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YFU Blog - Recent stories about Youth for Understanding

Filtering by Tag: Youth For Understanding

Welcoming our First Exchange Student!

brandpointyfu

My husband and I always wanted to be exchange students but the opportunity never really presented itself. One day while at our local YMCA we were presented the opportunity to host an exchange student. After about 45 minutes of chatting, we took the plunge & before too long we were looking at potential students to come live with us. 

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It was the Summer of '70...

brandpointyfu

YFU was the beginning of my lifelong love of travel, which continued at Stanford-in-France and in my career as a journalist and international media trainer. Except for my dad's service in World War II, I was the first person in my family to travel overseas since our ancestors came from Europe. The YFU experience literally changed the direction of my life because I was able to experience possibilities beyond the boundaries of my home country, community, and upbringing.

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Happy World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development!

brandpointyfu

Today, YFU celebrates the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development.

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My YFU Experience: Kylie Neidich

brandpointyfu

Interview by YFU Alumnus and Campus Ambassador Ronak Gandhi with YFU Field Director, Host Mother & Area Representative Kylie Neidich

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What Youth For Understanding Means to Me

brandpointyfu

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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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Several Nights in Tunisia: Taking YFU's Presence Virtual in North Africa and the Middle East

brandpointyfu

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We sent our Director of Virtual Exchanges, Erin Helland, to Tunisia to explore how we might increase YFU activities in the MENA Region. Here's what she found:

0014212403Youth For Understanding USA205281914.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}

Pre-departure: “Tunisia?” It seemed nearly half the people I told about my trip asked this one word question with raised eyebrows and an uncertainty that translated to both “I think I know where that is,” and “is it safe for you there?” I routinely responded, “Yes! Picture Africa. From left to right it goes: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt – I’ll be fine.” And, then for a brief moment, when stepping out of the airport and into the dry heat of this small, yet influential coastal country, this tiny voice in my head asked, “what are you doing here?”

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First Impressions: I felt genuinely welcomed and comfortable in Tunisia. Everything was both less and more exotic than I imagined. There was an approachable-ness to the people and the culture – which much like here at home, consists of a large middle class. As a woman traveling solo I braced myself for the conservatism that might be visible in a predominantly Muslim country.  I found instead a rather progressive climate where head and arm covering is optional based on personal choice, where it is perfectly acceptable to dine in public or conduct business in mixed company, and where women are strong and vocal community influencers.

Perhaps you'll recall the Arab Spring protests that spread across North Africa started in Tunisia.  Considered the “success story” of the region, Tunisia formed a democracy after the revolution and has not experienced the same severe levels of divide, armed conflict and displacement as its neighbors. There is an overarching sense that though some are challenged by change, many are open to experiment with the latest ideas and opportunities. It is hard to describe the essence of this combined tentativeness and enthusiastic energy – it resembles the “possibilities” felt with the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the hope and anticipation following the historic 2008 US election. My general impression is that youth and adults alike exude a cautious hope for the future...and yet, according to multiple multinational government intelligence sources, this is the same country that sends—percentage-wise and in sheer numbers—the highest number of jihadists to ISIS.

Day One:  The first day I was welcomed to the country by Yassine, the high schooler and YFU alum to Texas who introduced the concept of a virtual program to his teacher. We met in the courtyard of a traditional Arabic guesthouse in Sidi Bou Said, the infamous blue-and-white costal suburb where I was staying. In his exceptional English, he shared that his brother is now on exchange with his former host family, who put previous plans to visit Tunisia on hold due in-part to the terrorist incidents of 2015. We “nerded out” about the current state of affairs within and between our countries; like how, despite challenges and the long road ahead, he is proud of the strides Tunisia is making, and how he aspires to study abroad again and pursue a career path that will allow him to serve his people. 

00157330Youth For Understanding USA2138614.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}My conversation with YFU Alumnus Yassine started at the guesthouse and continued for several hours at a picturesque café overlooking the bay. Along our walk, he made sure I tried a local “donut” of sorts, and got a jasmine flower from a street vendor. He explained how locals try to be supportive of vendors in light of declining tourism, due in part to the terrorist attacks of 2015.

00157330Youth For Understanding USA2138614.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}My conversation with YFU Alumnus Yassine started at the guesthouse and continued for several hours at a picturesque café overlooking the bay. Along our walk, he made sure I tried a local “donut” of sorts, and got a jasmine flower from a street vendor. He explained how locals try to be supportive of vendors in light of declining tourism, due in part to the terrorist attacks of 2015.

00139224Youth For Understanding USA1126214.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}Yassine was presented with a Certificate of Global Citizenship for his dedication to the growth of intercultural understanding among students of Tunisia and the United States through virtual exchanges. We talked about a typical school day, his debate team and the virtual exchange pilot program. After we talked for nearly three hours, he pulled out a notebook to be sure he’d asked all he had intended. Together we dreamed of all the ways we could make YFU’s virtual exchanges accessible across the MENA region.

00139224Youth For Understanding USA1126214.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}Yassine was presented with a Certificate of Global Citizenship for his dedication to the growth of intercultural understanding among students of Tunisia and the United States through virtual exchanges. We talked about a typical school day, his debate team and the virtual exchange pilot program. After we talked for nearly three hours, he pulled out a notebook to be sure he’d asked all he had intended. Together we dreamed of all the ways we could make YFU’s virtual exchanges accessible across the MENA region.

001144826Youth For Understanding USA6196914.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}On the Road Again:Meeting the Change-Makers:  My adventures took me from my base in Sidi Bou Said across the lake into Tunis and its sister city Ariana, four hours south to the city of Sfax, and 90 minutes north to Bizerte, where our pilot program initiated. Not only did I get to meet tremendously driven teachers for a deep-dive about the program (and say hello to a few eager students), but I got to also talk to entrepreneurs and association leaders who are curious about YFU. In addition, a new collaboration for 2017 is now underway after a dynamic discussion with a youth organization that prompts high schoolers across the country to examine civil society in a post-democracy Tunisia, simulate elections, approach ways to counter violent extremism, and discover potential career paths. It was perhaps most rewarding to meet face-to-face with the teacher who sponsored the initial spring pilot and who inspired our continued pursuit of programming in Tunisia. 

00198563Youth For Understanding USA4166014.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}It was my pleasure to hand deliver a Certificate of Global Citizenship to Sonia (center left), the 22-year veteran English teacher in Bizerte who helped get the first program off the ground. Encouraged by her efforts, we were able to expand the fall pilot to include two more countries (Thailand and Indonesia) where now more than 500 students are active in six virtual classrooms. She and I spent a lot of time back-and-forthing through the spring pilot and over the summer break to assess the project and prepare for my visit. In many ways, it felt like I was going to visit a long-lost friend. Sonia is a true YFU advocate and pioneer of the Virtual Exchange Initiative.

00198563Youth For Understanding USA4166014.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}It was my pleasure to hand deliver a Certificate of Global Citizenship to Sonia (center left), the 22-year veteran English teacher in Bizerte who helped get the first program off the ground. Encouraged by her efforts, we were able to expand the fall pilot to include two more countries (Thailand and Indonesia) where now more than 500 students are active in six virtual classrooms. She and I spent a lot of time back-and-forthing through the spring pilot and over the summer break to assess the project and prepare for my visit. In many ways, it felt like I was going to visit a long-lost friend. Sonia is a true YFU advocate and pioneer of the Virtual Exchange Initiative.

00195543Youth For Understanding USA4163714.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}In Sfax we went to lunch with Imen, an IT teacher at a high-achieving middle school. She’d reserved seating in the back room of a restaurant where, while talking at high speeds, we’d managed to stuff ourselves with traditional Tunisian food like tomato salad and baguette, shrimp puree soup, grilled dorade fish, and pasta. Several of Imen’s colleagues continued to join us throughout the lunch and the afternoon, and with great enthusiasm, we broke down all aspects of the program – including both the benefits to their students and the potential challenges that come with sharing personal perspectives that differ from those of others.

00195543Youth For Understanding USA4163714.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}In Sfax we went to lunch with Imen, an IT teacher at a high-achieving middle school. She’d reserved seating in the back room of a restaurant where, while talking at high speeds, we’d managed to stuff ourselves with traditional Tunisian food like tomato salad and baguette, shrimp puree soup, grilled dorade fish, and pasta. Several of Imen’s colleagues continued to join us throughout the lunch and the afternoon, and with great enthusiasm, we broke down all aspects of the program – including both the benefits to their students and the potential challenges that come with sharing personal perspectives that differ from those of others.

00189509Youth For Understanding USA4159714.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}In Ariana we had coffee with Aicha, a middle school English teacher at the oldest school in the city. Though she already earned her Master’s in English and International Relations, she is also pursuing a degree in Cyber Security/Counter Cyber Terrorism. A member of several civil society programs that focus on internet governance, economic, social and educational policies, Aicha met with us because she is genuinely intrigued by the prospect of exposing her students to other cultures through virtual exchanges and wanted to be able to introduce the concept to her principal and fellow teachers.

00189509Youth For Understanding USA4159714.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}In Ariana we had coffee with Aicha, a middle school English teacher at the oldest school in the city. Though she already earned her Master’s in English and International Relations, she is also pursuing a degree in Cyber Security/Counter Cyber Terrorism. A member of several civil society programs that focus on internet governance, economic, social and educational policies, Aicha met with us because she is genuinely intrigued by the prospect of exposing her students to other cultures through virtual exchanges and wanted to be able to introduce the concept to her principal and fellow teachers.

0012671523Youth For Understanding USA123178714.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}The YFU Ripple Effect:  I watched the strength of the YFU exchanges come alive when the experiences of a few alumni rippled across continents and generations to make great strides in Tunisia in a turnaround of less than six months. Our pilot launched there because one student, who went to Texas on a YFU exchange, introduced us to his teacher upon returning home. She then sponsored a “virtual exchange” club of 20 students, which in-turn, set the stage for the fall pilot that now extends to 500 students in several countries. I’m sometimes taken aback when I imagine the impact the "YFU Ripple Effect" has had and can have when multiplied by the 260,000 alumni who have studied abroad through our traditional exchange programs.  

YFU On Ground: I was introduced via our global network to Pedro, a YFU alumnus from Spain whose exchange brought him to a farm in South Dakota in the early '80s.  Now residing in Tunisia, he graciously stepped into the role of lead on-ground YFU volunteer and served as my guardian for the week. He conducted his own outreach to associations and educators—sharing about YFU, and arranging additional appointments in advance of my arrival.  He acted as translator when necessary, drove everywhere so I wouldn’t have to bother with transportation, and even handed me a mobile phone pre-programmed with local contacts. Pedro is a world traveler, linguist, cultural enthusiast and family man, whose career has spanned from working for the UN in Yemen, to freelancing as an NGO consultant. He told me that he volunteers for YFU because it was one of the most influential experiences in the course of his life. I appreciate his friendship, and gained much from his insights before my arrival and during. YFU is fortunate to have him in our corner, passionately advocating for and representing us in country.  

Pedro, YFU Alum and lead volunteer for Tunisia, contacts the Ministry of Education from our "mobile office." We'd just wrapped a strategic planning lunch session with YFU Alum Yassine, Sonia our pioneering teacher, and her daughter. 00126151Youth For Understanding USA1117614.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}It was incredibly rewarding to be in the company of these two YFU program alumni, knowing that we were working together to build something important to an organization we love.

Pedro, YFU Alum and lead volunteer for Tunisia, contacts the Ministry of Education from our "mobile office." We'd just wrapped a strategic planning lunch session with YFU Alum Yassine, Sonia our pioneering teacher, and her daughter. 00126151Youth For Understanding USA1117614.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}It was incredibly rewarding to be in the company of these two YFU program alumni, knowing that we were working together to build something important to an organization we love.

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Right Where We Want to Be: It was a rewarding and fruitful visit, and I’m so grateful to those who made it so. Indeed, along the way, this island of democracy proved that it is well positioned to act as our “home base” as we strategically develop a YFU presence across the MENA region.  Our volunteer alumni, the teachers, and even the new friends I met on this trip have proven they stand ready to support our development within the country and beyond. 

From what I can tell, the country’s stability lies in the continued creation of opportunities for the people—especially in providing a tangible, optimistic future for its youth—and perhaps our programming provides one avenue to supporting just that. YFU’s exchanges are beyond academic, more than fun pictures about food or holidays—they function as a means of engaging with “the other,” or that which is unfamiliar to us, helping to combat extremist views, and get youth engaged with the world.  While sharing their own experiences openly, students have the opportunity to increase self-awareness, develop intercultural communications competencies, and learn for themselves that when you get right down to it, our similarities are greater than our differences.

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 Learn more about the Virtual Exchange Initiative at yfuusa.org/virtual-exchanges

A Life Changing Decision

brandpointyfu

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002016-06-22T14:14:00Z2016-06-22T15:12:00Z1641Youth For Understanding USA114614.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:12.0pt;font-family:Cambria;mso-ascii-font-family:Cambria;mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;mso-hansi-font-family:Cambria;mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}Guest post from YFU Volunteer & Host Dad Andy002016-06-22T14:14:00Z2016-06-22T15:12:00Z17764557Youth For Understanding USA8223531014.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:12.0pt;font-family:Cambria;mso-ascii-font-family:Cambria;mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;mso-hansi-font-family:Cambria;mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}

I was introduced to YFU slowly and without even realizing it. Some good friends of mine, Teresa and Jacob, had hosted several times, and they would have "barn parties" at their home that were always a lot of fun. It was a genius idea looking back--they gathered all of the exchange students in the area they could find, all the the families that wanted to come, and then all of their other friends and had a party. Just add food, drink, a few beers for the adults, a campfire and s'more materials for the teenagers, and it was a surprising amount of fun considering how diverse the group was. After a couple of these parties, I also took my first trip overseas to visit my family in Germany. While not related, the exchange student parties and the trip to Germany opened my mind to the idea that despite our language or cultural differences, we as a people have a lot in common. We love to laugh, to enjoy time with friends, and of course to eat good food. The ingredients were coming together to change my life even though I didn't yet realize it.

The fall after my first trip to Germany, I met Hendrik, Agustin, Sandra, and a slew of other exchange students at the annual party. I struck up a short conversation with Hendrik, the boy from Germany, because Germany is where my family is from and I really enjoyed my time there. I found out that Hendrik lived near the same city as my family and it was really neat for me. Later that year, I saw a message from Teresa asking on Facebook if anyone would be interested in hosting a German boy for the rest of the year. She got my attention, we started messaging, and the next thing you know I'm a host dad. What a trip! In less than a week, I managed to find a dresser, desk, and other things I needed to outfit the spare room. I believe it was 8 days after Teresa posted her message that Hendrik moved in. It felt like an eternity, but then it was off to the races. It was Thanksgiving week, then a trip to Chicago, then Cincinnati, then Christmas.

Then, after nearly 7 months of doing everything we could imagine to do, it was time for Hendrik to go back to Germany. It hurt more than I ever would have imagined. But something so powerful and rewarding has to have a price. Due to some pending “life stuff” that I had to deal with and some travel, I did not plan to host in the Fall of 2015. However, I got a call from Judy Beach asking me if I would be a volunteer and be an area rep for a German boy named Martin. I was immediately interested. It gave me the opportunity to stay involved even though I couldn't host. Later that year I became the area rep for another student from Germany, Patricia. When I would take both of the students I repped out together, I’ll never forget when they mentioned how odd (and cool) it was that they were two Germans but they were speaking English together.

I love working with exchange students, because you never know what they are going to find interesting. Occasionally they can say something that stings a bit (why do you do X, that's dumb), but I've found that usually with exchange students the mundane becomes exciting. Even a trip to the grocery store can be an adventure. Things we take for granted or have long since forgotten we ever liked, such as Pop Tarts and Fruit Roll ups, become new again.

Getting involved with YFU was a life changing decision. There has been some pain along the way, but I think I have learned from it and grown as a result. I didn't realize the capacity I have to care for other people is essentially limitless. I didn't know that I could love an exchange student like a son, even though I don't have a son of my own. I think if more people hosted, if more people experienced cultural exchange, that the world would be a better place.

In late 2015 I found out that I would be a host dad again, this time for Damien from France. I thought hosting the second time would be similar to the first, and it was in a lot of ways, but it was also very different. No two people are the same, and so you start again with a completely new relationship. I quickly learned a lot about Damien and the country he calls home. WeI did a lot in the 5 and a half months he was here, sometimes it is hard to believe all that we managed to do. Going home does mark the end of the special time that is the exchange year, but it marks the beginning of a potential lifetime of friendship and memories.

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My heart swells with pride when I think of my two host sons. The relationship isn’t always like a father and son, I’m still a bit young (34) and so sometimes it feels more like big brother and little brother, but it works. When I think of all the great things that I believe Damien and Hendrik will go on to do, I can’t help but be proud of them. I told them both that going on exchange is brave. Putting oneself out there in a foreign country is something I never could imagine myself doing as a teenager, but now I see just how valuable it is.

In the short time I have been with YFU as a host parent and volunteer, I have made some amazing friends both here and in countries around the world. One reason to get involved is definitely because of the exposure you get to the world. Just today, I've chatted with people in France, Germany, and Uruguay, in addition to the USA. However, when people ask me why I host, why I volunteer, or why they should consider hosting, I often will say "because you literally get to make dreams come true". Sometimes I get funny looks, but I think it is the truth. These young adults who want to come to the USA *are* dreaming about it. It is more important to them than almost everything else. They are often times (maybe even most times) delaying school a year to take another year of school. That is a passionate teenager. YFU staff, interns, volunteers, and host families ALL get to take part in turning that dream into reality. That's the good stuff, and that's why I do what I do.

A Quick Transition

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002016-06-22T14:14:00Z2016-06-22T15:12:00Z12401411Youth For Understanding USA257164414.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin-top:0in;mso-para-margin-right:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:8.0pt;mso-para-margin-left:0in;line-height:107%;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:11.0pt;font-family:Calibri;mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri;mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri;mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}“When he got here, he didn’t like hugging people,” explained Roni Sutton, host mother and long-time YFU volunteer about her exchange student from Jordan, Ahmad. “That was pretty much the opposite when he left.”

On the last day of his senior year, Roni recalled Ahmad’s emotion as he said goodbye to friends and teachers who had so warmly accepted him into their lives. His good heart and ‘hysterically dry’ humor quickly gained him the respect of his peers in the classroom, and the love and laughter of the Sutton family at home.

“It took a week or so for him to settle in, but we knew he was comfortable when he started to crack his jokes – just like he was really a part of the family.” The Sutton family learned, however, that beneath his ever-smiling face and relaxed attitude was a caring, observant, and humble young man. He was quick to apologize anytime he felt a joke was not received well, and asked many questions to help him learn and better himself for next time.

His caring and adaptive nature did not stop here. During the month of Ramadan, Roni remembers Ahmad’s quiet diligence to follow his prayer, washing, and eating schedule, all while still spending time with the family and his friends.

“Normally, I would leave a plate of food for him in the fridge for him to warm up after it got dark,” she recollected. “The one time I forgot, he was so understanding and asked how he could help make something for himself.”

By the end of the school year, Ahmad had succeeded not only in learning about American society and culture, but also in teaching his own religious and native customs to his peers and host family members. 

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Did you know that each year, YFU welcomes scholarship winners from several US Government sponsored programs? Learn more about hosting a YES Scholarship student like Ahmad and meet our incoming class of students today! 

Lifelong Friends in Another Place

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002016-06-22T14:14:00Z2016-06-22T15:12:00Z13812240Youth For Understanding USA4011261014.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin-top:0in;mso-para-margin-right:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:8.0pt;mso-para-margin-left:0in;line-height:107%;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:11.0pt;font-family:Calibri;mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri;mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri;mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}The Noble-Olsen family welcomed Maan from Saudi Arabia during the 2015-2016 school year to develop what they agreed would be “a lifelong friend in a different place.” Patricia his host mother, explained to us how their multi-generational household was perfect for a transitioning Maan, who was accustomed to living and interacting with his extended family in Saudi Arabia. For the family, this also meant multiple generations’ worth of learning and understanding of the Islamic religion and of Saudi culture.

The holy month of Ramadan, which occurred during Maan’s stay with the Noble-Olsens, naturally came with obstacles that required cooperation and an open-mind from Maan and his new family. Included in these were Minnesota’s long days, during which he had to fast, leading to an eating schedule that was inconsistent with the typical family mealtimes, and in respect to Maan’s religion, the elimination of pork and alcohol from their diet.

Patricia, who has a background in religious studies, thoroughly enjoyed the process of her learning from Maan about Saudi culture and religion, but specified how the extent of learning reached beyond just her and Maan.

“He very much enjoyed talking about religion,” she said. “He presented to his class about Saudi Arabia, and loved to learn about the religion of others.”

In the household, it was clear that Maan’s energy was special, as Patricia recalls finding him in conversation with her 4-year-old granddaughter. 

“My granddaughter adored Maan,” said Patricia when asked of her favorite moment of his stay. “I remember the two of them sitting with each other at the dining room table talking. She reached up to grab his arm and said, ‘I love you,’ to which he said, ‘I love you too.’”

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On the night of his departure, Patricia recalled her family’s final dinner for Maan as a heart-breaking experience. As he was leaving very early the next morning, each family member took turns saying goodbye before going to sleep for the night – but Maan had something else planned.

“I woke up the next morning to find a post-it note on the door to our bedroom saying, ‘Love you, Thank you!’ only to realize that there were countless notes around the house expressing Maan’s love and gratitude for individual members of the family. He left 96 notes around the house, and I was still finding them two weeks later,” Patricia reminisced.

The Noble-Olsen family found in Maan a perfect example of how an intercultural exchange program can convey such understanding and compassion in a family while showing a young scholar a world so different from their own.  

Did you know that each year, YFU welcomes scholarship winners from several US Government sponsored programs? Learn more about hosting a YES Scholarship student like Maan and meet our incoming class of students today! 

Celebrating 1,096 Days

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Guest post from YFU President & CEO Michael E. Hill

002016-05-10T14:40:00Z2016-05-10T14:40:00Z14112349Youth For Understanding USA195275514.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:12.0pt;font-family:Cambria;mso-ascii-font-family:Cambria;mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;mso-hansi-font-family:Cambria;mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}Where have the past 1,096 days gone?!

Today marks three years of service as President & CEO of YFU USA. So much has happened in these first three years. When I reflect on my work here, I often write about the impact of exchange, its possibilities to promote peace in the world, and the transformative equation of placing a young person with a loving family under the helpful assistance of an incredible volunteer advocate. And all of this remains as true today as it was the first day I walked into this office.

But this year marks a different milestone for me. In August, I welcome my exchange son from Finland to share my home in the United States. I have always felt a connection to this mission. Much of that comes from the countless hours I have spent with host families, volunteers and students. People that are involved with YFU speak so passionately about their experiences in our programs, and I feel lucky that they have so openly shared their journey with me. But this year, I become a program participant at YFU.

The journey has been more nerve wracking than I thought it would be. 

I agreed to host in February. It took me more than a month to get through the whole process, and at each step of the way, I got a little more invested. Seeing a young person’s story on my computer screen only gave me a glimpse of his story. Waiting to see if I passed the various tests and home visits – yes, they apply even to the President of YFU! – were all markers in preparing myself mentally for my exchange son’s arrival. And then came the day we could first speak. I think only then did my new son move from “an idea” to someone who would join my family.

The next few months will include getting to know him more, preparing his room, wrapping my head around parent-teacher conferences at his school, and thinking how I want to shape his year in America. And I know these “well-laid plans” will all change as his unique personality makes an entrance into my -- into our -- home.

I hope to share a lot more with you throughout the year about my first time hosting. But, until the third week of August, I want to say “thank you” for making my first three years at the helm of YFU USA such a rich and rewarding experience.

In a couple of weeks, we will celebrate Father’s Day in the United States. For all you veteran parents, any advice you have for this rookie is welcome at president@yfu.org. I look forward to sharing the best gems of advice I receive on my personal YFU Facebook page at facebook.com/michaelhillyfu.

Thank you again for all you do for YFU. I feel honored and privileged to have journeyed with each of you these past three years.

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“Why Hosting Matters”

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Host a YFU / U.S. Department of State-Sponsored

High School Exchange Student

Why hosting matters: Hosting is a catalyst in making us all citizens of one world. It brings culture and a sense of adventure to you and your family while teaching valuable lessons about acceptance and global unity to your community. Hosting brings the world home to you.

Each year, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs brings almost 2,000 high school students, representing over 50 countries, to study in a local U.S. high school while living with an American host family. Become a part of this unique opportunity by hosting a YES, FLEX or CBYX student with YFU this upcoming school year.

May 15, 2016 – International Day of Families

To all of our host families, thank you! Please help YFU and the U.S. Department of State celebrate this day and these unique hosting opportunities by posting images and messages on your social media accounts using the hashtag, #WhyHostingMatters. We want to see your hosting and exchange images on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, showing the world just how amazing it is to host these Scholarship recipients.

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Happy National Volunteer Week

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Guest post from YFU President & CEO Michael E. Hill

Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege to meet with many of you during my listening tours in Boston, Massachusetts; Muskegon, Michigan; Charlotte, NC; and Clyde and Delaware, OH with Bill Malloy, our Director of Volunteer Programs. We have a few cities still to visit, but I always come away with the profound understanding that YFU simply would not exist without our volunteer family.

As I was preparing to write this note, I reflected on the impact our volunteers have on our students’ experiences. Often, when I speak to outside groups or individuals about our mission, consistently the one thing people are often surprised by is the sheer number of volunteers and their direct impact on our program, our students and frankly, the continued success of delivering a rich, meaningful cultural exchange experience. Others outside our organization either don’t understand – or are unable to comprehend the level of professionalism, passion and dedication of YFU volunteers.  

Meeting volunteers, students, and host parents is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. On a recent trip through the beautiful state of Ohio—I was fortunate enough to spend several hours hearing directly from two remarkable groups of volunteers. At a gathering in northern Ohio, the personal stories of why YFU holds a special place in the hearts of our volunteers overwhelmed me. In that small country store where the event was held, you couldn’t help but feel the energy vibrating in the room! One volunteer in particular named Pat will always stand out in my mind. Pat’s vigor, dedication, and 30+ years of YFU volunteering illuminated the space. I was also equally inspired by Matthew, a volunteer in his early 20s, who attended the event while at home on break from his university studies. Matthew was joined by his mom, another YFU volunteer, and I was able to see firsthand how volunteering really does run in the family! These stories were especially poignant as later this summer, I will become a first time host dad. I’m incredibly excited about this new journey and am so thankful to know I will have the support and expertise of our volunteers to help guide me. 

So as we celebrate National Volunteer Appreciation Week, I want to thank each and every one of our volunteers for the tremendous work you do throughout the year. From helping to place students, writing student profiles, interviewing students and families, serving as scholarship evaluators, leading as area reps, lending your expertise on regional volunteer leadership councils and the countless other ways you contribute to YFU, you continue to make a profound difference in the lives of the young people, host families and communities we serve.

I want to thank you, as well, for the many words of advice you’ve given my team and I as we head into our 65th year. Please know there’s not a day that goes by that I am not grateful for all you do and how hopeful it makes me to know that we will build a brighter future for YFU… together.

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A Lifetime of Exchange

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Guest post from YFU Alum Meg White Campbell

The idea to participate in an exchange probably began when my family agreed to host a student from France one summer when I was in elementary school. I couldn’t speak French, and Sanou couldn’t speak English, but we managed to communicate through acting and shared hobbies - It turns out French kids love ice cream, too. Then my sophomore year of high school, my mom came across and an advertisement in a brochure – these were pre-internet days – and she passed it along to me. Before long, and courtesy of a YFU and All Nippon Airways scholarship, I was off on an adventure to Japan.   

I absolutely loved Tokyo. My 5’10” felt like 7’10”, but thankfully my gargantuan proportions didn’t prevent my host family from being gracious and hospitable. We laughed a lot together (or perhaps they were laughing at me and I simply joined in). In Tokyo, I saw the coolest things! I remember a man rollerblade-skiing down a busy street, a group of people dressed as Star Wars storm troopers in the shopping district, and an apple (the fruit, not the technology) on sale for the equivalent of $25. I participated in a tea ceremony, met a Koto player (see photo below), and hiked majestic Mt. Fuji.  What struck me the most about the Japanese friends I made, and what I still admire about Japanese colleagues today, is their overwhelming graciousness and kindness. They are forever concerned how the other person is feeling. 

To say the stay in Tokyo was eye-opening for me is an understatement. It broadened my horizons and changed my trajectory both personally and professionally. Since that first foray overseas, I have lived in eight countries and participated in three other exchange programs. As a result of my current Foreign Service posting, my children, whom I call “multicultural minions”, attend a bilingual school in Berlin, where they are reaping the benefits of easily moving between cultures and languages.  

As anyone reading this well knows, exchange helps us see ourselves from the outside. This knowledge is an exceptionally powerful skillset in the world of diplomacy, where sometimes in our effort to do the right thing at the right time, we inadvertently act too quickly or fumble our messages. Sometimes even when we – and our policies – are well-intentioned, they are not always received the way we had hoped they would be. Through exchange we learn to ask better questions, to listen, and that it is ok to trust people who prefer Sarutahiko to Starbucks. 

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Exchanges have taught me grit and moxie. I survived high school in Bavaria amidst fast friends and a flurry of flashcards. It was trying, but there was a lasting sense of accomplishment once I had made it to the other side. This persistence means that, even today, when I make mistakes, I dust myself off, chart a new course, and…make all new mistakes. I have better sense of perspective now, too. 

Learning foreign languages through exchange has opened my eyes to a new universe of people and possibilities. As my language proficiency increased, I also honed my empathy. I now know firsthand how taxing it is to work an entire day in a foreign language. Nothing is more humbling than spending three hours writing a short blurb in German to then attend a conference, where international colleagues give compelling speeches effortlessly in English.  

Learning another language is a gift we can give each other, but there are other ways to promote intercultural dialogue. We can host international students, donate to YFU, or simply shout from the rooftops how much we love exchange. I have maintained contact with several host family members and friends met during my time abroad. My Japanese host sister stayed with my family in the U.S., and one host family sends my children Christmas gifts signed “your ¾ family”. Thanks to Dr. Rachel Andresen and her continuing legacy through YFU, these lifelong connections have enriched my life and have helped me learn, grow, and succeed.  

If exchange is for you, find a way to make it happen. There will always be people who don’t understand how you could leave and miss Homecoming or basketball season. You have to weigh that for yourself, but you should also consider what you will miss if you don’t go. There’s a whole world out there waiting for you to explore.  Ganbatte, and Viel Spaß!  

Meg and her multicultural minions (Max Elijah and Milo) with host sister Zita Lettenmeier - taken in Berlin, Feb 2016.

Meg and her multicultural minions (Max Elijah and Milo) with host sister Zita Lettenmeier - taken in Berlin, Feb 2016.

Meg White Campbell, a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Department of State, is currently working as an exchange diplomat (Transatlantic Diplomatic Fellow) at the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin, Germany

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.

Holi – The Festival of Colors

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Guest post from YFU Atlas Corps Fellow, Deepa Khatri

My Homecoming Abroad

This is going to be my first Holi here in the United States, I have been celebrating Holi for past 2 year’s back home in India. I’m honestly, pretty excited to celebrate Holi outside India mostly because over the past couple of decades, it has become such a popular festival globally, that you can always find a little part of India/home almost anywhere.

Context & Origin

In India, we have thousands of gods and stories associated with them, from which we derive some of our values, culture, beliefs and way of life. India is known as a country of festivals – in fact, we pretty much have them weekly – where we come together to live in the moment, celebrating various occasions to spread joy and happiness amongst our communities. For those, who may not be as familiar with my country and this ‘festival of color’ and why it’s celebrated, I’d like share some the Hindu mythology behind its origin.

The story behind Holi is a story of a prince and how his devotion depicted the victory of good or evil. Prahlad was the prince of Multan and his father Hiranyakashipu had been gifted with a blessing that made him virtually indestructible. He grew arrogant, thought he was God, and demanded that everyone should only worship him. Whereas, his own son, Prahlad was devoted to Lord Vishnu (one of the 3 main gods in Hindu Mythology who created the universe). This infuriated Hiranyakashipu and he subjected his own son to cruel punishments; none of which affected the boy or his resolve to do what he thought was right. Finally, Holika - Prahlada's evil aunt - tricked him into sitting on a pyre with her. Unbeknown to Prahlada, Holika wore a cloak that made her immune to injury from fire, while Prahlada had nothing. As the fire roared, the cloak flew from Holika and encased Prahlada. Holika burned, Prahlada survived. Seeing this, Hiranyakashipu, unable to control his anger, smashed a pillar with his mace. There was a tumultuous sound, and Lord Vishnu appeared in the form of Lord Narasimha and killed Hiranyakashipu.

The date for celebrating Holi, changes each year because rather than being tied to a specific calendar date, it is celebrated at the approach of the vernal equinox, on the PhalgunaPurnima (full moon). The festival signifies the victory of good over evil, the arrival of spring and end of winter, and for many, serves as a day to celebrate good harvests as well to meet others, play, laugh, practice forgiveness and repair broken relationships.

The celebration starts on the night before Holi with a ‘Holika bonfire’ where people gather together to sing, dance and party. The bonfire is a reminder of the symbolic victory of good over evil, of Prahlada over Hiranyakashipu, and of the fire that burned Holika. The next day when the fire cooled down, people apply ash to their foreheads, a practice still observed by some. Eventually, colored powder came to be used to represent this ash and celebrate Holi. The next morning is a free-for-all carnival of colors where participants play, chase and color each other with dry powder and colored water – some participants even carry water guns and colored water-filled balloons for their water fight. It’s a super fun festival for people of all ages, which is one of the primary reasons for its increasing popularity.

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Power of Festivity in the Modern World

In today’s fast paced world, cultural traditions often become overlooked. I personally believe that these festivals and their festivities play an integral role in reminding us of the importance of coming together, celebrating our differences and similarities, and helping us to live every moment to the fullest. Irrespective of where they come from or which ethnicity one belongs to, Holi brings people together to share and celebrate a culture, a tradition, a history, a community.

By immersing oneself in another culture, you can begin to truly understand differences, a unique way of life, and to learn from one another. What you find is that it all boils down to one simple thing which is we all are humans and we share the same human emotions. There is no difference that puts one race above or below another; the mere difference is, how you treat your fellow human beings.

YFU and Cultural Exchange

This year I’ve had the opportunity to work at YFU and contribute to the vision of increasing intercultural understanding, mutual respect and social responsibility through educational exchanges for youth, families and communities. And what could be better than inviting everyone to experience Holi, the festival of color, love and joy this year with me. I encourage you to immerse yourself in my culture for a better understanding of the differences and similarities of the human race, to gain mutual trust & respect and to stand for one race called the human race and for its development.

Bura Na Mano, Holi Hai! ("Don't Mind, It's Holi!")

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Make an Impact - One Ripple at a Time

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Hello, my name is Olga Smolenchuk. I am an Atlas Corps Fellow  from Russia serving at Youth For Understanding.

I strongly believe that change starts with individual actions, which start the ripples that leads to major impact.

A great example is my own story. When I was in seventh grade, my teacher took me by the hand and transferred me to an advanced class. She believed that I could achieve more. Thanks to her action, I am here today, participating alongside some of the most impressive nonprofit leaders from across the world and serving in one the oldest international exchange organizations, Youth For Understanding.

Coming from a small coal-mining town in Siberia, it is difficult for kids to dream big. Yet, this teacher taught me to think bigger and to challenge myself to do more.

Right before embarking onto my journey as an Atlas Corps Fellow, I returned to that very same classroom with that same inspirational teacher to talk to the current seventh graders about dreaming big and working hard for their dreams. When I was their age, I could not have even imagined that one day I would in the United States and speaking at the State Department. Now, look, here I am. I plan on returning to that school after my Fellowship to share more with these young students and to inspire them to dream even bigger.

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It is important that we never quit dreaming because we can always achieve more. It is the same with civil society—civil society starts with educated youth that are not afraid to dream big. Just looking around this room, I see 80+ individuals who continue to have big visions and inspire one another to also believe in their abilities to forward positive change. It may seem overwhelming to try to solve all the major social issues of the world—we may seem insignificant as individuals. It is as a network that we are going to achieve results.

Russia is a great example. Russia is a country with more than 200 nationalities spread across a vast geographic region. While it is difficult to target the entire country, we can start with youth from small towns like Belovo. They can be a positive force in their own communities, which when united with efforts in the towns of other Fellow countries, will create the ripple effect that leads to major impact.

Dr. Rachel Andresen, who was the founder of Youth for Understanding, visited Amsterdam in 1948. There, she saw the streetlights illuminating the city for the first time after World War II. She was very touched and vowed to do everything she could with her life “so that the lights would never go out again.”

I also vow to light up the kids in my home town with the energy I get during this professional exchange, so that the lights will never go out again. 

Campus Ambassador Introductions: Grace

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“Studying abroad allowed me to become much more independent and self driven as well as gave me a passion for travel and an understanding of the importance of international relations.”

As I sit on the curb with my host sister and host aunt, I sing Disney songs quietly to myself to pass the time while waiting for the bus to come to take us home. It is five thirty in the morning and I’ve been up for almost 24 hours consecutively. I am on the verge of an emotional breakdown from exhaustion and culture shock, but in the middle of it I think “Well, this is what you signed up for as an exchange student.”

I had the opportunity to take a trip up to the mountains of Ecuador during my school vacation. I went up to Lake Quilotoa, a volcano crater lake at more than 12,000 feet, and then hiked 12 km back to the hotel.

I had the opportunity to take a trip up to the mountains of Ecuador during my school vacation. I went up to Lake Quilotoa, a volcano crater lake at more than 12,000 feet, and then hiked 12 km back to the hotel.

The YFU Ecuador trip to the Galapagos Islands was a great bonding experience with the other exchange students and the sights were spectacular.

The YFU Ecuador trip to the Galapagos Islands was a great bonding experience with the other exchange students and the sights were spectacular.

This is one of my favorite memories from the ten months I spent in Ecuador because it is such a clear marker of the ways in which my exchange changed me. I had been in country for maybe two weeks when my oldest host sister asked me if I wanted to go with her to a dance that night. It was a Friday so I had gotten up early to go to school and I was already a bit tired. I said yes anyways though because it was a new experience and that is definitely what I got. I had never been to any event even remotely similar and I spent the whole night sitting in a chair on the edge of the dance floor, completely overwhelmed by the intensity of the music and the sheer number of people dancing. I can’t say I enjoyed myself very much on that occasion, but in retrospect I can see it as one of the defining moments of my exchange.

For an art exam, a couple of my friends and I did a presentation as mimes about the day of friendship.

For an art exam, a couple of my friends and I did a presentation as mimes about the day of friendship.

In Ecuador, New Year’s Eve is a bigger holiday than Christmas. At midnight they burn paper mache dolls to symbolize the end of the old year and to welcome in the new. The parties last all night with fireworks, dancing and entertainment.

In Ecuador, New Year’s Eve is a bigger holiday than Christmas. At midnight they burn paper mache dolls to symbolize the end of the old year and to welcome in the new. The parties last all night with fireworks, dancing and entertainment.

Studying abroad allowed me to become much more independent and self driven as well as gave me a passion for travel and an understanding of the importance of international relations. The experiences I had in Ecuador were life changing and I want to help to provide this opportunity for many students in the future.

Manta, Ecuador is located directly on the beach and el Colegio del Pacifico, my school, was a ten minute walk away. One day the juniors and seniors took a field trip down to one of the beaches to do athletic activities.

Manta, Ecuador is located directly on the beach and el Colegio del Pacifico, my school, was a ten minute walk away. One day the juniors and seniors took a field trip down to one of the beaches to do athletic activities.

The school year on the coast of Ecuador runs from February to May so during the break YFU requires students to complete volunteer hours. I did mine at a daycare center in a classroom with children ages one to three years old. It was one of the most fun parts of my exchange; every day the kids made me smile and laugh. I also know a plethora of children’s songs in Spanish.

The school year on the coast of Ecuador runs from February to May so during the break YFU requires students to complete volunteer hours. I did mine at a daycare center in a classroom with children ages one to three years old. It was one of the most fun parts of my exchange; every day the kids made me smile and laugh. I also know a plethora of children’s songs in Spanish.

I lived in the commercial center of Manta, Tarqui, a street market. This picture was taken from the window of my host family’s apartment. There was always noise and traffic at every hour of the day, no matter what.

I lived in the commercial center of Manta, Tarqui, a street market. This picture was taken from the window of my host family’s apartment. There was always noise and traffic at every hour of the day, no matter what.

Sharing Holiday Celebrations

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Guest post from Juan Perez

These last few months in the US have been some of the best months of my life. Leaving family and friends at home is hard, but having this great experience is worth it. School is really interesting, and everyone wants to know more about the foreign students, our culture and traditions.

I recently visited to my (host) brother’s school, to talk about Mexico and how we celebrate the holidays. The kids asked a lots of questions; they were interested in my culture and that really made me happy.

In Mexico we have a traditions called "Las Posadas". This is a party before Christmas with our friends and family, where we pray, sing, and play with a Piñata [read more about it Las Posadas]. Explaining this tradition to my brother’s friends was amazing – I don't have words for the feelings I had in that moment.

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In the last months I made many new friends, including other YFU students from Europe, South America, Africa and Asia. Being away from home has helped make me stronger, and made think about the things we have, the different and the thing weave in common. This Year will be full of activities and good memories that I will remember for the rest of my life.

YFU Campus Ambassadors: Meet Emma

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As we celebrate International Education Week, YFU is excited to announce the launch of our new Campus Ambassador Program (CAP). Following a competitive application process, five YFU young alumni were selected from across the country to serve as our inaugural class of Campus Ambassadors. As a continuation of their exchange experience, they will mentor prospective study abroad and international students, and share YFU exchange opportunities within their schools and communities across the country. Stay tuned throughout the week as we introduce these student leaders. 

“Studying abroad helps to strengthen bonds between cultures and nations.”

Name: Emma

From: New Jersey

Went on exchange to: Sweden

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Emma is a 17-year-old YFU alum and is absolutely thrilled to be a part of YFU's Campus Ambassador Program! A senior in high school, Emma spent her exchange on the southern coast of Sweden for a semester in 2014-15. She has since caught the travel bug, continuing to study multiple foreign languages in her free time. Aside from traveling, Emma is an aspiring journalist, performer, and lover of all things sports. If you ever need someone to go to IKEA with, Emma will never deny the opportunity for köttbullar and lingonsylt!

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I believe in exchange because it teaches the world to be accepting of cultural differences and varying traditions.