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YFU

YFU Blog - Recent stories about Youth for Understanding

Filtering by Tag: gap year program

Lifetime YFU Friendships

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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.

First Hand Gap Year Experience

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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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