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YFU Blog - Recent stories about Youth for Understanding

Filtering by Tag: france

Lifetime YFU Friendships



At first, we were just exchange students…

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

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

And then we were invited to events….

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

And then we were volunteers….

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

And then we were friends….

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

Laurie on the left, Jeanne on the right

Laurie on the left, Jeanne on the right

And there’s always YFU…

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

11 Tips for First Time Exchange Students



1. While walking home from school one day, bring home flowers.

Or a cool plant. Or chocolates. Or their favorite food/drink. Whether your exchange is just a month or a year, surprise your host family with a small and simple gift that serves as a nice reminder that you’re grateful for them.

2. ALWAYS ask if you're able to take a shower. This is courteous to do even in the comfort of your own home.

This is especially important if your host family has only one bathroom/one shower in the house. It’s a simple politeness that goes a long way.

3. "I'm too shy" is NEVER an excuse.

In most cases, you learn and grow from what you do and say. If you’re always too shy to open your mouth and take action, how will you grow?

4. "I don't know what to say" is also not an excuse.

Whenever I had time to myself, I worked on a note in my phone and wrote down every question (in French) that would start an interesting conversation. I would memorize two or three questions before each meal to start up a good conversation. It worked! Conversation flowed long after dinner was served. The more you talk, the more quickly you will get comfortable with your host family.

5. Treat your host room as if you were living in the family room.

Keep it clean. "I was never an organized person" is not an excuse. Even if you have the luxury of having your own room, you must keep it clean. While you’re most likely not required to vacuum every day, keep your things (such as dirty laundry) off the floor. In some households, it's also impolite to eat in one's room as well. Keeping your room clean shows that you appreciate having a room in the first place. So keep it tidy, make your parents proud.

6. Speak in the host country's language.

You're going to hear this a lot. This isn't a cliche-whatever rule, this is a if-you're-going-to-do-one-thing-right-this-better-be-it rule. Unless it's an emergency, always speak in the host country's language. Don't "try", do it. I asked a lot of questions that I had memorized how to say even though I didn’t understand a lick of the answer I was given. It's always frustrating to not understand and to not be able to express yourself the way you want to, but that's how it is being an exchange student at the beginning of your exchange. And the more you talk, the more you learn and the easier it gets speaking the language. There will come a moment when it will all just “click” for you. It will be glorious.

7. There will be days when it feels like you've been living in your host country for ten years, and days when it feels more like ten seconds.

Make the best out of every minute of it. There will be more embarrassing moments than you can count. Make the embarrassment your friend, not your enemy. Every embarrassing moment will always (and I mean always) become a funny story later on.

8. Excuses don't work here.

Excuses are a popular way to justify failure to do something. This is never a good practice. Your exchange should highlight that. If you have done something wrong or forgotten to do something, like offering to do the dishes, do not to make yourself feel better by mentally feeding yourself excuses (i.e. "I'm too tired," "I didn't know how to say it in x language," "I thought she was going to say no anyways.") Baaaaaaad!

9. Show your gratitude.

You can never say thank you enough. It's better to say thank you too often than too little. If there's one thing you can overdo, it's saying thank you. Merci. Danke. Gracias. Thank you. One of the biggest issues between a host student and a host family is the lack of a display of gratitude. If you don't hear an acknowledgement after saying thank you, say thank you until you get one (as they may not have heard you the first time). For a great exchange, it is vital that your host family knows you're grateful.

10. Suggest to make breakfast for the family one day.

Give them a taste of what it's like to be American - literally! If you want to take it a step further, you could even offer to make a family breakfast on a regular basis. Whether it's weekly or monthly, how often is up to you. Making breakfast for your host family, even if just once, is a great way to assimilate yourself into family life and show that you are eager to participate and become more than just an exchange student in their home - that you want to become a member of their family.

11. There is always free wifi at tourism offices!

Okay, you don’t really need to know this to have a great exchange year. But if you're on the go and in desperate need of a wifi hotspot, tourism offices should have them for free. You don’t even have to go inside, simply standing near the entrance will do the trick.

(*****This knowledge is based off of my experience in Southern France.****)

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A Remarkable Gift


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 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 

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

Je Suis YFU: One Staffer's Experience in Paris Reinforces Her Calling


Guest post from Jennifer Heusted-McKendree, YFU Marketing Manager who was exploring Paris on January 7, 2015.When I started at YFU, it was September 10, 2001. Thirty minutes into my second day on the job, I watched the Twin Towers fall with my new YFU colleagues in the Bridgeport, MI Office. Just like all of my fellow Americans, we wondered what would happen next. The world was changing before our eyes and the impact of that date on everyone had changed who we were and how we related to others across the globe.Two weeks after 9/11, I was talking to a classroom full of students about why they should embark on an exchange. The first question asked of me after my presentation was, “Why should I go?“ My answer was simple: So that events like 9/11 don’t happen again. It was then that I realized that I had my own power to make a difference.


Forward 13 1/2 years later. I’ve been in Paris for twodays on my first international trip with YFU. I’m standing with my Director and traveling companion, Erin Helland, in the main train station awaiting the rail to Tours after hearing briefly of some kind of terrorist attack just prior to leaving our hotel. As we stood at the station, we began to realize the scope of the day's attack. To comprehend that the city you are visiting is potentially under siege is surreal at the very least. It is a feeling like no-other. The station was very quiet and empty with the exception of soldiers patrolling. I believe at this time most had heard the news; that there were 12 dead, the terrorists were at large and that there may be more to come. We quickly made our contacts home to assure everyone that we were safe and made our way to Tours and the safety of the YFU conference.


The next day, I sat with 22 of my colleagues from around the globe monitoring the events as they unfolded, and as I have multiple times during my YFU tenure, I felt the power of the organization yet again. During our short, yet productive time together, we felt connected through the same emotions, joys and challenges that the conference presented. I made several new friends that week, including Rami, a Muslim woman from Indonesia, who thanked us all for accepting her, even though she felt like others outside of the organization may not. We took the time to listen to her and work with each other, and by doing this, we came to understand that our similarities are greater than our differences.

Most people have a career, but I have a calling. I firmly believe that youth exchange has the power to make us citizens of one world, and the events in Paris and my experience there at that time proved it yet again for me. In my over 13 years with YFU, I have witnessed the power of youth exchange first hand. What starts with one student and one family grows to impact an entire high school and community, bonding those who share the experience through their lifetime. Those students who go on exchange grow to become adults equipped with the tools to make a true impact on the world because of the qualities they learned from their time abroad. We help these students and families to appreciate the differences and embrace their similarities, and thus, break down the barriers and stereotypes of the world.

Will the recent events stop me from traveling? No. However, they have served to strengthen my beliefs that what I do everyday matters. From Saginaw MI, I try to change the world; one student and one family at a time.


First Hand Gap Year Experience


Nikole Hampton Photo 2 - Graduation“Most kids from my hometown either went straight to work or straight to college.” This may have been true for many students in Harrisville, Michigan, but Nikole Hampton wanted more after she graduated in 2008, so she decided to take a gap year between high school and college to attend high school in Sweden. “It was the best experience of my life and forever changed me for the better,” Nikole says of her year. She had been unsure of her future plans, but she was sure of one thing: she was looking for the adventure of a lifetime and she got it.

“My parents were more in support of me going to college immediately, until they looked into gap year programs with me and realized that I was really motivated to do this. I deferred my acceptance to the University of Michigan, so they were happy to know I didn’t lose this opportunity either, and then they really started to support me.” Nikole got the best of both worlds with her gap year. She was able to take a giant leap out of her comfort zone and find out what she was made of, then attend college the following year.

Nikole Hampton Photo 3 - Art ClassNikole lived with a host family outside of Stockholm and attended Nacka Gymnasium as a third year (or a senior). In Sweden, students attend school until they are around 19 years old, which meant that her classmates were the same age, which was very important to Nikole. Despite the fact that she was the same age as most of her classmates, Swedish school took some getting used to. “Swedish high school is set up more like American colleges, with weekly schedules and classes that met twice per week.  We also had the majority of classes with our ‘class,’ or about 20-30 students studying the same track.  Mine was social science and art, so that is what my classes were mostly about except for our electives.” Her classmates quickly became her closest friends. “We were like a family!” She also made friends with kids on her track team and became close with her host sister who often invited her to hang out with her friends even though they went to different schools.

One of the best memories she has was the vacation she took with her host family. “My favorite was going on a road trip with my host family and skiing! It was so beautiful and we got to spend a lot of quality time together, cooking and playing cards and such.  School and life gets crazy busy sometimes, so it was relaxing to have some time off and just spend time with each other. And be in the outdoors of course!” It is times like these that really characterize an exchange. Although Nikole’s family’s English was near perfect, eventually they only spoke Swedish to her so she could practice. “They helped me with homework and taught me lots of words before school even started! They also got me a library card too, and I spent a lot of time reading which was another good way to learn a language.”

Nikole Hampton Photo 1 - Family VacationNot only did she get the opportunity to bond with her host family, but she was also able to bond with her natural family as well! “I visited family that lived in the south of Sweden and got to learn more about my heritage and experience a very different region. I also had some family living in the Stockholm area, so I met up with them occasionally too!”

Because Nikole joined her class during their last year of school, she was able to graduate with them! “Graduation was completely different than in the U.S. We had what was called an ‘utspring’ at school after an assembly, where they called out each class and we ran out of school and looked for a poster of us that our families secretly made (I realize this sounds strange...). Then our family put presents and letters on necklaces around our necks and we went home with them, changed out of our nice clothes, and then met up with our class again on a giant flat-bed truck that went all around Stockholm and blasted music.  After that, we go home again, and our families and friends were all over for a dinner and such in honor of the new graduate.”

Nikole Hampton Photo 5 - Class PhotoNikole took a risk and challenged herself and it paid off immensely. She learned a new language, made incredible friends, even ate reindeer! Now, she is finishing up a bachelor’s degree in social work at the University of Michigan. As a graduation present to herself, she is traveling back to Sweden this summer to visit her friends and host family, that she hasn’t seen in four years, to relive all of the wonderful memories she had there. This experience for her was unforgettable and transformative. She came back from Sweden motivated, confident and ready to continue with the ideas that ignited her passion for social issues while abroad.

Written by Zoe ColtonQuotes from Nikole Hampton

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