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YFU Blog - Recent stories about Youth for Understanding

Filtering by Tag: US

Her exchange was 47 years ago, but still is very much a part of her


Story By Janelle Holt, State Coordinator of QueenslandAs a YFU volunteer I am often asked, “What will I get out of traveling overseas” or “Why should I host a foreign student?”  Those questions do not leave me stumped because, to me, the answer is as natural as breathing. “You will gain another family.”

Forty-seven years ago I travelled to Finland as a YFU exchange student. I was seventeen and had never been far from my Michigan farm or my family. June 1968 I boarded a plane in Detroit and flew into the unknown. I felt excitement, but also angst. I asked myself, “What have I gotten myself into?”

My home was in Rovaniemi, Finland with Olavi and Kerttu Lahtinen. I became their fifth child, as they had four of their own, Kirsti (18), Veikko (15), Ritva (11) and Heikki (8). Rovaniemi is located just ten kilometers south of the Arctic Circle. This far north never gets completely dark in summer nor light in the winter.

The early days of exchange I was terribly homesick and in 1968 there was no internet and long distance telephone calls were expensive. The only connection with home were letters that arrived by post. To ease my homesickness, my host mom climbed the stairs to my room each morning to bring my letters and a cup of tea. Years later I came to understand just how pampered I had been.

Early in my exchange, my senses were on overload. As summer wore on I became familiar with the sights, sounds, and smells of my new home. I woke each morning to the aroma of Karjalan Piiraka (Karelian Rice Pies). My mom made them to sell at the local markets. It was a foreign smell to me at first, but as summer progressed I came to love waking to the smell of those pies. Now if I smell of those pies baking, I’m transported to my days in Kerttu’s kitchen.

Kerttu and Olavi spoke no English and I did not speak Finnish. We learned to communicate with hand gestures, looks, or in other ways. One day Olavi was eating clabbered milk. It is a soured, unpasteurized raw milk that was left in a temperature and humidity controlled environment. It looks thick and elastic, similar to hot mozzarella cheese. Never having liked milk, I found this particularly disgusting. My father, generously, offered me a taste. I wrinkled my nose and shook my head. His loud voice boomed, “Hyvää”, which I knew to be the word for 'good’. I again shook my head and said, “no hyvää” and we both laughed.To this day I have never forgotten that word, or my ‘conversation’ with my host father.

Summer passed, and I was more and more comfortable in my adopted home. I felt truly cared for and part of the family. They seemed to enjoy having another child in their midst. As the day of my departure neared, I felt a tugging on my heart. It was such a bittersweet feeling. I wanted to return home to my friends and family, but I also didn’t want to leave.

One day I received a package. In it was a videotape that the family had made for me. Each family member spoke to me and showed me their homes and their families. Time had changed how everyone looked, but their hearts were still connected to mine. I cherish that video because it was the last that I would ever see my father, Olavi. He passed away before I could return to visit.

The connection has stayed strong for nearly thirty years now. I have visited my family several times. I have gone to celebrate birthdays and participated in the Christenings of my great niece and great nephew. I took my son there when he was eight to meet Kerttu, his ‘mummo’ and the rest of the ever-growing family. My son and mother communicated without words and it was magic.

Through the years my four siblings grew and had children. I now have two brothers, two sisters, two nieces, five nephews, five great-nieces and three great-nephews. My family keeps growing and filling my heart with joy.

One of my most special memories, though, was when Kerttu, Kirsti, and Ritva travelled from Finland to Florida to celebrate my 50th birthday.  Kerttu was 75 years old and had never been to the U.S! The fact that they went to so much effort and expense to spend that time with me made it the best birthday I’ve ever had!

YFU exchange is not just about the spending months overseas, learning another language or getting to see sights you’ve only read about. Exchange is about opening your heart, taking in new sights, sounds, and smells, sharing another language, and living a life different than your own.

For this reason, when asked “why go on exchange”, or “why host an exchange student”, I speak from the heart.

“It will help you grow.  It will enrich your mind.  It will change your life.”

Obama Champions Youth Exchange and Study Abroad


A note from YFU USA President, Michael Hill

Person to person diplomacy and cultural exchanges are increasingly valuable in our interconnected world. US President Barack Obama agrees.

Last week, the US President and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a new program which will aim to double the number of youth exchanges between Japan and the US by 2020.

President Obama said:

I’m pleased that we continue to deepen the extraordinary ties between our people, especially our young people…  And I’m proud to announce that we’re launching a new program that will help even more Japanese students come to the United States to improve their English-language skills and gain valuable experience working in American businesses and organizations. And that’s part of our effort to double student exchanges by 2020 -- bonds among our young people that can bring us closer together for decades to come.

YFU helps provide opportunities for students by working in partnership with governments, corporations, foundations, schools and educators worldwide. I had the privilege of visiting our team in Japan last November and had the opportunity to visit the US Embassy - on the same day as the new US Ambassador, Caroline Kennedy, started her tenure. The buzz through Tokyo was palpable. Crowds lined the streets to try to get a glimpse of her on as she made her way to the Imperial Palace to present her credentials. While we didn’t meet the new Ambassador, we were able to spend time with Sara Harriger, the Education and Exchanges Officer from the US Embassy. We talked a great deal about ways we could support one another and the importance of youth exchange in preparing our young adults for future leadership roles.

YFU USA, CEO Michael E. Hill & YFU Japan, National Director Keiko Enatsu

YFU USA, CEO Michael E. Hill & YFU Japan, National Director Keiko Enatsu

Through creating global learning opportunities, YFU is driving person to person diplomacy. We promote  international understanding, prosperity and world peace by enabling young people to build lifelong understanding, relationships and lasting memories.

I’d like to thank both President Obama and Prime Minister Abe for sharing our commitment to youth exchange and making it a part of the broader geo-political conversation. Arigato gozaimasu!