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It was the Summer of '70...

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YFU was the beginning of my lifelong love of travel, which continued at Stanford-in-France and in my career as a journalist and international media trainer. Except for my dad's service in World War II, I was the first person in my family to travel overseas since our ancestors came from Europe. The YFU experience literally changed the direction of my life because I was able to experience possibilities beyond the boundaries of my home country, community, and upbringing.

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My YFU Experience: Kylie Neidich

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

Why do you believe that study abroad programs are not only beneficial, but also crucial for the youth of tomorrow?
I believe that our youth are often unaware of the cultural differences, how different every country is, and I think that studying abroad can help them further in life. It also looks great on college applications and applications for jobs because of that experience.

What was your motivation for volunteering and hosting with YFU?
I wanted my own children to learn about other cultures, while also getting to share our own. We love being able to share the kitchen with our students, as they teach us dishes from their own country. Believe it or not, I am the pickiest eater, but I have changed my eating habits due to my exchange students. When we moved to Texas we were the only family who hosted and I hated that our student couldn’t interact with others, so that got me more involved with volunteering. I’ve helped in planning events and in the growth and expansion of my field!

How has hosting a student impacted you and your family?
We have tasted food from other countries that we would have never been able to otherwise try, and my kids have been introduced to several languages including Thai, French, Swiss, and German! We gain so much through hosting. It truly is life changing.

Can you share some of the best memories and unexpected surprises from your hosting experiences?
The best memories would be watching them grow into sports that they may never have played before (esp. when they end up going to state championships), taking them to professional games, visiting the Alamo, and enjoying new holidays together. I don’t believe I’ve ever had unexpected surprises. YFU has been so VERY supportive and I couldn’t have asked for a better organization.

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

Several Nights in Tunisia: Taking YFU's Presence Virtual in North Africa and the Middle East

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We sent our Director of Virtual Exchanges, Erin Helland, to Tunisia to explore how we might increase YFU activities in the MENA Region. Here's what she found:

Pre-departure: “Tunisia?” It seemed nearly half the people I told about my trip asked this one word question with raised eyebrows and an uncertainty that translated to both “I think I know where that is,” and “is it safe for you there?” I routinely responded, “Yes! Picture Africa. From left to right it goes: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt – I’ll be fine.” And, then for a brief moment, when stepping out of the airport and into the dry heat of this small, yet influential coastal country, this tiny voice in my head asked, “what are you doing here?”

First Impressions: I felt genuinely welcomed and comfortable in Tunisia. Everything was both less and more exotic than I imagined. There was an approachable-ness to the people and the culture – which much like here at home, consists of a large middle class. As a woman traveling solo I braced myself for the conservatism that might be visible in a predominantly Muslim country.  I found instead a rather progressive climate where head and arm covering is optional based on personal choice, where it is perfectly acceptable to dine in public or conduct business in mixed company, and where women are strong and vocal community influencers.

Perhaps you'll recall the Arab Spring protests that spread across North Africa started in Tunisia.  Considered the “success story” of the region, Tunisia formed a democracy after the revolution and has not experienced the same severe levels of divide, armed conflict and displacement as its neighbors. There is an overarching sense that though some are challenged by change, many are open to experiment with the latest ideas and opportunities. It is hard to describe the essence of this combined tentativeness and enthusiastic energy – it resembles the “possibilities” felt with the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the hope and anticipation following the historic 2008 US election. My general impression is that youth and adults alike exude a cautious hope for the future...and yet, according to multiple multinational government intelligence sources, this is the same country that sendspercentage-wise and in sheer numbersthe highest number of jihadists to ISIS.

Day One:  The first day I was welcomed to the country by Yassine, the high schooler and YFU alum to Texas who introduced the concept of a virtual program to his teacher. We met in the courtyard of a traditional Arabic guesthouse in Sidi Bou Said, the infamous blue-and-white costal suburb where I was staying. In his exceptional English, he shared that his brother is now on exchange with his former host family, who put previous plans to visit Tunisia on hold due in-part to the terrorist incidents of 2015. We “nerded out” about the current state of affairs within and between our countries; like how, despite challenges and the long road ahead, he is proud of the strides Tunisia is making, and how he aspires to study abroad again and pursue a career path that will allow him to serve his people. 

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<p>       <img src= On the Road Again: Meeting the Change-Makers:  My adventures took me from my base in Sidi Bou Said across the lake into Tunis and its sister city Ariana, four hours south to the city of Sfax, and 90 minutes north to Bizerte, where our pilot program initiated. Not only did I get to meet tremendously driven teachers for a deep-dive about the program (and say hello to a few eager students), but I got to also talk to entrepreneurs and association leaders who are curious about YFU. In addition, a new collaboration for 2017 is now underway after a dynamic discussion with a youth organization that prompts high schoolers across the country to examine civil society in a post-democracy Tunisia, simulate elections, approach ways to counter violent extremism, and discover potential career paths. It was perhaps most rewarding to meet face-to-face with the teacher who sponsored the initial spring pilot and who inspired our continued pursuit of programming in Tunisia. 

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<p>       <img src= The YFU Ripple Effect:  I watched the strength of the YFU exchanges come alive when the experiences of a few alumni rippled across continents and generations to make great strides in Tunisia in a turnaround of less than six months. Our pilot launched there because one student, who went to Texas on a YFU exchange, introduced us to his teacher upon returning home. She then sponsored a “virtual exchange” club of 20 students, which in-turn, set the stage for the fall pilot that now extends to 500 students in several countries. I’m sometimes taken aback when I imagine the impact the "YFU Ripple Effect" has had and can have when multiplied by the 260,000 alumni who have studied abroad through our traditional exchange programs.  

YFU On Ground: I was introduced via our global network to Pedro, a YFU alumnus from Spain whose exchange brought him to a farm in South Dakota in the early '80s.  Now residing in Tunisia, he graciously stepped into the role of lead on-ground YFU volunteer and served as my guardian for the week. He conducted his own outreach to associations and educatorssharing about YFU, and arranging additional appointments in advance of my arrival.  He acted as translator when necessary, drove everywhere so I wouldn’t have to bother with transportation, and even handed me a mobile phone pre-programmed with local contacts. Pedro is a world traveler, linguist, cultural enthusiast and family man, whose career has spanned from working for the UN in Yemen, to freelancing as an NGO consultant. He told me that he volunteers for YFU because it was one of the most influential experiences in the course of his life. I appreciate his friendship, and gained much from his insights before my arrival and during. YFU is fortunate to have him in our corner, passionately advocating for and representing us in country.  

 Pedro, YFU Alum and lead volunteer for Tunisia, contacts the Ministry of Education from our

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Right Where We Want to Be: It was a rewarding and fruitful visit, and I’m so grateful to those who made it so. Indeed, along the way, this island of democracy proved that it is well positioned to act as our “home base” as we strategically develop a YFU presence across the MENA region.  Our volunteer alumni, the teachers, and even the new friends I met on this trip have proven they stand ready to support our development within the country and beyond. 

From what I can tell, the country’s stability lies in the continued creation of opportunities for the peopleespecially in providing a tangible, optimistic future for its youthand perhaps our programming provides one avenue to supporting just that. YFU’s exchanges are beyond academic, more than fun pictures about food or holidaysthey function as a means of engaging with “the other,” or that which is unfamiliar to ushelping to combat extremist views, and get youth engaged with the world.  While sharing their own experiences openly, students have the opportunity to increase self-awareness, develop intercultural communications competencies, and learn for themselves that when you get right down to it, our similarities are greater than our differences.

 Learn more about the Virtual Exchange Initiative at yfuusa.org/virtual-exchanges

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! 

“Why Hosting Matters”

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Host a YFU / U.S. Department of State-Sponsored
High School Exchange Student

Why hosting matters: Hosting is a catalyst in making us all citizens of one world. It brings culture and a sense of adventure to you and your family while teaching valuable lessons about acceptance and global unity to your community. Hosting brings the world home to you.

Each year, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs brings almost 2,000 high school students, representing over 50 countries, to study in a local U.S. high school while living with an American host family. Become a part of this unique opportunity by hosting a YES, FLEX or CBYX student with YFU this upcoming school year.

May 15, 2016 – International Day of Families

To all of our host families, thank you! Please help YFU and the U.S. Department of State celebrate this day and these unique hosting opportunities by posting images and messages on your social media accounts using the hashtag, #WhyHostingMatters. We want to see your hosting and exchange images on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, showing the world just how amazing it is to host these Scholarship recipients.

 

The Next Chapter of Your Exchange Experience

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With the opportunity to meet and connect with fellow alumni, you have the ability to remember what made your exchange the crazy, wonderful, developmental time period that it was.  Your exchange experience didn't end the moment you stepped off the plane.  The Alumni Chapters offer amazing ways to stay connected with the not only the organization, but also those precious experiences you had while abroad. 

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Happy National Volunteer Week

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Guest post from YFU President & CEO Michael E. Hill

Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege to meet with many of you during my listening tours in Boston, Massachusetts; Muskegon, Michigan; Charlotte, NC; and Clyde and Delaware, OH with Bill Malloy, our Director of Volunteer Programs. We have a few cities still to visit, but I always come away with the profound understanding that YFU simply would not exist without our volunteer family.

As I was preparing to write this note, I reflected on the impact our volunteers have on our students’ experiences. Often, when I speak to outside groups or individuals about our mission, consistently the one thing people are often surprised by is the sheer number of volunteers and their direct impact on our program, our students and frankly, the continued success of delivering a rich, meaningful cultural exchange experience. Others outside our organization either don’t understand – or are unable to comprehend the level of professionalism, passion and dedication of YFU volunteers.  

Meeting volunteers, students, and host parents is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. On a recent trip through the beautiful state of Ohio—I was fortunate enough to spend several hours hearing directly from two remarkable groups of volunteers. At a gathering in northern Ohio, the personal stories of why YFU holds a special place in the hearts of our volunteers overwhelmed me. In that small country store where the event was held, you couldn’t help but feel the energy vibrating in the room! One volunteer in particular named Pat will always stand out in my mind. Pat’s vigor, dedication, and 30+ years of YFU volunteering illuminated the space. I was also equally inspired by Matthew, a volunteer in his early 20s, who attended the event while at home on break from his university studies. Matthew was joined by his mom, another YFU volunteer, and I was able to see firsthand how volunteering really does run in the family! These stories were especially poignant as later this summer, I will become a first time host dad. I’m incredibly excited about this new journey and am so thankful to know I will have the support and expertise of our volunteers to help guide me. 

So as we celebrate National Volunteer Appreciation Week, I want to thank each and every one of our volunteers for the tremendous work you do throughout the year. From helping to place students, writing student profiles, interviewing students and families, serving as scholarship evaluators, leading as area reps, lending your expertise on regional volunteer leadership councils and the countless other ways you contribute to YFU, you continue to make a profound difference in the lives of the young people, host families and communities we serve.

I want to thank you, as well, for the many words of advice you’ve given my team and I as we head into our 65th year. Please know there’s not a day that goes by that I am not grateful for all you do and how hopeful it makes me to know that we will build a brighter future for YFU… together.

A Lifetime of Exchange

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Guest post from YFU Alum Meg White Campbell

The idea to participate in an exchange probably began when my family agreed to host a student from France one summer when I was in elementary school. I couldn’t speak French, and Sanou couldn’t speak English, but we managed to communicate through acting and shared hobbies - It turns out French kids love ice cream, too. Then my sophomore year of high school, my mom came across and an advertisement in a brochure – these were pre-internet days – and she passed it along to me. Before long, and courtesy of a YFU and All Nippon Airways scholarship, I was off on an adventure to Japan.   

I absolutely loved Tokyo. My 5’10” felt like 7’10”, but thankfully my gargantuan proportions didn’t prevent my host family from being gracious and hospitable. We laughed a lot together (or perhaps they were laughing at me and I simply joined in). In Tokyo, I saw the coolest things! I remember a man rollerblade-skiing down a busy street, a group of people dressed as Star Wars storm troopers in the shopping district, and an apple (the fruit, not the technology) on sale for the equivalent of $25. I participated in a tea ceremony, met a Koto player (see photo below), and hiked majestic Mt. Fuji.  What struck me the most about the Japanese friends I made, and what I still admire about Japanese colleagues today, is their overwhelming graciousness and kindness. They are forever concerned how the other person is feeling. 

To say the stay in Tokyo was eye-opening for me is an understatement. It broadened my horizons and changed my trajectory both personally and professionally. Since that first foray overseas, I have lived in eight countries and participated in three other exchange programs. As a result of my current Foreign Service posting, my children, whom I call “multicultural minions”, attend a bilingual school in Berlin, where they are reaping the benefits of easily moving between cultures and languages.  

As anyone reading this well knows, exchange helps us see ourselves from the outside. This knowledge is an exceptionally powerful skillset in the world of diplomacy, where sometimes in our effort to do the right thing at the right time, we inadvertently act too quickly or fumble our messages. Sometimes even when we – and our policies – are well-intentioned, they are not always received the way we had hoped they would be. Through exchange we learn to ask better questions, to listen, and that it is ok to trust people who prefer Sarutahiko to Starbucks. 

Exchanges have taught me grit and moxie. I survived high school in Bavaria amidst fast friends and a flurry of flashcards. It was trying, but there was a lasting sense of accomplishment once I had made it to the other side. This persistence means that, even today, when I make mistakes, I dust myself off, chart a new course, and…make all new mistakes. I have better sense of perspective now, too. 
 
Learning foreign languages through exchange has opened my eyes to a new universe of people and possibilities. As my language proficiency increased, I also honed my empathy. I now know firsthand how taxing it is to work an entire day in a foreign language. Nothing is more humbling than spending three hours writing a short blurb in German to then attend a conference, where international colleagues give compelling speeches effortlessly in English.  

Learning another language is a gift we can give each other, but there are other ways to promote intercultural dialogue. We can host international students, donate to YFU, or simply shout from the rooftops how much we love exchange. I have maintained contact with several host family members and friends met during my time abroad. My Japanese host sister stayed with my family in the U.S., and one host family sends my children Christmas gifts signed “your ¾ family”. Thanks to Dr. Rachel Andresen and her continuing legacy through YFU, these lifelong connections have enriched my life and have helped me learn, grow, and succeed.  

If exchange is for you, find a way to make it happen. There will always be people who don’t understand how you could leave and miss Homecoming or basketball season. You have to weigh that for yourself, but you should also consider what you will miss if you don’t go. There’s a whole world out there waiting for you to explore.  Ganbatte, and Viel Spaß!  

 Meg and her multicultural minions (Max Elijah and Milo) with host sister Zita Lettenmeier - taken in Berlin, Feb 2016.

Meg White Campbell, a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Department of State, is currently working as an exchange diplomat (Transatlantic Diplomatic Fellow) at the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin, Germany

Lifetime YFU Friendships

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At first, we were just exchange students…

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

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

And then we were invited to events….

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

And then we were volunteers….

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

And then we were friends….

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

 Laurie on the left, Jeanne on the right

And there’s always YFU…

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

65 Years of Vision

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Guest post from YFU President & CEO Michael E. Hill

Great literature has many references to “the ghosts of our past;” so, too, do great organizations. This is the week we celebrate our founding visionary, Dr. Rachel Andresen, and while all “Founder’s Weeks” provide a time to honor a very special woman and to reflect on her vast contributions to Youth For Understanding, this year’s Founder’s Week is particularly special as it marks the beginning of our 65th anniversary year.

When Rachel was called upon to form and support YFU shortly after World War II, there was no recipe for how an exchange program should operate. The founding premise was both much simpler and yet significantly complex: how could we bring young people to the United States in such a way as to have them return to their home countries believing in the hope of a brighter tomorrow? One of the things that we celebrate this week is the tremendous success that Rachel had in answering that question.

As we embark on our 65th year, in some ways, we find ourselves asking this question anew. While it is absolutely the case that our core programs in in-person intercultural exchange remain as powerful as ever, we do know that advances in technology have certainly provided greater access to the world – or at least the perception that this is so. And the evils that Rachel was trying to combat are far different than the ills of today’s world.

Andresen was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for her work in uniting young people and communities. According the Alfred Nobel’s will, which established the recognition, “the Peace Prize shall be awarded to the person who in the preceding year "shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

One of the central challenges for today’s youth is that “standing armies” are not the preeminent threat to a peaceful co-existence. And while this is certainly the case, the heart of conflict has not changed all that much: namely conflict and terror exist when people move from a place of fear to a place of hatred to a place of violent action. 

Those who lost their lives in the recent bombings in Brussels are victims of those that believe a way of life is threatened or when values are not shared or at least respected. In this frame, young people are facing a future where conflict is resolved not through traditional methods of discourse and when or if that fails, conventional warfare, but rather are subject to random acts of terrorism, destabilizing the world and causing some to retreat into hyper-nationalist views that impede a much broader agenda for peace.

When Andresen began YFU six decades ago, the world was a simpler place. Students travelled on boats across the ocean to live with host families. There were few rules of engagement then. There were no governmental offices that monitored regulations. Students wrote letters home to update their parents on their experience abroad, and, if they were lucky, called home once during the experience, often to arrange a reunion time for when they would arrive back home. Schools accepted young people because a local citizen wanted to have their exchange son or daughter attend. And technology was most likely referring to a car, not a mobile device.

In today’s hyper-connected world, students have access to volumes of information and can almost in real time gain insights into events and activities that are shaping global cultures. But technology does not provide a filter for bias and misinformation. Only through deep engagement – people to people – can disparate cultures understand one another.

I believe that the most important way we can honor Rachel’s legacy is to double down on finding new solutions to help heal a broken world. So as we celebrate our 65th year, and the very special role that Rachel played, let us recommit to our founding promise.

If we believe that the world’s future depends on interconnected citizens with an ability to see the benefits of different cultures, then we must find ways to allow the next generation to interact with those who may appear as “the other.” We must create vehicles for young people to dialogue and to take those skills into their adult lives when they become heads of state, heads of corporations, head of families or simply every day citizens.

A hyper connected world provides several potential solutions:

1)    YFU has just embarked on its first “Virtual Exchange” program, harnessing the power of social media and technology to provide an asynchronous dialogue among young people of different cultures.  Meeting youth where they most are living, YFU’s program is looking at curating conversations through social media and online platforms, but the pathway of that conversation is being most managed by young people themselves. What are they interested in talking about and how do use that imagination and interest to reduce barriers and increase understanding? Can we break through the packed educational agendas in schools to be a partner in delivering curricular needs through youth dialogue? If so, could this be one avenue for young people to realize they are more alike than different. YFU is starting a pilot program with the poorest school in New York City. The principal there, who also happens to be a YFU Trustee, posited that impoverished children in New York are a different form of “refugee.” We will attempt to link them up with young people in the Middle East and Northern African region, who is experiencing great upheaval and refugee migration of a different kind to explore similarities in hopes that the adult versions of these young people might contribute to a safer planet.

2)    Corporations and individuals must step forward to provide resources to allow increased participation in traditional exchanges. Not only will it create the workforce most needed in an increasing global society, the return on investment is far greater than the cost of training adults in intercultural competencies later on.

3)    Governments must promote a platform of intercultural engagement in societies and schools, encouraging an examination of other cultures to provide greater global security.

4)    And nonprofit organizations that care about intercultural engagement must find new ways to link young people in dynamic dialogue and work in partnership with others to reduce the barrier to entry.

Rachel answered the call after World War II.  In one of her speeches, she recalls being in Amsterdam when the lights were turned on again.  She notes, “The work of YFU is ensure that the lights never go out again.” That must be a shared mission if the next generation has a shot at fulfilling that promise. During this Founder’s Week, let’s celebrate Rachel by finding new and increased ways to celebrate her dream.

Make an Impact - One Ripple at a Time

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Hello, my name is Olga Smolenchuk. I am an Atlas Corps Fellow  from Russia serving at Youth For Understanding.

I strongly believe that change starts with individual actions, which start the ripples that leads to major impact.

A great example is my own story. When I was in seventh grade, my teacher took me by the hand and transferred me to an advanced class. She believed that I could achieve more. Thanks to her action, I am here today, participating alongside some of the most impressive nonprofit leaders from across the world and serving in one the oldest international exchange organizations, Youth For Understanding.

Coming from a small coal-mining town in Siberia, it is difficult for kids to dream big. Yet, this teacher taught me to think bigger and to challenge myself to do more.

Right before embarking onto my journey as an Atlas Corps Fellow, I returned to that very same classroom with that same inspirational teacher to talk to the current seventh graders about dreaming big and working hard for their dreams. When I was their age, I could not have even imagined that one day I would in the United States and speaking at the State Department. Now, look, here I am. I plan on returning to that school after my Fellowship to share more with these young students and to inspire them to dream even bigger.

It is important that we never quit dreaming because we can always achieve more. It is the same with civil society—civil society starts with educated youth that are not afraid to dream big. Just looking around this room, I see 80+ individuals who continue to have big visions and inspire one another to also believe in their abilities to forward positive change. It may seem overwhelming to try to solve all the major social issues of the world—we may seem insignificant as individuals. It is as a network that we are going to achieve results.

Russia is a great example. Russia is a country with more than 200 nationalities spread across a vast geographic region. While it is difficult to target the entire country, we can start with youth from small towns like Belovo. They can be a positive force in their own communities, which when united with efforts in the towns of other Fellow countries, will create the ripple effect that leads to major impact.

Dr. Rachel Andresen, who was the founder of Youth for Understanding, visited Amsterdam in 1948. There, she saw the streetlights illuminating the city for the first time after World War II. She was very touched and vowed to do everything she could with her life “so that the lights would never go out again.”

I also vow to light up the kids in my home town with the energy I get during this professional exchange, so that the lights will never go out again. 


Campus Ambassador Introductions: Grace

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Studying abroad allowed me to become much more independent and self driven as well as gave me a passion for travel and an understanding of the importance of international relations.

As I sit on the curb with my host sister and host aunt, I sing Disney songs quietly to myself to pass the time while waiting for the bus to come to take us home. It is five thirty in the morning and I’ve been up for almost 24 hours consecutively. I am on the verge of an emotional breakdown from exhaustion and culture shock, but in the middle of it I think “Well, this is what you signed up for as an exchange student.”

 I had the opportunity to take a trip up to the mountains of Ecuador during my school vacation. I went up to Lake Quilotoa, a volcano crater lake at more than 12,000 feet, and then hiked 12 km back to the hotel.

 The YFU Ecuador trip to the Galapagos Islands was a great bonding experience with the other exchange students and the sights were spectacular.

This is one of my favorite memories from the ten months I spent in Ecuador because it is such a clear marker of the ways in which my exchange changed me. I had been in country for maybe two weeks when my oldest host sister asked me if I wanted to go with her to a dance that night. It was a Friday so I had gotten up early to go to school and I was already a bit tired. I said yes anyways though because it was a new experience and that is definitely what I got. I had never been to any event even remotely similar and I spent the whole night sitting in a chair on the edge of the dance floor, completely overwhelmed by the intensity of the music and the sheer number of people dancing. I can’t say I enjoyed myself very much on that occasion, but in retrospect I can see it as one of the defining moments of my exchange.

 For an art exam, a couple of my friends and I did a presentation as mimes about the day of friendship.

 In Ecuador, New Year’s Eve is a bigger holiday than Christmas. At midnight they burn paper mache dolls to symbolize the end of the old year and to welcome in the new. The parties last all night with fireworks, dancing and entertainment.

Studying abroad allowed me to become much more independent and self driven as well as gave me a passion for travel and an understanding of the importance of international relations. The experiences I had in Ecuador were life changing and I want to help to provide this opportunity for many students in the future.

 Manta, Ecuador is located directly on the beach and el Colegio del Pacifico, my school, was a ten minute walk away. One day the juniors and seniors took a field trip down to one of the beaches to do athletic activities.

  The school year on the coast of Ecuador runs from February to May so during the break YFU requires students to complete volunteer hours. I did mine at a daycare center in a classroom with children ages one to three years old. It was one of the most fun parts of my exchange; every day the kids made me smile and laugh. I also know a plethora of children’s songs in Spanish.

 I lived in the commercial center of Manta, Tarqui, a street market. This picture was taken from the window of my host family’s apartment. There was always noise and traffic at every hour of the day, no matter what.

Campus Ambassador Introductions: Emma

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I have a greater understanding of the workings of our society, and I believe that it is vital for youth to learn for themselves the true meaning of exchange.

Some people cite the long plane ride overseas as the beginning of their exchange, while others say it was the first face-to-face meeting with their host family. For me, though, my exchange began the moment I turned away from my family in the airport terminal.

I had been raised to always do things passionately or not at all. My family and I both knew that I was independent enough to survive a semester away from home in the country of Sweden; that I would be driven to craft the best experience possible for myself; that I would persevere through anything that came my way. And so, I faced the future and never looked back.

  Once I left to get on the plane to Sweden, I never looked back, and I am thankful for that every single day!

That didn’t mean that I wouldn’t miss my family, nor did it imply that I wanted to leave behind my life in the United States; in fact, it was quite the contrary. By keeping my gaze fixed on the future, though, I was able to appreciate what I left behind while remaining open towards what lie ahead.

That important realization came into play for the first time when I met my younger host sister in beautiful Stockholm, where YFU held their Arrival Orientation. Light rain drizzled overhead as my host mother, Marie helped me collect my bags, leaving me to talk to 7-year-old Denice, who didn’t know a word of English besides the numbers from one to ten. I used my fragmented Swedish skills to offer her my favorite American candy (Reese’s Pieces). She accepted with a grin. On the first of two train rides home, we chit-chatted as if we were actually sisters, and we drew pictures in a fluffy pink notebook to aid in communication with one another. Denice fell asleep with her head on my shoulder, and I knew then and there that a language barrier would not stop me from making Sweden my home.

  I took this picture with my host sister on the first day that I met my host family.

  Even though we didn’t speak the same language in the beginning, we found a way to communicate and I became an older sister for the first time in my life.

 

Though I struggled with learning Swedish in the beginning,  I was never dissuaded from making friends and learning new information. I specifically remember one instance when I was sitting in chemistry class, determinedly taking notes though I had only an inkling as to what they meant. I smiled to myself, though, first asking my classmates to help me translate them and then understanding that one day, I would be able to read the notebook and understand all of the information inside. I made hundreds of flash cards for words that would prove obscure: gräsmatta, skildhet, orkan. (Lawn, divorce, hurricane.) I studied verb conjugations, I listened to Swedish music, I read my textbooks out loud while I was home alone.

  In Sweden, I studied four science classes, a criminal law class, and three languages - wow! My classmates welcomed me with open arms and helped me understand what it was like to live overseas. Thank you for everything, NA13B!

After a few months had elapsed, it all fell together; I began feeling comfortable being around my friends in school, my Swedish skills had skyrocketed, and I remained in close contact with other exchange students who became some of my best friends.

But YFU prepared me for homesickness and culture shock, too, which I readily accepted as a not-too-distant reality. About midway through my semester in Sweden, I had a very hard decision to make that cultivated in my move to another host family in the area. When I left the home of my first family permanently with a bittersweet wave of emotions washing over me, I turned away and never looked back.

By not looking back, I was able to move forward into bigger and better things. I made mistakes when it came to my first family even though I loved them immensely, but in my missteps I discovered the tools I needed to have a successful relationship with 15-year-old twins Victor and William and my new parents, Paul and Helene.

  After dozens of attempts, my friends Lisa from Austria, Léa from France and I finally got a picture we were satisfied with! That is what exchange is about - working hard to see some spectacular results.

I could tell quirky anecdotes about my exchange all day if I had the opportunity, but more important are the lessons that I learned abroad. For one, I began to comprehend the significance of self-confidence. Without high self esteem, I could have never ventured out into the Swedish public with only enough skills to ask where the bathroom was. Nor could I have ordered my coffee in Swedish, traveled on public transportation alone, or even walked home two miles from the train station.

Perhaps the most valuable piece of advice I can pass along is to take advantage of every opportunity that is given to you. Fear can hold a person back or propel them forward, and though it was scary at times, I allowed myself to take risks. I never let something as petty as fear stop me from accomplishing my dreams. In short, I carpe’d the heck out of that diem.

  As an exchange student in Sweden, I learned how to take advantage of exciting opportunities. Just smile, relax, and live your life to the fullest - that’s what I did!

The number of lessons I have learned since going on exchange is infinitely large, so I can only hope to scratch the surface through this blog post. But I know now that my exchange experience will always be a part of me.

Now, as a Campus Ambassador with YFU, I get the chance to give the community a little glimpse into what my life was like in Sweden. I was a meager teenager on the asking end of the questions once, too, and being able to impart my wisdom onto the YFU community helps me relive the best moments of my exchange. Being able to live overseas affected me in a way that I could have never predicted. I have a greater understanding on the workings of our society, and I believe that it is vital for youth to learn for themselves the true meaning of exchange.

I sit in front of my computer screen over a year later, reminiscing on the five wonderful months I spent living in Sweden, and I am glad that I never looked back.

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.  

A Tale of Two Cubas through the Eyes of Two Leaders

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Re-entry.

A simple word that any YFU student knows is anything but simple. We’ve been back for two weeks from Cuba, and just this past week, we held our “re-entry orientation” with the program participants. Historically these YFU sessions are for teenagers, who experience great reverse culture shock when they return to their native countries. This version would be with 40-plus adults who were gone for a much shorter time but who experienced no less intense a transition home. 

Part of the reason for that tough transition was in the duality of Cuba itself, which in some ways can best be illustrated by our visits with two key figures: a private dinner with Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the Chargé d'Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Havana (our de facto Ambassador); and a lunch with Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro and the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education.

Both leaders were hopeful for the future of Cuba and predicted very different pathways for the nation. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, Ambassador DeLaurentis was very pragmatic about what he saw after the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba. He summed it up by saying (and I’m only slightly paraphrasing), “What will happen next depends on the Cubans.”

I met Mariela Castro at a private luncheon for our delegation on Day 7 of our trip. We had thought that she might stop by during our meeting with CENESEX days prior, but we were told that in addition to her role as Director of CENESEX, she also was a member of the Cuban Parliament, which was convened that week. As she walked into our dining space, she said she had recently had significant back problems, showing us a small brace and noted that this was the first day she was really allowed to be out and about. Cuban politics are still an artform in managing perception and power.

Castro shared with us a nearly 40-minute treatise on realizing LGTB civil rights in her country. It was easy to see how people could be charmed by her and her family. Her speech was warm, hopeful and extremely practical. While she cited that the only way to create new civil rights in a society is by changing attitudes from the ground up (versus the government down), she did note that in some of her efforts, when a group disagreed, “sanctions” were necessary. I found her to be a compelling leader, even if I didn’t agree with her government’s stance on achieving the means to the end.

Truth be told, we were “stage managed” through much of our public appearances in Cuba. It was seldom lost on our group that the public presentations were intended to give us exactly the view the government wanted on US-Cuban relations, but the complexity of another Cuba shows up in talking to the people.

Young people, in particular, are frustrated with the pace of change. Those we had a chance to talk to believe two things quite powerfully: 1) that the embargo never hurt the Castros at all, despite that being its intent. As they note, the ruling class continues to lead very comfortable, lavish lives, have never been without food and don’t experience the housing shortage, and 2) the Castros and the current leaders will only allow things to normalize and free-up if it also can happen with them still being firmly in control.

Mariela herself hinted at this when we asked if she thought Wal-Mart or Starbucks would be welcomed on the island as restrictions ease. “Cuba will decide what comes to Cuba. We aren’t going to welcome Wal-Marts just because they want to come if it’s not best for the ideals of the Revolution.” (again, only a very slight paraphrase). I was struck by the way she evoked Fidel Castro’s name as if a Biblical figure: “As Fidel said in 1974…” The Revolution was very much alive for many.

There was much to wonder about for the future of the country. The infrastructure is way behind, as is the economy overall. We were stuck in the Havana airport for an extra four hours, we later found out, because communication between the island and the United States was down: the passenger manifest had no way to be cleared by Homeland Security to allow us to depart. So much work was needed. As Ambassador DeLaurentis noted: it was up to the Cuban government whether normalization of relations would do much to fix that.

One of the Cubans we met put it more starkly: “The sad thing is that too many Cubans believe the normalization of relations is going to fix all the ills of the current Cuba.  That’s not going to happen if the government feels it will lose control in the process.”

Part of any exchange experience is asking participants to see a culture not through one’s own eyes but also through the eyes of the people you are visiting. At YFU, we conduct a workshop called “Colored Glasses,” which refers to the well-known analogy of the sunglasses, which represents the cultural filters through which we observe and interpret reality. Re-entry has been so hard for our group because our visit challenged us to find our own truth about Cuba, and in many ways, a new or revised truth about our own country in the process.

Two leaders: a US diplomat and the daughter of a founder of the Revolution. Both have great hopes for Cuba, and yet both see different roads to the same destination. For our group, we fell in the love with the people and the culture. As the US and Cuba open up to one another again, I can only hope we attempt to see the future through the “colored glasses” of the other. If we do that, perhaps both the US and Cuban peoples have reason for esperanza.

 

Cuba: Day 7

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Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.  

Day 7 –Friday, July 17

A week goes by too fast. We had one last full day to take in more of Cuba’s history, and this day would plunge us into some of the complexity of the island’s struggle with religion.

We started the day at the church of Nuestra Senora de Regla, one of Cuba’s most frequented pilgrimage churches, which houses the statue of the Virgin of Regla, who is black and cradles a white infant in her arms. She is the patron and protector of sailors and considered the equivalent of Yemaya, the goddess of the sea in the Yoruba religion. When we arrived, there was a Catholic mass happening inside the church. Since Raul Castro’s presidency, relations with the Catholic Church have thawed a bit. President Castro, himself, recently told Pope Francis, who is visiting the nation in September, that he might consider a personal return to the Catholic Church. It only underscored the tension that Cuba is experiencing as the Revolution morphs with time.

day 7_1

Following our church visit, we traveled a short block to the Municipal Museum of Regla. Each township has a municipal museum that chronicles the history of the town, its people and important moments. We learned of a raid on the town during the festival honoring the Virgin of Regla, where four young men were killed. The cousin of one of our guides was one of the four, which brought the story closer to home.

While there, we experienced the ritual dance of Santeria, the religion brought to Cuba by African slaves. Despite misconceptions that Santeria was blended with Catholicism, many practice the religions in parallel. The ritual dance was high spirited and ended with our delegation dancing along with the ceremonial dancers.

day 7_2

One cannot fully participate in Youth For Understanding without a love and appreciation for young people. That afternoon, following a spectacular lunch at a historic club, we were treated to a dance performance by the Bebe Compania Project at the Bertolt Brecht Theater. Children ranging in age from five to their teens put on a great performance for us, after which GMCW performed for them. Little did we know, all of us would end up on stage learning traditional Cuban dances by the end of the day. The children were patient teachers!

day 7_3

lunchrestaurant

The Chorus would officially end its performance tour at Casa de las Americas, the most prestigious cultural venue in Cuba. We were met there by international media, including a crew from NBC, who had followed us through much of Cuba for a later documentary on the trip. I was so proud of these guys who had performed more than 20 times that week. Their songs of freedom and equality would no doubt have an impact on all those who heard them for some time to come. They were incredible musical ambassadors for our nation and for LGBT people.

Casadelasamericas

As we departed the theater, Alex Lopez, our Travel Director and trip mastermind, had arranged for us to ride to our farewell dinner in a parade of vintage cars. Cruising through the streets of Havana, with the wind in our faces, was a perfect finale to a remarkable week. As we looked out onto the street, we raced by so many places and faces we had seen that week. The site of 20 or so convertibles with “crazy Americans” screaming in them caused quite a stir on our route. What a blast!

parade of cars

A farewell toast on the roof of Ambos Mundos Hotel, Hemingway’s first home in Havana and one of his favorite places to grab a drink, Alex was pushing us to leave for dinner. We should have known that his earnestness meant another surprise was in store. He decided a simple walk would not do, and arranged for stilt walking performers to lead us through the streets. It didn’t take long before we had created a “Carnival-like” parade, picking up people as we went to dinner at Café Del Oriente Restaurant, overlooking the Plaza de San Francisco, the site of our first day in Old Havana. Things had come full circle.

stilt walkersScreen Shot 2015-07-31 at 12.30.12 PM

We spent our last dinner in Cuba paying tribute to our amazing guides. I was most moved to hear our YFU volunteer, Rick Withem, describe his experiences traveling with the Gay Men’s Chorus and how he now better understood the exchange students he had hosted for many years, as he felt as if he had just finished an exchange year in a week.

rick withem

This last photo shows the staff crew from both organizations that helped pull off this remarkable journey, and they deserve to be listed and celebrated (from left to right):

  • Dr. Paul Heins, GMCW’s Assistant Music Director
  • Chase Maggiano, GMCW’s Executive Director
  • Dr. Thea Kano, GMCW’s Artistic Director
  • Next to me, Gina Palmisano, Recruiting Manager for YFU’s Study Abroad Program
  • Alex Lopez, YFU’s Director of Travel, who unlocked his country of birth to his adopted US home
  • Scott Messing, YFU’s Vice President of Administration and the Exchange Experience
  • and Kirk Sobell, GMCW’s Director of Patron Services

Planning crew

These men and women worked tirelessly to make this historic journey possible. I have this photo framed on my desk as a reminder of what’s possible when people dream with one another, because, for many of this, the trip still feels like a dream.

I will write one last blog about our departure day and share some very special news of another visitor in Cuba, but as I close this Friday night in my mind, I cannot help but think of our friend Hemingway. It’s obvious to me why he fell in love with both countries.

 

The Day’s Takeaways:

  • Cuba seems to be in a perpetual state of “tug-of-war” with itself. On this day, I was reminded that the role of religion is just one of many unsettled questions for the nation and its people, but like most things in Cuba, the Cuban people find a way to navigate around the politics of any situation.
  • Dancing with people erases so much distance and division that politics can create. Whether with our Santeria dancers or the young people at the Bertolt Brecht Theater, laughing while we tried to match steps had us almost forget 50 years of division.
  • I am so lucky to work with incredible volunteers – thank you, Rick! – and a team of professionals – see that great looking group in the photo!

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