Kicking and screaming, 13-year-old Andrew Towne protested his father’s proposal for the family to spend six months in Northern Italy while pursuing a Fulbright Scholarship. After all, Towne would miss the all-important transition to 7th grade, moving from class to class rather than being stuck with the same teacher all day! Six months later, Towne protested even louder, not wanting to come home.This introduction to an unknown place opened Towne’s eyes to the idea of exchange. When his sophomore-year German teacher suggested he apply for the Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX) scholarship, it didn’t intimidate him. Towne knew he wouldn’t be able to go on exchange without a scholarship, but when faced with the prospect of studying abroad, he said “it sounded like a great adventure.”
Paired with YFU, Towne experienced the depth of support and learning for which YFU is known. “The first month, I was in East Germany, nine years after the wall fell, living with a farmer in a village of 150 people learning German.” He remembers profound conversations with his East German host father. “My host father had been a young boy when World War II ended. He remembered being greeted by US soldiers when they crossed the Elbe River. When I asked what he thought about ending up under Soviet rule, he shrugged and said, ‘sometimes you get unlucky.’”
Towne learned that he and his host father had another connection. “For the entire time he was living behind the Communist wall, he was grateful that he was close enough to West Germany that he could pick up Johnny Cash on the radio. He loved the fact that my grandfather in Vermont was also a Johnny Cash fan.” Towne reflected, “he took it all in stride. That type of perseverance through 50 years of communism was a real eye-opener.”
Towne credits YFU for challenging him to think critically through facilitating very deep, personal conversations. One such conversation occurred during the week-long, mid-year orientation that is a staple of the YFU experience. Together with fellow U.S. and German exchange students, an alumnus described being assaulted by Neo-Nazis. “He was heartbroken, not so much by the beating, but more by the fact that so many onlookers who could have stopped the fight would look on without doing anything.” Towne continued, “he was a 16-year-old at the time, just like me. He looked us all in the eye and quoted Nietzsche, saying ‘those who are but half-and-half spoil every whole.’” The alumnus challenged his audience to consider action in the face of adversity. “I never forgot this story. It was real. It was tragic. I heard it first-hand.”
The exchange experience changed Towne’s life trajectory from music to foreign affairs. However, his experience returning home fundamentally changed the way he lived his life. “All I wanted to do was talk everybody’s ear off about this great experience I had, but I quickly realized that among teenagers, perhaps no one really wants to see your vacation photos.” Towne began bottling up his great experiences and wondered what others held inside. “I really try to approach everybody with a curiosity about what they are passionate about.” He continued, “Everyone has something — I love finding those things that really light people’s fire. And I attribute that to my exchange year.”
This summer, Towne will summit Mt. Everest to raise money for YFU.
“My biggest fear is of heights. Period,” Towne said. “A friend of mine, while I was an exchange student at the University of Nairobi — a choice that was motivated 100% from my YFU exchange year — asked if I wanted to climb Mt. Kenya, the second tallest mountain in Africa.” Towne thought about the physical challenge and considered the opportunity to confront his fear of heights and responded, “that sounds like a great idea!” At that moment, his addiction to climbing began.
Towne’s interest in endurance sports started in Germany. He said, “Before Germany, I thought I would become a professional musician. While there, I started jogging recreationally. And then in college, I walked onto the rowing team.”
Rowing proved to be very challenging from an endurance perspective, and Towne considered quitting many times. Through perseverance, “I learned to trust myself – that when faced with a tough challenge, I wouldn’t give up in the face of pain or difficulty. I grew to relish opportunities to prove that to myself over and over again.”
Now an accomplished mountaineer, having climbed the tallest mountain on five of the seven continents, Asia’s Mount Everest is his next challenge. When asked about the dangers of climbing the world’s tallest peaks, Towne said, “every mountain poses certain risks. On Mount Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in South America, our expedition actually had to step over a body on the trail. Five people died during the two weeks I was on that mountain. On Mt. McKinley, two people died during my second climb. When you are on these mountains, everyone is cognizant of death.” He continued, “I am a very conservative mountain climber. I strongly believe the mountain will always be there, so when it comes to decisions that involve weather or conditions, a lot of climbers get themselves into trouble by pushing themselves when conditions suggest they shouldn’t. I don’t make decisions like that.”
Towne took on his first mountain, Mount Kenya, because “it provided an opportunity to accomplish an endurance feat that involved conquering my fear of heights.” Now he continues to climb “because I love the way it takes me to remote parts of the globe. Mountaineering, like YFU, makes the world feel smaller.”