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YFU Blog - Recent stories about Youth for Understanding

Filtering by Tag: intercultural exchange

An Exchange Experience


For those families who have considered an exchange opportunity, do it! You will quickly realize the world is smaller than you think and that we are more similar than different from one another. Hosting a student is an opportunity you won’t regret with life-long memories made for everyone involved.

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My YFU Experience: Kylie Neidich


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

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YFU for Life: The Vintage Magical Tour 2015


In September, YFU USA will be welcoming ten alumni from Argentina who completed exchanges to the U.S. in 1971. The group will be recreating their steps, visiting the high schools they attended nearly 45 years ago and speaking to students and community members about the impact their exchange experience had on their lives.

Juan Carlos De Marco

Juan Carlos De Marco

Tour Coordinator Juan Carlos De Marco stated, “We all feel great appreciation for the program that changed our lives so many years ago.” He continued, “We gathered in Buenos Aires three years ago to celebrate our 40th anniversary where we enjoyed reviving the memories of our exchange. This is when the idea of returning began – we still felt very useful and mobile, and thought ‘why not give back to YFU and contribute to universal understanding?’”

They are calling themselves the YFU Vintage Magical Tour and plan to rent a 15-passenger van to travel together from school to school throughout Michigan and Northern Ohio. The group hopes to expose students to the benefits of intercultural exchange. De Marcos said, “We are grounded in our own experience.  After almost 45 years, not only have we maintained life-long connections with each other, we are totally and absolutely convinced that the experience was perhaps the most important of our lives.” He continued, “This is not a tourist trip – we are convinced that increased understanding between youth is the basis of a better world.”

Meet the other members of the YFU Vintage Magical Tour and learn why they are excited to return after so many years!

Graciela Szczesny

Graciela Szczesny

Graciela Szczesny“In my teens, I always dreamed of being a traveler, to be open to explore other cultures more deeply.  YFU helped me realize this dream – the experience has marked my life forever, encouraging personal and spiritual growth. Now, I would like to express my heartfelt appreciation with students who are considering the amazing journey of intercultural exchange.”

Fernando Rovetta

Fernando Rovetta

Fernando Rovetta Klyver“In 1971, I went from an all-boys school of 600 in Tucumán to a public school in Denby, MI of 3,500 students. Going on exchange exposed me to another culture and helped me value equality despite the differences of sex, race, language and religion. I hope that our return will strengthen ties across nations and the exchange of ideas, working toward a greater goal of ensuring human rights and peace.”

Maria Cecilia Torres

Maria Cecilia Torres

María Cecilia Torres“Just a teenager, only 15 years old, I landed in Michigan - too cold, too much snow, frozen lakes – an unusual winter landscape for a girl used to an extremely hot climate. Everything was different for me – from the public school bus, band, parades, cheerleaders, and no uniforms to being able to choose what subjects we wanted to study. In civics class, I learned about Russia and the Politbureau – the Cold War still was a subject in those years.  One could breathe the hippie spirit of the '70s everywhere. Looking back, I could not imagine my life without the magical experience of YFU. We may no longer be youth, but the understanding we gained has lasted a lifetime. Thank you, YFU!”



Alida Abad“Is it possible to be an exchange student at the age of 60 or more? Well…in some ways it is. Being an exchange student changed our lives forever. Despite living in different cities and in some cases different countries, our connection through exchange brings us together and helps our friendships thrive. What would I say to a teenager today? Dare to join us in our dream.  Share with us our Vintage Magical Tour, and be part of something big. The experience of being an exchange students lasts forever! Try it!”

Oscar Cabrera

Oscar Cabrera

Oscar R. Cabrera    “When I arrived, a 17-year-old only child with little experience outside my home, everything was new – not unintelligible, just strange and different. Joyce, my mom in the USA told me I would always be remembered as one of their kids. Frank, my father taught me not to push like a bull and encouraged me be more humble. With our return, I hope our young audiences will listen to our history and wish to emulate our experiences, building a transgenerational legacy by way of improving understanding between different peoples, cultures, continents and communities. To become closer to our unknown neighbors, different, but at the same time so similar to ourselves.”

Sports for Understanding


Written for The Light by Flynn Coleman

I didn’t know then that my first summer abroad, as a junior high school student with Sports For Understanding in Italy, would teach me so much about the kind of person I wanted to be. I was excited to represent the U.S. on a soccer team in Europe, live with a host family, and to experience all aspects of Italian life. But, when I boarded the plane for my adventure across the world, I was also nervous about what was to come.

Our team met in Rome, and after a brief time exploring the sites, we drove several hours north to meet our host families. A young woman in soccer clothes arrived to pick me up. She gave me a warm hug and we exchanged smiling “ciaos,” which was about all the Italian I knew at the time. We drove for what seemed like ages, until we arrived at a concrete house in the middle of a cornfield. Figaro, the family cat, was lounging in the sun. I scratched his head, and then made my way into my home for the summer. There I met the only other member of my host family, the unofficial adopted grandmother of the woman who had picked me up.

Coleman’s Sports For Understanding Soccer team in Italy, 1996

Coleman’s Sports For Understanding Soccer team in Italy, 1996

That night, I wondered what my summer would be like. How would I possibly communicate with the people I was now living with, who spoke no English? My Italian was limited to speaking Spanish with an Italian-esque accent.

As I unpacked my things, I started to hear the faint sounds of people singing, laughing, and strumming guitars. The sounds became louder and louder, until it seemed like these people were actually approaching the house. And then, in a moment I will never forget, the music came through the house, where a large group of people from the town had come by, singing, dancing, and playing music, to welcome me home.

That’s when I realized we all do speak the same language after all. And I saw in that moment that life is about connecting with and supporting others.

The night before I flew to Italy I cried, afraid of what was ahead. Everything felt so uncertain as I journeyed across the world to live with people I had never met, in a country where I knew no one. After the summer was over, on the day I was to leave my Italian family, I cried again, this time sad to leave behind the family who had cared for me from the moment I walked into their lives. They came home each day to cook enormous and incredible lunches, which to this day constitute the best meals of my life. They gave me a tour of the accordion factory where they worked long hours to make ends meet, drove me to soccer games and festivals, introduced me to their friends, sang and danced to American 80’s music with me, and gave me a place in Italy to call home.

They didn’t have much, but they shared it all with me. By the end of the summer, my Italian was quite fluent, and after I left, I continued to write my friends in Italy, who were really more like family. I will never forget the utter joy in their writing when I sent them a new stereo and cds of their favorite music. To this day, a picture of us on the soccer field is framed in my home. They live in my heart as people who taught me about the person I wanted to become, and who showed me that home can be anywhere when you are with people who love you.

I went on to spend much of my life living abroad, learning from people’s experiences worldwide. The young woman I lived with in Italy had suffered much discrimination throughout her life, something I have thought much about since my summer living with her.

I have since become an international human rights lawyer and social entrepreneur.  I have spent my life living the core belief that we are all the same underneath, and thus all equally deserving of the same rights; having our voices heard, an opportunity to follow our dreams, and a life of dignity. I have become a fervent advocate for women’s rights, including the right to participate in sports. Sports have immense catalyzing power; the power to bring people of different backgrounds and beliefs together, and to teach leadership, confidence, teamwork, tolerance, and dedication.

Sports, and being a member of a team, have brought me some of the proudest moments of my life. I went on to play soccer for Georgetown – and I also play soccer wherever I go in the world. I joined a men’s team in Cambodia, where little Cambodian girls would come out to watch in awe as a girl played soccer with the boys. While studying abroad in Chile, I joined a men’s team with the help of my host family. I went out for the first game and we lined up to shake hands. Everyone shook hands, but when they got to me, they kissed me on the cheek. We played the game and our team ended up winning. We lined up after the game, and sure enough, everyone shook my hand, and no one kissed my cheek again. That day always reminds me of the power of women getting involved and having the opportunity to participate.

Ultimately, everyone has a story to tell. We all deserve to belong and to have a say in our communities, in business and politics, in a court of law, and in the world. From advocating for truth and reconciliation commissions, human rights protections, and transparent trade policies that dismantle barriers to entrepreneurship in the developing world, I have seen that we all want the same things; to be seen and accepted for who we are, and to have an opportunity for a brighter future for ourselves and for our families.

This is what I learned in that house, in that cornfield, in that tiny corner of the magnificent, Italian countryside. It’s what I’ve learned on soccer fields around the world, in war crimes tribunals, government halls, and people’s homes in villages thousands of miles from where I grew up. We should all be able to make our own choices about our lives.

Coleman in Rwanda in 2014 (photo taken by Betty Krenek)

Coleman in Rwanda in 2014 (photo taken by Betty Krenek)

Two Years of Discovering the “Goodness”


A note from YFU USA President & CEO Michael E. HillReflections on his two year YFU work anniversary 

Today marks two years since beginning my tenure as President & CEO of YFU USA. It is incredible to think that 730 days have passed already. I have been reflecting a great deal on this time with a dear friend visiting from Sweden –- one of the best parts of working at YFU is that you create friendships around the world! And while there are many memories I could share from my own two years at the helm of YFU, I think it’s more fun to think about these two years in the arch of the entire history of the organization, a history that spans close to 65 years.

YFU’s Founder, Dr. Rachel Andresen, in many ways was an accidental leader. She couldn’t possibly have known what she was getting herself into in 1951 when she was asked to coordinate the effort of bringing 70+ German young people to the United States in the aftermath of World War II. Her earliest writings tell of her great trepidation at being responsible for these young people. Her later writings, however, show a deep appreciation for the outcome of our program. She moves from talking about the logistics of exchanges to seeing the bigger picture: through the conduit of exchange, these young people would gain the skills necessary to change the world.

David Gergen, Professor of Public Service and Co-Director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, recently wrote an essay for the World Economic Forum’s compendium “Outlook on the Global Agenda 2015.” In his reflection, “A Call to Lead,” Gergen argues that leaders today must have a global perspective if they are to serve the greater good. “From the US to Europe and Asia, there’s an agreement that having a global perspective is the number one skill for any strong leader in 2015,” he writes. “Collaboration emerges as another key trait … while communication was a strong contender.”

YFU provides the perfect prescription for Gergen’s search for leaders in today’s society. Over the past two years, I have seen firsthand how a YFU program transforms participants from a resident of one nation into a global citizen. YFU participants leave their home cultures and are immersed in “the other.” Through the work of host families and volunteers, they discover the goodness of people from another land, experiencing the ultimate reality check in a world too often viewed through stereotypes. They have to work within new communities to be active members of their schools and new homes, and they must learn how to effectively communicate – in another language! – to break down barriers that could prevent a successful exchange year. And when they go home, they bring those new tools with them.

In the past couple of years, we have ramped up our alumni outreach. It’s incredibly uplifting to talk to YFU alumni, who credit the program with setting them on a path to be leaders in government, business, nonprofits or even in their families. All of our alumni credit YFU, in big and small ways, with changing the course of their lives while giving them advanced skills to use later as adults.

While YFU was founded amidst the ashes of war, our impact today can be even greater.

Gergen writes, “We need moral, effective leadership, collaborating and communicating across boundaries – business, non-profits and political leaders all have a role to play.” And so does YFU – perhaps now more than ever.

Thank you for a great first two years. I look forward to being a part of this movement for many more.

MEH Collage

MEH Collage

Greetings from the Khumbu!


andrew update

andrew update

First update from Andrew Towne from The Khumbu Valley who is climbing Mt. Everest to raise money for YFU. Click here to read more about how Andrew became interested in climbing the world's tallest peaks

Dear Friends,

Here's the brief update:

  • We are five days into the trek to Everest base camp, acclimatizing well and enjoying good weather.

  • The Khumbu Valley and its Sherpa people are inspiring. I've never seen such magnificent mountains and such kind, balanced, and strong people.

Here's the longer update:

It's hard to believe that I've already been in Nepal for a week. We spent our first day in Kathmandu, organizing our gear and visiting the ancient Boudhanath stupa. The next morning, we flew to Lukla, which at 9,300' is at the base of the Khumbu Valley and the head of the ~30 mile trail to Everest base camp. The airport is perched half way up the mountain, with the tail of the runway hanging off a cliff and the head of the runway going directly into the side of a mountain. They say that if the 2,000' of runway isn't enough for a plane to takeoff, pilots just glide over the edge of the cliff and hope to catch an updraft before hitting the valley floor half a mile below. We met the team of Sherpas that is helping us climb the mountain, and after getting our yak caravan organized, we walked a few miles down the trail to Phakding for the night.

On our third day we climbed to Namche Bazaar (11,286'), which is the trading center of the Khumbu Valley. I was amazed to see digital camera dealers and Mountain Hardware outfitters in a place where yaks always have the right of way. Day four took us up to Khumjung village (12,000') and our first view of Mt. Everest. On day five we moved up to Tengboche Monastery--the oldest monastery in the Khumbu, Tengboche served as base camp for Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary's first ascent in 1953. One of the staff at the lodge was a teenager at the time and described to us their intrepid siege of the mountain. Today we climbed a short ridge to aid our acclimatization before attending a Buddhist meditation session at the monastery.

The entire region is incredible; I think because of its people. The Sherpa migrated to the Khumbu from Tibet between 300-600 years ago and make their home in the shadows of the world's tallest peaks. Renowned for their strength and mountaineering prowess, most Sherpa are Buddhist, which may contribute to their tolerance of so many Westerners who lack their mountain skills. The valleys are so steep that "roads" in the Khumbu are hand made trails in valleys and along mountain sides, all shared by humans, yaks and wild animals. I have a great deal of respect for the work it must take to survive at these altitudes, and I am impressed by how global the community is. Many have studied abroad and speak a foreign language. I am proud to be climbing for Youth For Understanding, so that more cultures can learn to view the world through others' eyes.

All in all, the expedition could not be off to a better start. There are 5 others on the trip who will attempt the summit, plus an additional 11 who are just trekking to base camp. We've been enjoying each other's company and playing games / comparing notes on the mountain. When I write again in a week or two, we should be at base camp!


Support alumnus Andrew Towne as he attempts to summit Mt. Everest to promote intercultural exchange and raise scholarship funds for YFU!

Andrew holds up a YFU flag atop Carstensz Pyramid, the tallest mountain on the continent of Oceania; July 2011.

Andrew holds up a YFU flag atop Carstensz Pyramid, the tallest mountain on the continent of Oceania; July 2011.

Our Founder, Our Inspiration


Article reprint from 1986 interview with Rachel Andresen


Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 1.06.54 PM

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 1.06.54 PM

Her home in South Lyon, Michigan, is likened to Grand Central Station. She says that if her kitchen could talk, “boy, what stories it could tell.”

The home – and the kitchen – of Rachel Andresen is where Youth For Understanding began in 1951, and it continues today to be the center for memories, memorabilia and the inspiration which has served YFU for 35 years.

Rachel Andresen changed her life that year as she agreed to help locate families to host 75 German and Austrian youths invited by the State Department to live in the United States. World War II was over and efforts were aimed at reconstructing not only cities and governments, but friendships and human relations as well.

In 1951, when Dr. Andresen founded YFU, youth exchange was still an experiment. Her response was immediate and the results were dramatic.

“When I was asked to help place the first group of 75, I said ‘yes, I would help.’ It was the turning point in my life,” says Dr. Andresen, who has since seen the exchange experiment become one of the world’s most effective ways of promoting world peace and international and intercultural understanding.

“Sometimes I wonder, what if I had said no.” The more than 100,000 alumni who have participated through the years are glad she didn’t say no!

"I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned first of all about myself. Then I’ve learned about people. It has made my life much richer and fuller than I had ever anticipated.”

Dr. Andresen was, at that time, executive director of the Ann Arbor/Washtenaw Council of Churches in Michigan and had been working for many years with numerous community and church organizations. She was suddenly faced with two full-time jobs.

“When you are building an organization, you are looking for what I call the grape-vine system. I have a firm belief that every community is so rich in resources, that if you follow your trail, it will eventually lead your to the people you need,” according to Dr. Andresen.

Beginning her trail with the overseas families of the first international students who arrived in 1951 and the families of the first American students who went abroad in 1955, Dr. Andresen paved her way to the development of an international network for YFU programs. By 1964 she had formally established YFU as an independent, non-profit organization which is, today, one of the world’s largest international student exchange organizations.

“Everything I’ve ever done in the past, I was able to use. It made the work that I was doing, not a job, but something I loved to do. I worked with people in so many different ways,” recalls the founder and honorary president of YFU.

“It wasn't just work, but a living experience, a tremendous one. Developing exchange programs was an exciting and stimulating experience.”

Although she retired from her position as YFU Executive Director in 1973, Dr. Andresen has since been a continuing source of strength, support and inspiration for the further development of YFU programs.

Recalling the more than 35 years of YFU history, from the exchange program’s conception through its growth and to its maturity, is one of Dr. Andresen’s current projects. She is writing a book about the early years of YFU, which she hopes to finish this year.

“It is a first-person narrative, a history and a story about people at YFU,” says Dr. Andresen.

Dr. Andresen admits that there were few directives for YFU’s growth. “We’ve just developed. We wrote out own directions to ourselves, discarding some, of course,” she says, stressing that there are lessons to be learned from such an approach.

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 1.07.15 PM

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 1.07.15 PM

Dr. Andresen’s book will be the story of the growth and development of programs, “with emphasis on students and families. YFU is students and families. You can’t have one without the other. We are always keeping in mind why we’re doing this,” says Dr. Andresen, looking back on the years when the kitchen table in her home, or in the home of any host family, was where problems were talked out.

“Whenever problems arose with students or families, the first thing we would do is review – ‘Why do we do this? Why did you bring a student into your home?’ And to the student, ‘Why are you here? Why did you want to do this?’ When you asked these questions, the problems were not so great. Many problems are solved by reviewing the basics.”

It is in the home, says Dr. Andresen, that people share everything and discover who they are. “It’s the 1001 things that go on in a family every day that say who we are and what we believe. There are no secrets in the family. It’s pretty real.”

Discovery involves all members of the family, but it is perhaps most profound for the exchange student.

“I think the greatest thing that happens to the student is that he will gain a new appreciation for who he is, what his special talents are and what things he has to offer.”

“When he goes through the experience, he learns to stand on his own two feet, he has to make decisions for himself, perhaps for the first time. It does wonderful things for a person,” says Dr. Andresen.

Dr. Andresen says her life has been influenced and enriched by the many people who she has met and worked with over the years. In fact, her own experiences with people worldwide parallels the experience of exchange students.

“I have made lifelong friends all over the world. The people, families and students I have met have all been special to me, “says Dr. Andresen. Although her father was a tremendous influence in her life, so were her “teachers.”

“My teachers were students and families. Everyone you meet in life, everyone who teaches you something, is special,” she says.

For the exchange student, the actual experience of living with a family is short, “but all your life, after an experience like this, you recall those situations and people that have influenced your life and your thinking.”

“Decisions we make are personal ones, but they are based on a wide variety of learning and experiences,” says Dr. Andresen.

Rachel Andresen looks at YFU as an organization that grew from the strong interest in the family. The exchange program spread from family to family and from community to community and around the world.

YFU has succeeded as a family-based organization, as well as a volunteer based organization, “because giving and sharing is close to the hearts of people. Families initially take students to give something, and then they receive so much more than they give. Their family life is enriched, their knowledge of the world expanded and their appreciate of another country and of its people increased,” says Dr. Andresen.

Of YFU volunteers, Dr. Andresen says they are part of the organization “because they love people and have a real concern for others. The people involved in the program are on a real grassroots level of the operation, and they are an invaluable resource.

“Idealistically, it’s a peaceful world we’re working towards. A world in which people can live together, play together, do things together…and learn and know about each other in a very real way.”

“Volunteers are basic to YFU, its operation and its continuation. We couldn't operate our program without volunteers not one day in the year.”

No matter what role one plays in the youth exchange experience, the opportunities are shared by everyone, according to Dr. Andresen. “This program is an opportunity for an expression of the idealistic part of our own mind. It’s an opportunity for us to give the very best of what we are and to share that with somebody else.”

YFU Founder Rachel Andresen has received decorations and citations from the governments of West Germany, Mexico, Finland and Brazil, among others, for her contributions to international understanding and cultural exchange.

Original 1986 interview with YFU Founder Dr. Rachel Andresen

Original 1986 interview with YFU Founder Dr. Rachel Andresen

Two Countries One Home – Welcome to the United States


A note from YFU USA President & CEO Michael HillThis is one of my favorite times each year: the time when we get ready to receive the list of students who want to come on exchange to the United States through a YFU program. At YFU USA, we are the proud recipients of close to 2,000 students each year, who come from more than 50 countries and who express hundreds of cultures.

MEH Selfie

MEH Selfie

While many of those students have already signed up to make the world their home, there is still time to take this adventure of a lifetime! Why might you want to do that?

The world is becoming an increasingly connected place, and your future success will depend on your ability to adapt to the world and its various peoples. Coming to the US will give you a chance to experience a typical American home, to make new friendships that will last a lifetime, and to experience up close what makes the US such a special place. But you’ll also have a chance to share your culture. In YFU communities across the nation, we have host families and schools who are interested in learning from you.

One of the great things I get to do as President of YFU USA is talk to students before, during and after their program. Here’s some of what I hear from those who came here on exchange:

  • It changed my life and gave me a second family and group of friends. I will never see myself just as a citizen of my own country again; I now belong to two cultures and two nations.

  • When I got ready to apply to college, my exchange year set me apart from others. Not only did the colleges and universities know that I could handle anything that came my way, they knew I had already proven I had the curiosity and drive to succeed.

  • I still keep in touch with my host family. They visit me, and I still visit them. The world is truly my home now.

MEH student collage

MEH student collage

There are a ton of reasons to consider a year with us in the United Sates. Whatever your reason, know that we’re ready to help you take this adventure of a lifetime. We can’t wait to say, “Welcome to the United States!”

Very truly yours,

Michael E. HillPresident & CEOYFU USA

On Top of the World


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.

Andrew holds up a YFU flag atop Carstensz Pyramid, the tallest mountain on the continent of Oceania; July 2011.

Andrew holds up a YFU flag atop Carstensz Pyramid, the tallest mountain on the continent of Oceania; July 2011.

“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.”



#myYFU – Instagram Contest


While it is true that all travel broadens perspective and exposes the traveler to new experiences, when you embarked on the journey of a lifetime with YFU, you became a global citizen. Whether currently on program or even if your exchange was years ago, as a member of the YFU family, you’ve come to discover the best in yourself and your family, forge lifelong connections, and change the way you see the world.

Show us your YFU exchange memories on Instagram using #myYFU  – We want to experience your story!

#myYFU Instagram Contest

#myYFU Instagram Contest

Contest Start Date: Sunday, March 1, 2015Contest End Date: Sunday, March 15, 2015Total Prizes to be Awarded: (1) Grand Prize (Polaroid Cube)Winner Notification: YFU will select a winner and notify them via Instagram Direct Message on (or before) April 1, 2015. Once notified, the winner will have 7 days to respond with their contact information in order to claim their prize.

Eligibility & Rules

  • You must be a current YFU exchange student on program who is from the U.S. and studying abroad with one of our international partners or an international student currently in the U.S. studying abroad with YFU.or

  • You must be a YFU alum who either is from the U.S. and studied abroad with one of our international partners or an international student who studied abroad in the U.S. with YFU.

  • YFU Student/Alumnus must be in photo.

  • Photos can be taken at any time, but only photos submitted using the hashtag #myYFU between March 1-15, 2015 will be eligible.

  • The following factors may impact the judges’ decision on the winner:– YFU in the photo – i.e. student wearing a YFU t-shirt/backpack/poster/etc. or other creative sources such as students forming a Y-F-U, written in sand/chalk or other original means– Number of ‘likes’– Photo narrative

  • Each participant in the contest is responsible for ensuring that he or she has the right to submit the photos that he or she submits to the contest per these rules. Further, by entering, participants agree to indemnify, defend and hold harmless YFU, its respective subsidiaries, affiliates, directors, officers, employees, attorneys, agents and representatives, from any and all third party liability for any injuries, loss, claim, action, demand or damage of any kind arising from or in connection with the contest, including without limitation any third party claim for copyright infringement or a violation of an individual’s right to privacy and/or publicity right.

  • The Contest is void where prohibited by law or age restrictions.

  • By participating in this contest and submitting your photo(s) using the hashtag #myYFU you grant Youth For Understanding (YFU) USA irrevocable rights to use your name, photographs, videos, written statements and similar materials for YFU informational and/or promotional purposes. Select photos may be used in various marketing materials to promote YFU exchange.

  • Entries must belong to the submitter.

  • YFU will select a grand-prize winner and notify them by April 1, 2015.

  • Entries must not contain illegal activities and/or material that promotes bigotry, racism, hatred or harm against any group or individual or promotes discrimination based on race, sex, religion, nationality, disability, sexual orientation or age.

This contest is sponsored by YFU USA who is solely responsible for the contest and winner selection.

Enter now for your chance to win a Polaroid Cube!

Chocolate Chip Dynasty


The Helland's surprise Jiting with a red envelope containing a collection of all the US state quarters after learning the importance of Lunar New Year in Jiting's home culture.

The Helland's surprise Jiting with a red envelope containing a collection of all the US state quarters after learning the importance of Lunar New Year in Jiting's home culture.

Guest blog by YFU USA Host Mother & Volunteer Denise Helland 

Just over three years ago the Helland family welcomed their Chinese daughter into their family. Denise and Rob were empty nesters living in a rural suburb. Jiting came from a skyscraper apartment in one of the world’s biggest cities. They all had a lot to learn.

Homemade chocolate chip cookies opened the doors to US culture. I taughtJiting how to bake on her second day, making cookie dough and showing her how to use our oven. She said that she would never be able to make them at home in Shanghai as most ovens aren’t large enough for even a small baking pan. While we introduced her to the all-American cookie, it was moon cake that transported us to China. Jiting explained this treat comes in many varieties - not just marshmallow. While shopping at the local Asian store, we got a good laugh upon realizing that what they were selling as a popular “Chinese” packaged treat was probably the only thing there that was made in America!

To Jiting, American schools were open and less restrictive in class choice with the exception of US history. In her first weeks, Jiting exclaimed, "Why must I learn so many little details about US history? We have dynasties and our history is not so difficult!" As we had with our own girls, together with Jiting, my husband and I spent what seemed like endless hours on homework.

Jiting immersed herself in every holiday – dressing as Strawberry Shortcake for Halloween; helping to make Thanksgiving Dinner with extended family; and caroling with the Christmas Choir.

In turn, we jumped into the Chinese New Year!

Jiting brought us to a real Chinese restaurant where families of first and second generations had gathered together to celebrate the Year of the Dragon. We were sitting quietly waiting for a server when she jumped-up and started waving her arms and snapping her fingers! Oh, not the American way! We asked her to sit and wait patiently. Jiting looked at me and said, "Mom, if this is an authentic Chinese restaurant, then we must do like at home. If I don't get someone to come to us, we will never eat!" The evening was very special and a lot of fun. We laughed about fortune cookies – another treat made in America and not authentically Chinese.

Then it was our turn to surprise her. We’d learned about the red envelope tradition in which Chinese youth receive money from their parents or grandparents at the New Year. We presented Jiting with a special red envelope containing a collection of quarters from each of the 50 states.  She was elated.

Jiting loved and was loved by all of us. When asked what she would like to do or where she would like to go before returning home, she chose to visit our extended family in Iowa as she’d grown fond of her American card-playing uncles and grandparents (she has become a master at cribbage).

Now a YFU China Volunteer, Jiting helps a new class of students each summer as they prepare for their adventures abroad. She is a lovely young woman attending college in the U.S. and is an unofficial liaison to Chinese university students who've never been to the States before. Our reunions continue every year – before the fall semester starts and at all the major holidays. Her first activity at every visit is to bake us chocolate chip cookies.

Learn how you can host a YFU student from China for 3 weeks this summer!

Happy Founder's Day


Rachel Andresen

Rachel Andresen

A note from YFU USA President, Michael HillIsaac Newton, the great physicist and astronomer, said, "If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

This week at YFU, we celebrate Founders’ Week, honoring most significantly the work of Dr. Rachel Andresen, YFU’s Founder and longtime Executive Director. Shortly after I was appointed President & CEO of YFU USA, I stopped by the physical office that I would occupy. My predecessor had left me a file with Dr. Andresen’s written memoirs, which I took for some reading materials to prepare for my new assignment. The modern novel has nothing on the heroics found in the novel of Dr. Andresen’s life. In those pages were stories of determination, compassion, a great love for students and all the traditional “stuff” that goes with being a non-profit CEO: worrying about where the money would come from to continue offering programs, issues with staff and boards … and the list goes on and on.

As my colleagues and I work to ensure that that the next 60 years of YFU’s life is as robust as its first, I so often think of the stories of the pages from Dr. Andresen’s life. The parallels are uncanny. She welcomed a group of German students after World War II to try to ensure a more peaceful world. We welcome young people from countries where our government struggles politically today. Both times the desire outcome was the same, and in both cases, our students left changed. Dr. Andresen talks about caring volunteers who ensured that young people on exchange had a transformative experience. Our 1,200-plus volunteers in the US still carry on that legacy with the same determination, grit and tenacity of their forebearers. In her days, schools were sometimes reluctant to open their doors to a temporary visitor, and like today, they did, and their communities were richer for it.

Dr. Andresen had a deep passion for this work, and because of it, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. One of my favorite quotes from her says,

“Youth For Understanding is built on faith, hope for the future and love as deep and abiding as life itself. To be a 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.”

Those words are still true today. As we attempt to carry on the legacy of our Founder, let me offer some simple words of my own in her honor: "We change the world when we change... One person at a time.” Dr. Andresen, thank you for changing our world for the better. We celebrate you most by carrying on your mission, and I personally thank all of you joining us in this mission.

Join us in celebrating Founder's Day and commemorating Rachel's birthday by making a gift in her honor to YFU. Support Rachel's legacy of youth exchange and intercultural understanding.

Farewell 2013. Hello 2014!


A note from YFU USA President, Michael HillAs we come to the end of one year and welcome another: I wanted to share my thanks with you; our students, supporters, host families, volunteers, alumni and partners for your continued dedication, courage and enthusiasm for YFU.

2013 will always hold a special place in my memories as the year I was first welcomed into the YFU family. This has been a year of transition, planning and excitement, and while I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, I do want to let you know that we’ve listened and 2014 is going to be a great year for YFU! Stay tuned for more details in future blog posts.

As I leave my first calendar year as YFU’s President & CEO, I look forward to a 2014 that continues to provide transformative life experiences and celebrates our unique and varied perspectives. YFU’s success is your success, and we wouldn’t be where we are without each and every one of you.

Do you have a favorite YFU memory from 2013? Share it with us (I love reading them as does our entire team)! I am ever-grateful and proud to lead this vibrant organization.

Wishing you and yours a very Happy New Year.

Michael Hill & Rabia

Michael Hill & Rabia

YFU President & CEO, Michael Hill and Rabia at YES Scholar orientation in Washington, DC.

Celebrating Our Digital Diplomats




A note from YFU USA President, Michael Hill

As we begin our celebration of International Education Week, I’m struck by how technology has influenced our core mission here at YFU. A couple of weeks ago, I was honored to participate in a panel sponsored by the Digital Diplomacy Coalition and the United Nations Foundation (recording available at: the impact of the digital space and youth. 

Certainly digital media has shattered international borders in ways that make the work of those who engage in international education both exciting and challenging. While it has always been the case that students going on exchange represent their nations as diplomats in person, young people are harnessing technology and social media in creative ways, and in so doing, are becoming “digi diplomats.”

At YFU, we’ve seen some great examples this year already. Take a look at a YFU student from Mexico who decided that blogging was too boring and therefore created a video diary of his time in Denmark.

Better yet, YFU Germany student Alina is blogging for Spiegel, sharing in real time her experience of life in the United States as an exchange student.

These stories give us a peek inside the real struggles and triumphs of young people who have made the world their classroom. Through their words and images, we learn as much, if not more, about life in other nations as we could ever hope to learn in our traditional media coverage. It’s amazing to think about how these young people are shaping our world … and their own!

When our founder, Dr. Rachel Andresen, first created this program, students wrote letters home and reflected on their year in paper essays. In today’s exchange universe, students are sharing impressions of other cultures in real time. Their stories enrich us, their courage inspires us, their stories remind us how vital our mission remains to this day.

Happy International Education Week to all who care about this field, and to those young people on exchange: we can’t wait to share in the new stories you’ll create in the days and months to come.