with rifles and bayonet tips. After gawking at our armed “hosts,” we were allowed to continue on to Santiago.

The Andes had me transfixed when we traveled to Sewell – a copper mining town no longer inhabited but is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We were at an altitude of almost 8,000 feet, a dizzying statistic for Midwest flatlanders. It seemed as though I was standing on top of the world surrounded by jagged, snow covered peaks– in June!

I recall a concert in the coastal town of Valdivia because only six years prior, Valdivia had suffered from the world’s worst recorded earthquake (a magnitude 9.5) and rubble was still visible. I was interviewed in Valdivia by the local press about the Chorale and my photo appeared on the front page equal in size to that of Salvador Allende, President of the Chilean Senate and soon to be elected President of Chile.

We went on to sing in Uruguay. In a suburb of Montevideo, I stayed with a family who had a teenage son who remained my pen-pal for years. My family here wanted to gift me with a custom-made suede ladies’ suit (fine leather products were a source of pride to Uruguayans). They took me to a dressmaking shop where I was given a pile of fashion magazines and told that I need only select a style I liked from the magazine and it would be recreated for me in just two days. I was rather flustered when I had to strip down to my slip in front of the male tailor, but was further mortified as the entire family joined me in the fitting room. Standards of behavior in the US were rather different in 1966.

Pond in Guatemala on a medical mission earlier this year

Our final stop was Rio. The friendship I developed with my host family has turned out to be one of the most consequential and durable of my life. So much of that stay in Rio de Janeiro is seared into my mind, so many firsts and so many lasting impressions. Forty-nine years later, we Skype frequently, my husband and I are godparents to one of my host-sister’s sons, we visit each other frequently and I consider myself to have one of the best Brazilian music collections in the Midwest!

It’s not as though the music-making and the Chorale did not leave wonderful impressions, but getting out of my comfort zone, opening myself to all that was new and different during those nine weeks, led to enduring friendships, heightened insights and new paths in life. It made me the person who has built homes in Tajikistan, performed election work in the Ukraine, Macedonia, Kazakhstan, Kosovo and Russia; visited Bhutan, India, New Zealand, Botswana, Japan and more. There is no doubt much of what is “me” can be traced to the experiences from the summer of ’66.

Many Chorale items have been donated to and are now archived with the Library of Michigan. To search the archives, go here. If you have stories, journals, pictures you would like to share, please contact John Favazzo directly at jfavazzo@yfu.org.

YFU for Life: The Vintage Magical Tour 2015

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In September, YFU USA will be welcoming ten alumni from Argentina who completed exchanges to the U.S. in 1971. The group will be recreating their steps, visiting the high schools they attended nearly 45 years ago and speaking to students and community members about the impact their exchange experience had on their lives.

Juan Carlos De MarcoTour Coordinator Juan Carlos De Marco stated, “We all feel great appreciation for the program that changed our lives so many years ago.” He continued, “We gathered in Buenos Aires three years ago to celebrate our 40th anniversary where we enjoyed reviving the memories of our exchange. This is when the idea of returning began – we still felt very useful and mobile, and thought ‘why not give back to YFU and contribute to universal understanding?’”

They are calling themselves the YFU Vintage Magical Tour and plan to rent a 15-passenger van to travel together from school to school throughout Michigan and Northern Ohio. The group hopes to expose students to the benefits of intercultural exchange. De Marcos said, “We are grounded in our own experience.  After almost 45 years, not only have we maintained life-long connections with each other, we are totally and absolutely convinced that the experience was perhaps the most important of our lives.” He continued, “This is not a tourist trip – we are convinced that increased understanding between youth is the basis of a better world.”

Meet the other members of the YFU Vintage Magical Tour and learn why they are excited to return after so many years!

Graciela Szczesny Graciela Szczesny “In my teens, I always dreamed of being a traveler, to be open to explore other cultures more deeply.  YFU helped me realize this dream – the experience has marked my life forever, encouraging personal and spiritual growth. Now, I would like to express my heartfelt appreciation with students who are considering the amazing journey of intercultural exchange.”

Fernando RovettaFernando Rovetta Klyver “In 1971, I went from an all-boys school of 600 in Tucumán to a public school in Denby, MI of 3,500 students. Going on exchange exposed me to another culture and helped me value equality despite the differences of sex, race, language and religion. I hope that our return will strengthen ties across nations and the exchange of ideas, working toward a greater goal of ensuring human rights and peace.”

Maria Cecilia TorresMaría Cecilia Torres “Just a teenager, only 15 years old, I landed in Michigan - too cold, too much snow, frozen lakes – an unusual winter landscape for a girl used to an extremely hot climate. Everything was different for me – from the public school bus, band, parades, cheerleaders, and no uniforms to being able to choose what subjects we wanted to study. In civics class, I learned about Russia and the Politbureau – the Cold War still was a subject in those years.  One could breathe the hippie spirit of the '70s everywhere. Looking back, I could not imagine my life without the magical experience of YFU. We may no longer be youth, but the understanding we gained has lasted a lifetime. Thank you, YFU!”

AlidaAlida Abad “Is it possible to be an exchange student at the age of 60 or more? Well…in some ways it is. Being an exchange student changed our lives forever. Despite living in different cities and in some cases different countries, our connection through exchange brings us together and helps our friendships thrive. What would I say to a teenager today? Dare to join us in our dream.  Share with us our Vintage Magical Tour, and be part of something big. The experience of being an exchange students lasts forever! Try it!”

Oscar CabreraOscar R. Cabrera     “When I arrived, a 17-year-old only child with little experience outside my home, everything was new – not unintelligible, just strange and different. Joyce, my mom in the USA told me I would always be remembered as one of their kids. Frank, my father taught me not to push like a bull and encouraged me be more humble. With our return, I hope our young audiences will listen to our history and wish to emulate our experiences, building a transgenerational legacy by way of improving understanding between different peoples, cultures, continents and communities. To become closer to our unknown neighbors, different, but at the same time so similar to ourselves.”

 

A Family’s Tradition

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Written for The Light by Misha PutnamFamily traditions are founded on novelty and strengthened in iterations. Our family has been intertwined with Youth For Understanding from the very start. It began in 1983, when Tokyo native Tomoko stepped into her new life as a YFU high school exchange student in Colorado. There, she befriended a classmate, Bob, and they remained connected through the years, eventually leading  to their wedding in 1989. Bob and Tomoko’s cultural exchange broadened as they learned more intimately the influence each respective culture had on the other. As he learned Japanese and developed a taste for her cooking, she got her driver’s license and became an American citizen.

Micah Putnam in Japan in 2009

As parents, they started a bilingual family with my older brother, Micah, and later, me. We both grew up with equal doses of Japanese and American cuisine, traditions and travel to familiarize ourselves with the culture of our extended families. Close ties to Japan influenced Micah to spend a semester of his senior year in Yokohama with YFU. As Micah stayed with the Suzuki family, we hosted their son, Yuta, in a yearlong exchange at our New Mexico home. By the time Micah had come home, the two had integrated into the others’ family so seamlessly that we truly felt like siblings. The year Yuta spent with us was a year of laughter and friendship that has kept our two families close.

Misha Putnam

Four years later, it was my turn. I spent my entire sophomore year in Sweden, experiencing all the wonders of an exchange year; right down to the language, the host family and the friends. What separated my exchange from that of my mother or brother was I was able to blog about my experience and came to form indelible bonds among the greater YFU community. Through every camp and orientation, to the individual students and leaders that became important during my year, I fell in love with YFU and the spirit of acceptance and affection, the hilarity, and above all, the sense of an even greater extended family.

As soon as I came home, I began volunteering every chance I got, including convincing my parents to host for a second time this coming year. I am happy to announce our tradition will continue as we welcome Arttu from Finland into our home for the school year. Our ties with YFU have brought more diversity, excitement, and joy into our lives than we ever anticipated. As a family, we are thankful for the global community we are now a part of and even more thankful for the life-long friendships we have formed.

 

A Remarkable Gift

user

It was bitterly cold while walking to school that morning and even the snow seemed to protest as it made a nasty, crunchy noise with each step I took. I was a junior in high school and, while sitting in my French class, I day-dreamed of being in France and speaking French instead of freezing in northern Michigan while studying French. Quickly dismissing my brief flight of fancy, I went back to conjugating verbs.

In study hall later that day, I saw a magazine ad for Youth For Understanding offering an application form for a study abroad exchange program. Even though my family was of very modest means and no one had been further than 100 miles from home, I responded, not knowing how my life was about to be changed forever.

I completed the application and got accepted for placement in France. I then had to tell my parents, gain their support and figure out how to pay for the program. When I approached them and explained I’d been accepted into a study abroad program in France, they were dumbfounded. “Why do you always have to do things nobody else in this town has done,” my father wanted to know, adding, “You’ll miss the football season.” Slowly, I wore them down (as all strong-willed children can do) and got my way. I emptied my savings, relatives gave me gifts of money and my parents finally agreed to provide the financial help they were able to while opening our home to my French brother. Before I knew what had happened, I was stepping off an airplane in France and was being greeted by my host father and brother.

Although the entire experience was great, it was also filled with loads of challenges that made it absolutely perfect. My French mother wasn’t a fan of America and let me know it every day. I learned to smile nicely and nod in understanding. My French father made me read the newspaper to him each night, explain what I’d just read by using words different than those in the newspaper and, each time I made a mistake, he’d tap my knuckles with a ruler, just like the Catholic nuns must have done to him. I responded by working harder, getting better and got tapped less.

The first weekend I was there, the family took me for a ride to Villefranche. While walking through a shop, the camera which I’d had carelessly slung over my shoulder, knocked over a display of expensive glassware, which I had to pay for using up every penny of spending money I had to my name. I had to start doing small odd jobs for neighbors for cash.

Food in the home was also a challenge. For breakfast, my host family ate a very small Petite Dejeuner consisting of a small croissant and a quick cup of very strong coffee. Their favorite lunch (served beautifully and frequently) was a mound of raw ground horsemeat with a couple of raw eggs resting atop it and a salad of crisp greens. No matter how much Worcestershire Sauce I drowned my serving of Cheval in, forcing it down my throat was never easy. I learned how to hide most of what was left on my plate under a few lettuce leaves, offering to clear the table and scrape the plates. I quickly figured out where I could buy really good French street food inexpensively.

The YFU program, back when I was Junior in high school, was the single most formative experience in my life. After losing almost all my spending money I really learned how to stretch a franc. I began to understand that the US makes up less than 5% of the world’s population and that 95% of the world sees many things differently than we do. That one side/my side isn’t always right. I’d had two years of high school French and could hardly speak the language but, upon my arrival, I had no choice but to start cobbling nouns and verbs together in order to be understood.

My YFU program provided me a foundation of thrift, resourcefulness and resilience. It was the start of an inclusive world view, the ability to communicate with others, a fierce sense of self-reliance when confronted with challenging circumstances and aroused in me a curious mind that has taken me to more than 100 countries and cultures. The gift of experiencing and living in another culture and language proved to be priceless for me. That’s why YFU is an integral part of our family’s estate plan and why I’d urge all alumni to consider doing the same. Participation in YFU is a lifelong gift that should be repaid. For the record: I still don’t like raw horsemeat.

jason-14A-preview

Jason Jennings is a New York Times bestselling author of eight books on leadership and business, USA TODAY has called him, “one of the three most in-demand business speakers in the world,” and he and his partner have visited more than 100 countries around the world. They continue to travel to new places and study new languages. He can be reached at Jason@jason-jennings.com. 

Consider remembering YFU in your estate planning. Contact Vice President for External Affairs Charlie Cadigan at ccadigan@yfu.org.

The Journey Home – 50 Years Later

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Christmas Eve, 2014. My husband and I are lucky enough to be able to come home for Christmas and we are in my parents’ restored 1761 house in a small village about 20 miles from Frankfurt, Germany. My husband and my dad are off somewhere, and it's my sister, my mother, and myself trying to add the final touches to the Christmas tree. We are all laughing and talking at once; although it's only been two years since our last visit, phone calls can't cover everything, and we are trying to catch up on each other's lives. Mostly, we are laughing about my plastic tree ornaments, purchased because they will not break in our suitcase, while Lucy, the family cat, takes a swipe at one of my mom's glass ornaments and sends it crashing to the floor.

We are waiting for a visit from my sister's boyfriend, whom I've never met. Francesco is everything she promised; a handsome, charismatic Italian who owns a restaurant about a half hour away and who will host my sister's 50th birthday party in three days.

On Christmas Eve, two of my brothers arrive to join the celebrations. The dinner table is full of people and good food, followed by the uproar of passing and opening presents. It is a wonderful evening, full of love, hugs, family and laughter, and I know I will remember this Christmas for a long time.

Two days later my sister turns 50 and it begins to snow in the morning. The snow is beautiful on the trees, bushes and old houses in the village; everything looks like a picture of an Alpine village. Not realizing it is time to stop, the snow keeps falling and now the serious business of snow removal becomes necessary. By law, each resident must clear a 4 foot walkway around their property. Sadly, because our village streets are so narrow, old, and crooked, the village does not have any snow removal equipment. The area between the cleared walkways are filled with parked cars and are now  about six feet wide with snow and icy ruts.

After a nail biting trip out of the village, we arrive at Francesco’s restaurant and are escorted into their back dining room. The lights are dimmed and each long, deep window has a candle burning in it. Tables with white cloths and fresh flowers are everywhere. Along one wall stretches more tables joined together and filled with an amazing array of Italian appetizers, a prelude to the four main courses displayed on the tables around the corner. The room is full of Italians. These are Francesco's extended family who love my sister and who are now prepared to love our family. Trays of drinks are passed and 40 people sit down to feast.

After dinner, Francesco wheels in a cart with a massive birthday torte. So large that he baked the layers, one at a time, in his pizza oven! We all sing Happy Birthday in German, then English, then Italian (sort of). Francesco gets out his guitar, sits down at one of the tables and plays and sings for the next hour. Magic! My parents, husband and I leave for the trip home, but the party continues long after we leave.

McCutcheon with her host father Carl and host mother Maria celebrating 50 years as a YFU family

On January 30, my parents celebrate their Diamond (60th) anniversary. As is the village custom, people start dropping by the house around 10:00 in the morning; the mayor comes and the local priest, along with various neighbors and friends. My mom and I are in the kitchen frantically washing out champagne flutes and making more open-faced sandwiches as visitors come and go. At noon, there is a dinner planned at a restaurant in our village. The restaurant is closed except for our party and we take up the whole main dining room with one huge massive table for 45 people. Our florist has sent flowers and they fill the length of the table. My last brother and his family, who live over two hours away, are able to fight through the snowy conditions to be there, as well as my aunt, uncle, various cousins and their families, some friends of my parents, and all us kids. A close family friend from Poland makes the 12 hour drive to our village with his whole family to help celebrate, which was very special for my Mom and Dad. There are speeches, toasts, and lots of pictures. It is a glorious time that goes on all afternoon, and is a proper celebration of such an important milestone.

Lest I give the impression that all we do is party, in between all these special celebrations, there is the daily cooking and cleaning. As usual, I hang over my mother's shoulder as she cooks, writing down her recipes as fast as possible, and trying to guess if a large handful of chopped onions is either more or less than a cup, and hoping to be able to reproduce what she is making when I get home.

At the end of our trip, a final celebration is in order. On January 2, my husband and I host a final get-together with our immediate 17 member family. Now, I wish for a better command of the German language, with fewer “cooking”, “cleaning”, and “shopping” words and more “feelings” and “gratitude” words. They are most certainly needed, because I am giving a short speech to commemorate the 50 years that have passed since I first became a part of this very special family in the summer of 1965. I tell my family that my initial exchange experience has led my life in a totally unexpected direction. One that absolutely and forever changed my life and the person I would become and has shown me another, broader, and better world than I had ever imagined. At the end of the speech, I am privileged to present my parents with a wonderful letter from YFU President and CEO Mr. Michael E. Hill, and a YFU Certificate of Recognition for their lifelong commitment to intercultural exchange.

That first summer, I remember my Dad telling me he signed up for an exchange student because he wanted his children to know other cultures and people in the world. These were far loftier thoughts than I, aged 16, had when I signed up as an exchange student with Youth For Understanding. It is impossible to overstate how clueless I was. One summer was all it took for us all to cement the relationship that has lasted for 50 years.

I remember surprising my family with a visit for my Grandmother's birthday; my German father showing up unexpectedly in Michigan after the birth of my son, pulling a little wooden wagon filled with blocks; and then again, after my divorce to make sure my son and I were alright. There are too many visits to count. The foreign exchange that began in 1965 between myself and one German family has widened and grown to include many countries and many, many more people. As we have passed the 50 year mark, it is amazing to look back and reflect on how much our original exchange has profoundly and happily affected the horizons of so many people.

McCutcheon with her host cousin Dirk who plans to visit the US in 2016

From Gymnasium to the State Department

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Written for The Light by Katherine Brown

KatherineBrownI’ve based my entire career on my Youth For Understanding experience 20 years ago as a high school exchange student in Esbjerg, Denmark. I had just turned 16 in August 1994 when I began my semester abroad. I remember the experience being difficult. I struggled with the language and the winter. I was deeply homesick, but I met incredible friends who carried me through the experience and helped me to discover a curiosity about the world and America’s role in it.

My classmates were incredibly worldly; they were active in debating the future of their country and that of Europe just five years after the collapse of Communism. I remember sitting in gymnasium and learning about the war in Yugoslavia and the conflict in Northern Ireland. Both events had been elusive to me as a teenager in Los Altos, California. When questions came up about U.S. foreign policy, heads turned to me. I didn’t know what to say. I remember never wanting to feel that ignorant again and wanting to be part of the conversation, as they were.

Brown speaking in her new role as Executive Director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy

I currently serve as the Executive Director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy at the State Department, which serves as a watchdog and an advocate for the role public diplomacy plays in U.S. national security. Luckily for me, the work is meaningful. In all of my work travels – from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Kenya – I carry my original exchange experience with me in big and small ways. I always aim to project the sense of humility and openness I felt so profoundly as a teenager. When legislators and policy makers ask why exchanges are worthy of investment, I can deliver the data and tell the stories with personal conviction.

I hope one day to return to Denmark, as I remember the warmth of the culture, the magic of the winter holidays, and the transformative friendships I made.

 

I AM YFU

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Written for The Light by Daryl Weinert

In 1979, a Youth For Understanding volunteer walked into my Spanish language classroom at East Detroit High School and began to speak, changing my life forever. I headed home that day with excitement in my heart and a map of the world in my pocket. The map depicted the many countries where YFU had programs. That night, and for weeks to follow, I perused the  map and pondered the possibilities.

I chose to apply for a program in Spain. One June day in 1980, scared, I flew to Madrid and moved in with my Spanish family. My Spanish was halting and limited, but their hearts were big. They shared their country with me, from Castilla to Valencia, from Galicia to Murcia (where they had a summer home on the Mediterranean Sea).

Weinert in Spain in 1980

It was heady stuff for a Midwestern boy whose foreign travel until that point had consisted of a few trips across the Detroit River to Windsor, Ontario. My time in Spain opened the world to me, a world of diverse cultures and scenery, but perhaps more importantly, a world of possibilities.

Following my YFU exchange, I attended the University of Michigan, earning degrees in Engineering and Economics. After graduating in 1986, I returned to backpack across Europe. In February of 1987, I left for a two and a half year assignment with the Peace Corps in Nepal. Not having had enough of intercultural living,I volunteered for a Department of Energy sponsored program in Hungary in 1992.

How did my YFU experience affect me? Three things stand out: First, living and surviving outside my home country filled me with self-confidence; second, it forced me to challenge assumptions about myself and my culture; and finally, it instilled me with a potent mixture of humility and empathy. All of this has made me a better professional, a better citizen, a better spouse, and a better parent.

Since that summer in Spain I have kept in touch with YFU. At first, by simply sending a modest annual donation, but more recently, I have been volunteering my time as a member of YFU’s Board of Trustees. Since 2012, I’ve had the honor of serving the organization as Board Chair. Through this work, I hope YFU can continue to offer students and families life changing experiences leading to global understanding.

DW Cafe

Sports for Understanding

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Written for The Light by Flynn Coleman

I didn’t know then that my first summer abroad, as a junior high school student with Sports For Understanding in Italy, would teach me so much about the kind of person I wanted to be. I was excited to represent the U.S. on a soccer team in Europe, live with a host family, and to experience all aspects of Italian life. But, when I boarded the plane for my adventure across the world, I was also nervous about what was to come.

Our team met in Rome, and after a brief time exploring the sites, we drove several hours north to meet our host families. A young woman in soccer clothes arrived to pick me up. She gave me a warm hug and we exchanged smiling “ciaos,” which was about all the Italian I knew at the time. We drove for what seemed like ages, until we arrived at a concrete house in the middle of a cornfield. Figaro, the family cat, was lounging in the sun. I scratched his head, and then made my way into my home for the summer. There I met the only other member of my host family, the unofficial adopted grandmother of the woman who had picked me up.

Coleman’s Sports For Understanding Soccer team in Italy, 1996

That night, I wondered what my summer would be like. How would I possibly communicate with the people I was now living with, who spoke no English? My Italian was limited to speaking Spanish with an Italian-esque accent.

As I unpacked my things, I started to hear the faint sounds of people singing, laughing, and strumming guitars. The sounds became louder and louder, until it seemed like these people were actually approaching the house. And then, in a moment I will never forget, the music came through the house, where a large group of people from the town had come by, singing, dancing, and playing music, to welcome me home.

That’s when I realized we all do speak the same language after all. And I saw in that moment that life is about connecting with and supporting others.

The night before I flew to Italy I cried, afraid of what was ahead. Everything felt so uncertain as I journeyed across the world to live with people I had never met, in a country where I knew no one. After the summer was over, on the day I was to leave my Italian family, I cried again, this time sad to leave behind the family who had cared for me from the moment I walked into their lives. They came home each day to cook enormous and incredible lunches, which to this day constitute the best meals of my life. They gave me a tour of the accordion factory where they worked long hours to make ends meet, drove me to soccer games and festivals, introduced me to their friends, sang and danced to American 80’s music with me, and gave me a place in Italy to call home.

They didn’t have much, but they shared it all with me. By the end of the summer, my Italian was quite fluent, and after I left, I continued to write my friends in Italy, who were really more like family. I will never forget the utter joy in their writing when I sent them a new stereo and cds of their favorite music. To this day, a picture of us on the soccer field is framed in my home. They live in my heart as people who taught me about the person I wanted to become, and who showed me that home can be anywhere when you are with people who love you.

I went on to spend much of my life living abroad, learning from people’s experiences worldwide. The young woman I lived with in Italy had suffered much discrimination throughout her life, something I have thought much about since my summer living with her.

I have since become an international human rights lawyer and social entrepreneur.  I have spent my life living the core belief that we are all the same underneath, and thus all equally deserving of the same rights; having our voices heard, an opportunity to follow our dreams, and a life of dignity. I have become a fervent advocate for women’s rights, including the right to participate in sports. Sports have immense catalyzing power; the power to bring people of different backgrounds and beliefs together, and to teach leadership, confidence, teamwork, tolerance, and dedication.

Sports, and being a member of a team, have brought me some of the proudest moments of my life. I went on to play soccer for Georgetown – and I also play soccer wherever I go in the world. I joined a men’s team in Cambodia, where little Cambodian girls would come out to watch in awe as a girl played soccer with the boys. While studying abroad in Chile, I joined a men’s team with the help of my host family. I went out for the first game and we lined up to shake hands. Everyone shook hands, but when they got to me, they kissed me on the cheek. We played the game and our team ended up winning. We lined up after the game, and sure enough, everyone shook my hand, and no one kissed my cheek again. That day always reminds me of the power of women getting involved and having the opportunity to participate.

Ultimately, everyone has a story to tell. We all deserve to belong and to have a say in our communities, in business and politics, in a court of law, and in the world. From advocating for truth and reconciliation commissions, human rights protections, and transparent trade policies that dismantle barriers to entrepreneurship in the developing world, I have seen that we all want the same things; to be seen and accepted for who we are, and to have an opportunity for a brighter future for ourselves and for our families.

This is what I learned in that house, in that cornfield, in that tiny corner of the magnificent, Italian countryside. It’s what I’ve learned on soccer fields around the world, in war crimes tribunals, government halls, and people’s homes in villages thousands of miles from where I grew up. We should all be able to make our own choices about our lives.

Coleman in Rwanda in 2014 (photo taken by Betty Krenek)

 

On Top of the World

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Kicking and screaming, 13-year-old Andrew Towne protested his father’s proposal for the family to spend six months in Northern Italy while pursuing a Fulbright Scholarship. After all, Towne would miss the all-important transition to 7th grade, moving from class to class rather than being stuck with the same teacher all day! Six months later, Towne protested even louder, not wanting to come home.This introduction to an unknown place opened Towne’s eyes to the idea of exchange. When his sophomore-year German teacher suggested he apply for the Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX) scholarship, it didn’t intimidate him. Towne knew he wouldn’t be able to go on exchange without a scholarship, but when faced with the prospect of studying abroad, he said “it sounded like a great adventure.”

Paired with YFU, Towne experienced the depth of support and learning for which YFU is known. “The first month, I was in East Germany, nine years after the wall fell, living with a farmer in a village of 150 people learning German.” He remembers profound conversations with his East German host father. “My host father had been a young boy when World War II ended. He remembered being greeted by US soldiers when they crossed the Elbe River. When I asked what he thought about ending up under Soviet rule, he shrugged and said, ‘sometimes you get unlucky.’”

Towne learned that he and his host father had another connection. “For the entire time he was living behind the Communist wall, he was grateful that he was close enough to West Germany that he could pick up Johnny Cash on the radio. He loved the fact that my grandfather in Vermont was also a Johnny Cash fan.” Towne reflected, “he took it all in stride. That type of perseverance through 50 years of communism was a real eye-opener.”

Towne credits YFU for challenging him to think critically through facilitating very deep, personal conversations. One such conversation occurred during the week-long, mid-year orientation that is a staple of the YFU experience. Together with fellow U.S. and German exchange students, an alumnus described being assaulted by Neo-Nazis. “He was heartbroken, not so much by the beating, but more by the fact that so many onlookers who could have stopped the fight would look on without doing anything.” Towne continued, “he was a 16-year-old at the time, just like me. He looked us all in the eye and quoted Nietzsche, saying ‘those who are but half-and-half spoil every whole.’” The alumnus challenged his audience to consider action in the face of adversity. “I never forgot this story. It was real. It was tragic. I heard it first-hand.”

The exchange experience changed Towne’s life trajectory from music to foreign affairs. However, his experience returning home fundamentally changed the way he lived his life. “All I wanted to do was talk everybody’s ear off about this great experience I had, but I quickly realized that among teenagers, perhaps no one really wants to see your vacation photos.” Towne began bottling up his great experiences and wondered what others held inside. “I really try to approach everybody with a curiosity about what they are passionate about.” He continued, “Everyone has something — I love finding those things that really light people’s fire. And I attribute that to my exchange year.”

This summer, Towne will summit Mt. Everest to raise money for YFU.

Andrew holds up a YFU flag atop Carstensz Pyramid, the tallest mountain on the continent of Oceania; July 2011.

“My biggest fear is of heights. Period,” Towne said. “A friend of mine, while I was an exchange student at the University of Nairobi — a choice that was motivated 100% from my YFU exchange year — asked if I wanted to climb Mt. Kenya, the second tallest mountain in Africa.” Towne thought about the physical challenge and considered the opportunity to confront his fear of heights and responded, “that sounds like a great idea!” At that moment, his addiction to climbing began.

Towne’s interest in endurance sports started in Germany. He said, “Before Germany, I thought I would become a professional musician. While there, I started jogging recreationally. And then in college, I walked onto the rowing team.”

Rowing proved to be very challenging from an endurance perspective, and Towne considered quitting many times. Through perseverance, “I learned to trust myself – that when faced with a tough challenge, I wouldn’t give up in the face of pain or difficulty. I grew to relish opportunities to prove that to myself over and over again.”

Now an accomplished mountaineer, having climbed the tallest mountain on five of the seven continents, Asia’s Mount Everest is his next challenge. When asked about the dangers of climbing the world’s tallest peaks, Towne said, “every mountain poses certain risks. On Mount Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in South America, our expedition actually had to step over a body on the trail. Five people died during the two weeks I was on that mountain. On Mt. McKinley, two people died during my second climb. When you are on these mountains, everyone is cognizant of death.” He continued, “I am a very conservative mountain climber. I strongly believe the mountain will always be there, so when it comes to decisions that involve weather or conditions, a lot of climbers get themselves into trouble by pushing themselves when conditions suggest they shouldn’t. I don’t make decisions like that.”

Towne took on his first mountain, Mount Kenya, because “it provided an opportunity to accomplish an endurance feat that involved conquering my fear of heights.” Now he continues to climb “because I love the way it takes me to remote parts of the globe. Mountaineering, like YFU, makes the world feel smaller.”

everest

On Top of the World

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Kicking and screaming, 13-year-old Andrew Towne protested his father’s proposal for the family to spend six months in Northern Italy while pursuing a Fulbright Scholarship. After all, Towne would miss the all-important transition to 7th grade, moving from class to class rather than being stuck with the same teacher all day! Six months later, Towne protested even louder, not wanting to come home.This introduction to an unknown place opened Towne’s eyes to the idea of exchange. When his sophomore-year German teacher suggested he apply for the Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX) scholarship, it didn’t intimidate him. Towne knew he wouldn’t be able to go on exchange without a scholarship, but when faced with the prospect of studying abroad, he said “it sounded like a great adventure.”

Paired with YFU, Towne experienced the depth of support and learning for which YFU is known. “The first month, I was in East Germany, nine years after the wall fell, living with a farmer in a village of 150 people learning German.” He remembers profound conversations with his East German host father. “My host father had been a young boy when World War II ended. He remembered being greeted by US soldiers when they crossed the Elbe River. When I asked what he thought about ending up under Soviet rule, he shrugged and said, ‘sometimes you get unlucky.’”

Towne learned that he and his host father had another connection. “For the entire time he was living behind the Communist wall, he was grateful that he was close enough to West Germany that he could pick up Johnny Cash on the radio. He loved the fact that my grandfather in Vermont was also a Johnny Cash fan.” Towne reflected, “he took it all in stride. That type of perseverance through 50 years of communism was a real eye-opener.”

Towne credits YFU for challenging him to think critically through facilitating very deep, personal conversations. One such conversation occurred during the week-long, mid-year orientation that is a staple of the YFU experience. Together with fellow U.S. and German exchange students, an alumnus described being assaulted by Neo-Nazis. “He was heartbroken, not so much by the beating, but more by the fact that so many onlookers who could have stopped the fight would look on without doing anything.” Towne continued, “he was a 16-year-old at the time, just like me. He looked us all in the eye and quoted Nietzsche, saying ‘those who are but half-and-half spoil every whole.’” The alumnus challenged his audience to consider action in the face of adversity. “I never forgot this story. It was real. It was tragic. I heard it first-hand.”

The exchange experience changed Towne’s life trajectory from music to foreign affairs. However, his experience returning home fundamentally changed the way he lived his life. “All I wanted to do was talk everybody’s ear off about this great experience I had, but I quickly realized that among teenagers, perhaps no one really wants to see your vacation photos.” Towne began bottling up his great experiences and wondered what others held inside. “I really try to approach everybody with a curiosity about what they are passionate about.” He continued, “Everyone has something — I love finding those things that really light people’s fire. And I attribute that to my exchange year.”

This summer, Towne will summit Mt. Everest to raise money for YFU.

Andrew holds up a YFU flag atop Carstensz Pyramid, the tallest mountain on the continent of Oceania; July 2011.

“My biggest fear is of heights. Period,” Towne said. “A friend of mine, while I was an exchange student at the University of Nairobi — a choice that was motivated 100% from my YFU exchange year — asked if I wanted to climb Mt. Kenya, the second tallest mountain in Africa.” Towne thought about the physical challenge and considered the opportunity to confront his fear of heights and responded, “that sounds like a great idea!” At that moment, his addiction to climbing began.

Towne’s interest in endurance sports started in Germany. He said, “Before Germany, I thought I would become a professional musician. While there, I started jogging recreationally. And then in college, I walked onto the rowing team.”

Rowing proved to be very challenging from an endurance perspective, and Towne considered quitting many times. Through perseverance, “I learned to trust myself – that when faced with a tough challenge, I wouldn’t give up in the face of pain or difficulty. I grew to relish opportunities to prove that to myself over and over again.”

Now an accomplished mountaineer, having climbed the tallest mountain on five of the seven continents, Asia’s Mount Everest is his next challenge. When asked about the dangers of climbing the world’s tallest peaks, Towne said, “every mountain poses certain risks. On Mount Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in South America, our expedition actually had to step over a body on the trail. Five people died during the two weeks I was on that mountain. On Mt. McKinley, two people died during my second climb. When you are on these mountains, everyone is cognizant of death.” He continued, “I am a very conservative mountain climber. I strongly believe the mountain will always be there, so when it comes to decisions that involve weather or conditions, a lot of climbers get themselves into trouble by pushing themselves when conditions suggest they shouldn’t. I don’t make decisions like that.”

Towne took on his first mountain, Mount Kenya, because “it provided an opportunity to accomplish an endurance feat that involved conquering my fear of heights.” Now he continues to climb “because I love the way it takes me to remote parts of the globe. Mountaineering, like YFU, makes the world feel smaller.”

everest

 

Cuba: A Trip of a Lifetime

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Interview with Alex Lopez, YFU Travel DirectorCuba may be only 90 miles from Florida, but for half a century, it's been largely off-limits to most Americans. Since 2011, Americans have been allowed to go to Cuba on tours run by licensed companies like Interplanner, YFU’s Adult Study Tour provider. Recently, President Obama asked the Treasury Department to expand permissions for travel to Cuba, though general tourism on one’s own will still be forbidden. This renewed attention on Cuba has many would-be travelers wondering what the island neighbor has to offer. We talked to our own expert, YFU Travel Director and native of Cuba Alex Lopez to find out. 

Alex Cuba

YFU: What do you think participants come away with after a YFU Adult Study Tour to Cuba? 

Lopez: Participants will be surprised to learn that the Cuban people have a great respect and admiration for the American people. Travelers to Cuba find that Cubans can easily separate politics from culture and appreciate people for who they are.

Cuba travel does not whitewash the challenges that Cuban people face. YFU travelers will experience the real Cuba, filled with culture, creativity, art and loving people. They also get to see the reality of Cuban living standards, which are often difficult and impoverished. The program changes beliefs and attitudes and allows people to look past politics and into the heart and soul of a culture and its reality. In my 37 years in the travel industry, I have never seen a single travel experience change so many lives as a visit to Cuba does.

YFU: What would you say to tour participants about the citizens of Cuba? 

Lopez: Cubans are friendly, warm, communicative, enthusiastic and hospitable people. It is uncommon to meet a Cuban who is not outgoing and fond of festivals, music and especially dancing. Most Cubans find it easy to joke around about almost anything, even hardships and difficulties. 

The Cuban people have endured 53 years of a U.S. economic embargo that has severely burdened the entire population. The Cuban people have always welcomed American visitors and have been able to separate the political differences between the U.S. YFU will be a great ambassador delegation, and who knows, maybe soon we will be the first to open the way for a student exchange program between both nations helping to heal the wounds of decades of isolation.

YFU: This is a really unique opportunity for Americans to travel to Cuba. What parts of the tour do you like the most? 

Lopez: The island has nine United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) world heritage sites. They’re architectural gems that have not been discovered by Americans from this generation.

You’ll never forget your visit to the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. The collection ranges from the traditional to the modern. It’s as good as any museum in New York.

Participants will also enjoy the Cuban cuisine. It is much more inventive than just black beans and rice. Because of the embargo, they don’t always have the best ingredients, but they sure make do. Paladares, privately owned restaurants that are often run by families (sometimes out of their homes), have become popular in recent years. They are intended to give tourists a truly authentic Cuban experience.

YFU: Why should YFU alumni or anyone else travel to Cuba? 

Lopez: The announcement to re-establish diplomatic relations makes this trip a historical time to visit Cuba. It is the most sensual island in the Caribbean and has been frozen in time for American visitors. Cuba is full of friendly people, amazing geography, and has 250-plus museums and 500 years of historical sites. Havana’s architecture is magnificent, and dance, culture and great cuisine are everywhere. This is a truly educational experience!

Learn how you can join Lopez, along with YFU USA's President & CEO in Cuba this summer! YFUUSA.ORG/TOURS

*Traveling under the People to People General License.

 

Daniel Biaggi: Opera Can Change the World

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Interview with Daniel Biaggi by John Favazzo Director of Alumni EngagementDaniel Biaggi

Daniel Biaggi wasn’t interested in music or opera when he was in high school. “I was more interested in athletics after school and art and drawing. For a moment I was actually thinking architecture and even the fashion industry more than music.” said Biaggi. “It wasn’t until after I returned home that I discovered I had a talent for singing.”

Daniel’s family was originally from the Italian part of Switzerland, but he grew up in a French region speaking French and German. He was fortunate to have an internationally oriented family. “We lived in South Africa when I was very little, until about 4-years-old. We traveled a lot. My parents always told us that the world is round and should be explored.”

After arriving in the US, Daniel was surprised how different the US school system was from the academically focused system in Switzerland.  Daniel said, “just walking through the hallways saying hello to everyone and to be with different people in every subject was new for me. I particularly remember engaging conversations in civics class. We didn’t have the same focus on civics and governmental structures in Switzerland and it was really an eye opener to understand I couldn’t fault someone for thinking differently because we grew up with different structures.” He continued, “I’ve always enjoyed looking at certain problems or circumstances from many different angles and that was solidified on exchange.”

Making friends was also a challenge. “Making friends was not always easy for me. I was well-liked as a kid, but I wasn’t necessarily the class clown or most outgoing person. The first day of school in Switzerland was not a pleasant day for me, so being able to repeat that experience and force myself to be in front of new people and challenge myself to make new friends had a great impact on who I am today.”

Daniel uses these skills along with being proficient in five languages to navigate the opera world. “The idea of multinational, cultural exchange happens almost every day in opera.” Attracting top talent from around the globe, Daniel says, “opera continues the work of cultural exchange by putting people in front of an American audience who are not from here. We have Q&A sessions where the audience learns where the performers are from and how that may have influenced their performance.” He continues, “every action in opera is informed by the language in which the work was written. The language informs the conversation we have with the public about cultural differences, the intensity level of the expressions and which words we use when we are really angry in that language or really in love in that language.”

Daniel, still in touch with his host family and friends from exchange, encourages students who are considering exchange to “just do it!” He says, “even if I can’t put my finger on exactly how it shaped me, exchange was one of the most important, most instrumental things I’ve done in terms of opening my eyes to the whole world, putting myself in other people’s shoes and simply being able to connect the dots differently.”

Bobby Petrini: Yacht Week in Croatia

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Guest post from Bobby PetriniAt the time I received my letter of acceptance to the YFU Program in spring of 2000, I couldn’t possibly think past what an amazing summer I had in store. Fast forward fifteen years later and I’ve just returned home after spending the better part of August and September traveling across Europe with my best Italian friend from high school.

Aldo, my YFU host brother, and I spent only three and a half weeks hanging out that summer in Salerno, and yet I would consider him and the members of his family my own. Since graduating college, Aldo and I have managed to travel between Europe and the States at least once a year with each other’s friends. We’ve ventured to two Coachella concerts in the Palm Desert, skied in the Colorado Rockies and visited countless cities across Europe.

From the time Aldo told me ten years ago he had taken a graduation trip to Croatia and that it was one of the most beautiful destinations he had ever visited, I knew I had to see it for myself. It was on our last trip to London for Aldo’s first American football game - my San Francisco 49ers vs the Jacksonville Jaguars – that we decided, as we near the end of our twenties, that we needed to coordinate an epic summer vacation like our original summer in Salerno. We chose The Yacht Week Croatia 2014.

It took no time at all to recruit ten friends from San Francisco for the week long adventure sailing down the Dalmatian Coast. Half of the group had already met Aldo during one of his many visits to California, and the other half were thrilled to have a European with us on our maiden voyage.

The trip began with me and two friends from the Bay Area meeting Aldo in Salerno, relaxing and visiting with Aldo’s friends and family. Returning to Salerno fifteen years later to see the friends I had made during my formative years and now introducing my Californian friends to Aldo’s family was the greatest experience. We sampled fresh pizza and mozzarella from Naples, drank Limoncello from Capri and enjoyed homemade brioche from my favorite ice cream bar that is still as popular as ever. Aldo’s parents and Nonna were just as hospitable and generous as I remember; welcoming my American friends and treating us all like their own children getting sent off to an adult summer camp.

From Italy we reconvened with the larger crew in Dubrovnik, our jumping off point in Croatia.  We spent seven days with forty other boats filled with people from across the globe, sailing by day and partying by night. We explored the islands of Vis and Hvar where we visited The Blue Cave, jumped off cliffs into the Aegean Sea, toured medieval forts and castles, ate fresh lobster and sailed a regatta across the sea on our final day’s route. The trip of a lifetime for us all and one that reminded us to continue the tradition of traveling to a new destination every couple of years.

Bobby Petrini

Caitlynn Upton: Finding My Voice in Germany

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Guest post from Caitlynn UptonI never thought that a boring trip to Parliament in Germany would shape my career path, but life has a way of throwing you curveballs.

I had always been interested in languages and travel so it was logical to study international relations in college in order to work at an Embassy, especially since my parents used to call me their “little diplomat.” Diplomacy seemed like something I might enjoy, but I never felt particularly excited about it.

As a Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange scholar, I was invited along with the other scholars to Berlin during my exchange year in Germany. We were given the opportunity to meet the Ambassador to Germany and have a reception at the US Embassy. One would expect that meeting former Ambassador Phillip Murphy would have been the highlight of my trip, but as cool as he was, it was unexpectedly a visit to parliament that captured my interest.

Caitlynn Upton

While most of my fellow exchange scholars tried desperately (in vain) not to fall asleep, I was enraptured. On that particular day, the members of parliament were discussing taxes on same-sex couples with civil partnerships. The energy in the room and the passion with which people debated had a lasting impression on me.

In the fall of my return to the US, I started attending the public affairs college (James Madison College) at Michigan State University. One of my required courses was a policy writing course focusing on race, class, gender, and sexuality and I became more and more interested in legislation that effectedtargeted groups in the US, particularly bills pertaining to LGBT people and women. When it came time to declare my major, I knew exactly what I wanted; Social Relations & Policy with a double minor in Gender & Sexuality, and German. I hope to help research and draft policies for the advancement of LGBT peoples and women as a legislative assistant. This is a huge divergence from my original career plan, but it’s a perfect fit.

Over the summer, I was an intern for the Michigan Coordinated Campaign working on campaigns for democratic candidates. Every day of work, I knocked on about 170 doors and walked six miles in order to register voters, inform them about the candidates, canvas their responses, and talk about the issues that were important to their lives.

Some voters were nice, some of them indifferent, and some of them slammed the door in my face, but by this time I was well versed in adapting to different people and environments as I did in Germany. Much like my German friends and family, all of the voters I talked to had different upbringings, different values, and perhaps even different cultures. I couldn’t expect them to hold the same political beliefs as I do.

Before my year abroad, I was a very meek and accommodating person. My family liked to joke that being a “little diplomat” turned me into a metaphorical doormat, but they couldn’t say the same about me when I returned from my study abroad. Having to adapt to a different culture, teach myself a new language, and take on new responsibilities helped me gain the self- confidence that I needed to give presentations in class, talk to all those potential voters, and speak my mind about issues I care about. My exchange year in Germany helped me to not only gain a voice for myself, but also a political voice – all thanks to that “boring” parliament session in Berlin.