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Filtering by Tag: student exchange

Happy World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development!

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

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A Year as a YFU Exchange Student in Germany

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The YFU experience is an open invitation to you. The opportunities are there. It is up to you to make the most of it.

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Seven Months into My Exchange Year!

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I learned how to be more independent, how to face challenges alone, and how to be strong in situations that can make me feel really weak. I learned how to convert my weakness into strength, and yes, I learned never to give up.

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What Youth For Understanding Means to Me

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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

When is the Best Time to Study Abroad?

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Guest post from YFU Alumna and Campus Ambassador Hollie Nusbaum

When considering studying abroad, something you need to think about is when you want to do it. There is, of course, not a time that is the “best” to study abroad for everybody; it depends on your personality and what you think will work best for you.

For most programs, sophomore year is the earliest you can spend a year abroad. There are a few major benefits to studying abroad in 10th grade. For starters, if you’re concerned about potentially missing major American high school events, this is a great time to go on exchange. Sophomore year in the US tends to be a less eventful year, when it comes to things like prom or standardized test prep, so you can go without the fear of missing out on the American experience. A potential drawback to going this year could be your age and how prepared you feel. As one student who went abroad during his sophomore year, Josiah Jarvenpaa, said, “I think that I was a little bit young and still nervous to be traveling, and as a result I wasn’t quite as confident about stepping up and trying new things in my host country as I probably would have been had I waited a year or two.” Josiah added that, while he felt a little less confident while abroad, by the time he came back he had become much more open to new experiences and was better about taking advantage of all the opportunities he could during the remainder of his high school experience back in the states.

What about going abroad junior year? Eleventh grade provides an option that’s a bit of a middle ground, since you wouldn’t be quite as young as a sophomore but also wouldn’t be missing any of the typical senior year events. The major concern for many, rather, is the fact that a large amount of college prep happens during your junior year. If doing well on standardized testing is extremely important to you, this would be something to consider. Deciding to go abroad your junior year doesn’t mean you have to forfeit your college prep, though. One possible way is to wait until you return home after your exchange and take the tests at the beginning of your senior year. Alternatively, you could get them done at the end of your sophomore year. Some people even decide to take the test in their host country. Lillian Hua, who studied abroad during her junior year, took two of these options. First, she took the ACT a few months before leaving home. Because of this, she was able to go into her exchange without worrying about the test. She decided to give it another shot while abroad, saying that during the year “I figured I may as well give National Merit a shot, so I signed up for an SAT administration near Munich and did a bit of prep beforehand.” By using her free time to study, Lillian managed to make her second standardized test just as stress-free. She is a great example of how even the worrying issue of these tests can be easily avoided if you plan ahead of time.

If neither sophomore nor junior year appeal to you, senior year might be something to consider. By this time, you’ll have had the opportunity to get much of your college prep done beforehand and likely may feel more prepared to navigate life as an exchange student. With some schools it’s even possible to double up on classes junior year and graduate early so you don’t have to worry about getting credit abroad. This does vary by school and host country though. This is a year that would be best for people who don’t feel as attached to high school traditions at home. Going abroad senior year might mean missing out on events like graduation and senior prom. Anyone considering going abroad senior year would have to decide if they are okay with missing these American traditions, or if they would rather go abroad another year. Another important factor to bear in mind if going abroad senior year, is that in some host countries, older exchange students are placed in lower grades since the older local students are focused mostly on preparing for university. This means that it’s possible you could end up being a year or two older than your classmates.

Maybe you don’t want to miss any school in the US but still want the full experience of a year abroad. In this case, a gap year might be your best option. With a gap year, you would study abroad during the year between your senior year of high school and your first year of college, bypassing many of the potential concerns of going on exchange during high school. You could already have your college preparation and applications out of the way, and you wouldn’t have to worry about missing any experiences abroad. Another benefit is that, having already graduated, you wouldn’t have to worry about earning credit for your high school back at home. Doing a gap year can also offer some unique options not typically available during a traditional school year. For instance, with YFU you can participate in a volunteer gap year in Thailand, where you’ll live with a local host family and spend your days volunteering in various community projects.

Doing a gap year does bring its own set of considerations. Just like with going abroad senior year, you would likely be the oldest in your classes overseas, which could be difficult depending on your personality. Doing a gap year could also limit your country options, since some host countries won’t accept students who have already graduated or are over a certain age. A gap year also means that you would have to accept that you will be putting yourself a year “behind” your American peers. Still, many large universities, even Harvard, recommend taking a gap year, and doing a gap year is gradually becoming more encouraged and accepted across the country. This is a great opportunity to think more about what your career path will be and what you might be interested in studying in college!

What if none of these options sound like what you want? You have a couple options. If missing school or taking a gap year is out of the question for you, a summer exchange could be what you’re looking for. There are a few options for summer exchanges, ranging from volunteer trips to language courses to even just a traditional academic experience on a smaller scale, depending on the host country. A student who studied abroad during the summer, Alana Hendy, said that there were several positives, such as how “you don’t have to worry about earning a grade that could potentially ruin your high school career”.. Going in the summer also means summer vacation in many countries, meaning you may have more free time than year-long exchange students to explore the area. Plus, the short stay likely means things like homesickness won’t be as much as an issue. Still, Alana pointed out that going for a shorter period of time means missing out on many things, since when you go on exchange for a year, “you get to learn the language more, will experience holidays and seasons, and you can build stronger relationships with your peers and host family.” Being abroad for a whole year also makes it easier to truly feel like a local.. You would certainly go back to school with the best summer stories in your class.

Another potential alternative would be taking a winter year, which means that rather than leaving in the summer, you would leave in the winter. Not all countries offer this option. This could be a good alternative if you want to avoid a gap year but none of the other school years sound like they would work well. For example, you could leave in the winter of your junior year and return in the winter of your senior year, meaning you could easily get standardized testing out of the way before you leave, yet return in time for events like prom and graduation. Similarly, you could leave in winter of sophomore year and come back in the middle of your junior year, just in time to start preparing for college. The possibility of this option depends on both your school at home and your host country. There is the aforementioned fact that only some countries offer the option of a winter year, so it would limit your choices. If your current school runs year-round classes, this might be a difficult option because you would leave and enter classes halfway through. Just like all the other options, it would be up to you to consider if this is the right choice for you.

In the end, there is no perfect year to study abroad. It’s up to you to weigh the options and decide what is best depending on your preferred host country, your personality, and your school at home. If you’re mature for your age, maybe you’d be better off going sophomore year. Alternatively, if you’d rather be older and don’t care a whole lot about things like graduation or prom, you might be better off going senior year. If you’re looking for something in between, you could try junior year. If none of those work for you, consider a gap year or one of the other alternatives. If you really weigh your options and do your research, you will be able to figure out what would work out best for you and have the time of your life abroad!

Visit yfuusa.org/study to learn more about studying abroad for the summer, semester or even an entire year!

A Life Changing Decision

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Guest post from YFU Volunteer & Host Dad Andy

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.

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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“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. 

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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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.’”

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

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.

 

Campus Ambassador Introductions: Crystal

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Were it not for YFU, I would never had been able to live a second life, even if only for a fraction of my time.

My real homestay experience began two days after initially arriving in Japan, in which I was greeted by my host mother, grandmother, and sister at the train station after I had just taken my first 'shinkansen', or bullet train. Following lunch at a typical family restaurant, in which my culture shock ensued instantaneously upon seeing our tiny drinking glasses, we drove to my host grandmother's home, a stereotypical Japanese home nestled in a tight row of houses on a road so narrow, you wondered how there were no accidents in that area, with the homes creating a sort-of barrier between the main road and the endless miles of clean lime green rice fields. They led me to the living room, and I remember the awe I felt as I took in my settings: the low table and sofa with pillows to sit on, the room next door with the tatami mats and sliding paper walls with painted landscapes, and the screen door leading to a ledge where the wooden staircase was so steep and narrow that it took me three weeks to be able to walk up it without clutching the rail with both hands. Inside, me and my host mother – a tiny English teacher – engaged in small talk for some time before I heard a car door slam, and seconds later a ten-year old boy, one of my two host brothers, stumbled into the room, grinning, panting, and carrying a plastic bag filled with Japanese ice cream treats. The father followed in a slower manner to greet me - a tall, lanky figure - but as I would learn later, a very kind man who would attempt (and knowingly, but humorously, fail) to speak English. We all sat around that table, with the kids watching some children's anime they adored, and in an effort to combat my jet lag, I continued to tell many stories about my life in Kentucky, and I remember, in a blur, all of us eating a delicious dinner and laughing at anecdotes I can't even recall.

  This was me in my host grandmother's house trying on my new yukata! I lived in my grandmother's house for the duration of my stay, and by living in a traditional home with tatami mats and sliding screen doors, I really felt like I was living in Japan.

  In this photos is my host father, two of my three siblings, and my host grandmother. My host father here is wearing the souvenir t-shirt I brought from home.

During my time in Japan, I would visit numerous temples, each incredible in their own right, attend high school and make close friends with whom I would stay in contact, wear a yukata, and watch a real firework festival. Yet I chose this moment to introduce you all to my life in Japan because of how at that moment, the time when I began to understand my trip had begun, I knew that I had only witnessed a single snippet of what I was to later experience. I visited many sites with friends and tried many things I would never have been able to do in America, but many of the golden moments I remember most vividly came from the beautifully mundane aspects of my everyday life living with strangers who decided to take me in simply to learn about a new culture and become my second family. Were it not for YFU, I would never had been able to live a second life, even if only for a fraction of my time. As a university student, I found that studying abroad in high school has helped me in so many ways, and I truly wish that more students could experience what I had. For those reasons, I am excited to be involved helping other students become a part of the YFU community.

  I spent several days attending high school, and despite not being able to say a word in Japanese, I loved every minute of it. Many students would come up and would either try to talk to me or ask for a photo, and we compared how we posed for photos (I'm doing the 'J  apanese pose' here).

  I was very shy on the first day of class, but these girls came up, and we became very close afterwards. They'd have me help them with their English homework, and I'd shared any American snacks with them. We still keep in touch to this day.

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.


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 Misha

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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. 

I believe in exchange because it creates a global community that fosters understanding and compassion.

Name: Misha
From: Virginia
Went on exchange to: Sweden

My name is Misha, I am currently finishing up my last year of high school in Arlington, VA.  I spent my sophomore year abroad in Gothenburg, Sweden, where I found a second family and another home. My exchange year has been the most significant thing I've done in my life thus far, and I have been happy to get the chance to continue my connection with YFU through volunteer work since my return to the States. It's exciting to get the opportunity to focus all efforts in an established program, so I am looking forward to being able to participate with fellow alumni to make a difference in the organization.  

Student Exchange Empowers Young Citizen Diplomats and Fosters Global Understanding

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Guest blog by Laura AsialaThis article originally appeared in The New Global Citizen and is reprinted with permission. Click here for the original story: http://bit.ly/1vtcPWO.

I was raised in a white bread world, amongst the cherry trees and corn fields of Northern Michigan. In the 1960s, there was nothing global about Elk Rapids, a village of 1,200 where my grandmother’s grandparents had emigrated from Switzerland in the mid-1800s. My parents were well-educated—my father was a physician—but rarely traveled outside their state, much less the country. Still their sense of curiosity, generosity, respect, and hospitality made them the best kind of global citizens. And they were committed to opening the world to our family.

family 1967

I remember like it was yesterday the day in 1967 when my parents first decided to invite an exchange student into our home. My father returned home from his medical practice, entering via the backdoor, which opened directly into the eat-in kitchen where my mother was making dinner. My younger sister and I were coloring at the kitchen table.

“I was at the conference meeting at the hospital this morning, and they mentioned that there was a German exchange student coming to Traverse City who wants to live with a doctor and his family for a year” he said. “I said I thought we could do it.”

My mother looked up from what she was doing. She looked at him for a moment and smiled. “Okay,” she said.

Though she didn’t know it then, the experience that followed would change my life forever.

About two weeks later, we set out in our station wagon on the four-hour journey to collect our exchange student at Detroit Metro Airport. I remember my father glancing alternately at the photo of our expected visitor and at the young women walking down the concourse. Suddenly he spotted her. “There she is!” he exclaimed. My sister and I ran to her, wrapping our arms around her waist from either side. ‘My new big sister,’ I thought. ‘All the way from Bochum, Germany!’ I could not have been more excited to meet her. We christened her “Uli,” because my 2-year-old brother Jeff couldn’t quite manage “Ulrike” (pronounced “Ool-ree-ka”). For all of us, it was love at first sight.

In my current work, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to encourage people to become good global citizens who engage with purpose around the world. In fact, I think first grade may be the best time to convert children into citizen diplomats, which is ironic, because six-year-olds are not really very diplomatic, in the usual sense of the word, and certainly not politically correct. At that age, their language is much more candid and unfiltered. Uli often came to ask me directly about things she didn’t understand, what they were called, how they were used.

With me, she knew she could always count on a straight answer. I wasn’t shy about asking her questions, either, tagging along at every opportunity. She told us stories we had never heard, sang new songs, made unusual foods, and shared German traditions with us. We especially loved the Advent calendar she made that December. But most importantly, she gave us a window to the world and a profound understanding that there was far more out there than we knew in our tiny corner of the American Midwest. We learned that different wasn’t necessarily about right and wrong; different could be right, fun, and good.

Uli lived with us for a year, during which time she graduated from our local high school and my youngest brother was born. Over the next twenty years or so, my parents hosted or facilitated the hosting of a dozen other students through various programs—from South America, Asia, Africa, Australia, and Europe. In turn, my parents traveled to visit them, and enabled their children’s international education and travel as well, encouraging us to visit our exchange ‘siblings’ and discover the world on our own.

Laura and Ui

I called Uli as I was getting ready to write this post. I wanted to make sure that my memories matched hers. We had a wonderful conversation, reminiscing about our nearly half century friendship.

“When you lived with us, did you ever think the day would come that my children would hold your granddaughter?” I asked.

“No,” she laughed, and then grew serious. “But what I learned with your parents and your family was a different way of being with people, a much more easy-going and open way people in the U.S. got along with each other. For example, when you had a party, everyone helps in the kitchen after dinner, and you didn’t have to set the ‘perfect table.’”

She paused for a moment, remembering.

“In Germany, it was so much more formal, everything had to be done a certain way, which required a lot of work and preparation, and so we didn’t do it very often because it was so much work. Getting everyone together, having an open and friendly home, this is something that I have tried to carry with me in my life—to open my house, to accept everyone.”

The day Uli left is still clear in my mind. We had gone to my grandparents’ house for lunch afterchurch. Afterwards, my aunt and uncle would drive her to New York, where she would board a ship with other European students who had spent the year in the U.S., and travel home.

I always knew that she would return to Germany. I knew that she could only stay with us a year. But at six-years-old, a year felt like an eternity. The reality that she would leave did not hit me until the moment the car pulled away from the curb. I ran down the sidewalk after the car, crying.

sisters 1 2010

“You were on the outside of the car crying; I was on the inside of the car crying,” she said. “That was really terrible.” Forty-seven years later, we both choked up remembering that day.

Uli arrived just another German girl in the middle of Detroit. She left my big sister forever. Because of her experience, she maintained a commitment to student exchange throughout her life. She has been an exchange mom three times.

She sent her son to California as an exchange student through Youth for Understanding, an organization that has enabled the exchange of nearly 250,000 students who have gained skills and perspectives necessary to meet the challenges and benefits of the fast-changing global community, the same organization that helped her come to America so many years before.

He married a fellow Youth for Understanding alumna and together they have already hosted an exchange student. At this point, Uli is a glorified student exchange grandmother—and aunt.

It was natural—nearly a foregone conclusion—that my own life would cross borders. Because I was interested and curious about the world and its people, I pursued a career in international business. Before I knew there was such a thing as ‘global competence’—a requirement for the jobs of the 21st century—I was learning it at home.

My ability to interact across cultures gave me confidence socializing, working, problem-solving, and finding new ways to communicate with diverse colleagues and friends. My experiences from my earliest childhood informed that work.

Here are six lessons in citizen diplomacy I learned in first-grade. These continue to serve me well.

  1. Ask if you don’t understand something. Be curious, not judgmental, and never assume motive based on behavior. Encourage other people to ask, too.
  2. Explain using simple language. Give straight answers and explicit instructions, and explain why you are doing something and what your expectations are.
  3. Share your own story and your own traditions. It’s not only generous, it also makes you more mindful and appreciative.
  4. Listen The stories people share about their lives and families are one of the most important ways to learn, not only intellectually, but emotionally.
  5. Invite An open home is in and of itself generous hospitality, and creates the opportunity for deep and lasting bonds. There is rarely perfect timing. The unexpected guest—can be a great blessing.
  6. Love Though it’s rarely discussed in these terms, tolerance and mutual respect are actually ways of loving people. A six-year-old and a sixteen-year-old from different countries and different cultures can learn early on that it is possible to love people who are different from them.

Uli and Laura's families continue to visit each other-whether on the shores of Lake Michigan and or in Germany.

Through the years, our friendship never waned. Uli and her husband Teddy came to visit periodically during our family’s summer vacations on the shores of Lake Michigan and we traveled to Germany to visit them several times over the years. In the summer of 2009, Uli and I sat together on the beach of Lake Michigan. “I always thought I would host an exchange student someday,” I said. “But the time never seemed right.”

My youngest daughter Caroline was about to enter her junior year of high school. Uli glanced over at me, smiled knowingly, and said: “If you’re ever going to do it, you’d better do it right now. There will never be a better time.”

Laura's daughter, Caroline, holds Uli's granddaughter.

I met her gaze, and our years of history as sisters and friends half way around the world rushed through my mind. And in that moment, I decided exactly what I would do next. I stood up, brushed the sand off my rear end, and headed back to the house to submit a YFU application. Three weeks later, we welcomed Dai Chuan—known to us as “Clark”—from Tian Jin, China. Clark was as excited as we were for his arrival in central Michigan.

At 16, he was the Bay City Central High School math star and a swim team stalwart. He was on time for school every single morning (which never rubbed off on his American sister, I’m sorry to say), and made many American friends. On the weekend before he returned to China, I cooked hamburgers for 90 teenagers who flooded our home to say good-bye and wish him well.

Clark is my only son and my daughters’ only brother. I hope to see the day he holds my daughters’ grandchildren, adding one more link to my family across borders.

 

This article originally appeared in The New Global Citizen and is reprinted with permission. Click here for the original story: http://bit.ly/1vtcPWO.

#myYFU – Instagram Contest

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Contest Start Date: Sunday, March 1, 2015 Contest End Date: Sunday, March 15, 2015 Total 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!

Anna Enjoys a Gap Year in Sweden

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Ready for adventure, Anna deferred her college admission for a year and traveled to Sweden on exchange to fulfill a lifelong dream. Here's what Anna's written about her experience thus far:

"I have deferred my university admission and will be taking a gap year in Sweden for the next eleven months!” This was my usual response when asked about my future plans throughout my senior year in high school, which was usually met with dropped jaws and amazed expressions from my family and friends. As a current YFU gap year exchange student, I can wholeheartedly say that taking a gap year has been the most adventurous decision of my life to date. However it has also been my best and most life-changing decision!

This whole exchange student experience began quite some time ago - before I was born actually! My father was an exchange student in Sweden when he was in high school. Although that was back in the 80′s, I grew up knowing about his exchange experience and hearing about Sweden, along with learning about the Swedish ancestry in my family through several of my family members. So I think I had always had some sort of interest in Sweden.

Anna Wangen_US to Sweden_Gap 2013Now, speed forward several years to me at age twelve. Here come the Swedish camp years. My family had known about Concordia Language Villages for several years, but had always been a little afraid of shipping me off to camp where I didn’t know the language. So somehow during those years as a Swedish student at camp, I got the crazy idea that I wanted to be an exchange student myself. I had learned about many different exchange programs and opportunities, and did much research on my own. Still, many people balked at the idea at first. It seems most unusual and culturally unacceptable to take a gap year between high school and college to most Americans, although it is absolutely normal here in Europe. I soon discovered Youth For Understanding and their arts exchange program in Sweden. It couldn’t have been more perfect, and I filled out an application to do a gap year last August. Simultaneously, I prepared an audition repertoire and visited many colleges in order that I could defer my admission for a year at the music college of my choosing.

Needless to say, everything has worked out unbelievably smoothly and I am now enjoying an amazing year abroad in Sweden! YFU has a wonderful network overseas, and this year has been full of cultural and life lessons. From learning to ALWAYS wear my rain pants when bicycling in the rain to singing in a Santa Lucia choir, I have been able to absorb Swedish culture while simultaneously sharing American traditions such as Thanksgiving. My host family definitely enjoyed both the joyful companionship and the pumpkin pie of our classic American holiday. I cannot wait for what the rest of my exchange year has in store!

Would you like to share your YFU Story? Please submit your stories and pictures!

Calling All Basketball Players!

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LithuaniaHas it ever been your dream to play basketball in Europe? To make that free-throw or win the game with a buzzer beating three pointer while the European crowd goes wild. What’s that? You say it’s a dream of yours…? Well then, if you didn’t already know, we’re here to tell you that YFU has a special “slam-dunk” study abroad program designed just for you – okay, not just you but any player who’s interested – to study and compete in Lithuania for an entire year!Lithuania is home to 10 NBA players, has won gold & silver medals in the European Championships, and bronze medals in the Olympic Games. This unique Baltic country has been blessed with beautiful coastline, inland lakes, rich culture and a strong history!

This is an excellent opportunity for you to stand out from other players. Score unique experiences to call upon when drafting your college application letters.

If this sounds like the game of a lifetime to you, check out our website to learn more. Make the first “basket” toward an unforgettable adventure.

This is a very competitive program and spaces are limited so don’t delay. Make a full court press to start your application today!

Help YFU Trailblaze a New Program

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At YFU, we’re always looking for the brave few who are keen to add some new (or even first) stamps to their passport. We need exceptional teens who are eager for a transformative journey where they can learn about the history, people and norms of another culture’s daily life.Do you have?

  • A sense of adventure.
  • Curiosity about the world.
  • Desire to learn about new cultures.
  • An open-mind.

If this sounds like you, then read on for an amazing opportunity!

We have been working with one of our international partners who is very excited to welcome their first American exchange student to their country. That being said… How would you like to be YFU’s first student to study abroad in BULGARIA!

Bulgaria

Located on the northeastern part of the Balkan Peninsula, this diverse country is at the crossroads between Western Europe, the Near East, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. With a landscape of rivers, mountains, and sea, this beautiful land is favored with temperate climates that have a subtropical influence. [Note: Click here to see lots of gorgeous user-submitted Flickr photos.]

If you’re ready to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, then your first step is to create a YFU Student Account. Sign-up online or call 1.800.TEENAGE to learn more about this opportunity.

Will you be YFU’s first student to study abroad in Bulgaria?