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YFU Blog - Recent stories about Youth for Understanding

Filtering by Category: Study Abroad Stories

A Remarkable Gift


It was bitterly cold while walking to school that morning and even the snow seemed to protest as it made a nasty, crunchy noise with each step I took. I was a junior in high school and, while sitting in my French class, I day-dreamed of being in France and speaking French instead of freezing in northern Michigan while studying French. Quickly dismissing my brief flight of fancy, I went back to conjugating verbs.

In study hall later that day, I saw a magazine ad for Youth For Understanding offering an application form for a study abroad exchange program. Even though my family was of very modest means and no one had been further than 100 miles from home, I responded, not knowing how my life was about to be changed forever.

I completed the application and got accepted for placement in France. I then had to tell my parents, gain their support and figure out how to pay for the program. When I approached them and explained I’d been accepted into a study abroad program in France, they were dumbfounded. “Why do you always have to do things nobody else in this town has done,” my father wanted to know, adding, “You’ll miss the football season.” Slowly, I wore them down (as all strong-willed children can do) and got my way. I emptied my savings, relatives gave me gifts of money and my parents finally agreed to provide the financial help they were able to while opening our home to my French brother. Before I knew what had happened, I was stepping off an airplane in France and was being greeted by my host father and brother.

Although the entire experience was great, it was also filled with loads of challenges that made it absolutely perfect. My French mother wasn’t a fan of America and let me know it every day. I learned to smile nicely and nod in understanding. My French father made me read the newspaper to him each night, explain what I’d just read by using words different than those in the newspaper and, each time I made a mistake, he’d tap my knuckles with a ruler, just like the Catholic nuns must have done to him. I responded by working harder, getting better and got tapped less.

The first weekend I was there, the family took me for a ride to Villefranche. While walking through a shop, the camera which I’d had carelessly slung over my shoulder, knocked over a display of expensive glassware, which I had to pay for using up every penny of spending money I had to my name. I had to start doing small odd jobs for neighbors for cash.

Food in the home was also a challenge. For breakfast, my host family ate a very small Petite Dejeuner consisting of a small croissant and a quick cup of very strong coffee. Their favorite lunch (served beautifully and frequently) was a mound of raw ground horsemeat with a couple of raw eggs resting atop it and a salad of crisp greens. No matter how much Worcestershire Sauce I drowned my serving of Cheval in, forcing it down my throat was never easy. I learned how to hide most of what was left on my plate under a few lettuce leaves, offering to clear the table and scrape the plates. I quickly figured out where I could buy really good French street food inexpensively.

The YFU program, back when I was Junior in high school, was the single most formative experience in my life. After losing almost all my spending money I really learned how to stretch a franc. I began to understand that the US makes up less than 5% of the world’s population and that 95% of the world sees many things differently than we do. That one side/my side isn’t always right. I’d had two years of high school French and could hardly speak the language but, upon my arrival, I had no choice but to start cobbling nouns and verbs together in order to be understood.

My YFU program provided me a foundation of thrift, resourcefulness and resilience. It was the start of an inclusive world view, the ability to communicate with others, a fierce sense of self-reliance when confronted with challenging circumstances and aroused in me a curious mind that has taken me to more than 100 countries and cultures. The gift of experiencing and living in another culture and language proved to be priceless for me. That’s why YFU is an integral part of our family’s estate plan and why I’d urge all alumni to consider doing the same. Participation in YFU is a lifelong gift that should be repaid. For the record: I still don’t like raw horsemeat.



Jason Jennings is a New York Times bestselling author of eight books on leadership and business, USA TODAY has called him, “one of the three most in-demand business speakers in the world,” and he and his partner have visited more than 100 countries around the world. They continue to travel to new places and study new languages. He can be reached at 

Consider remembering YFU in your estate planning. Contact Director of Development, Rebecca Rorke, at

YFU for Life: The Vintage Magical Tour 2015


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

Juan Carlos De Marco

Juan Carlos De Marco

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

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

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

Graciela Szczesny

Graciela Szczesny

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

Fernando Rovetta

Fernando Rovetta

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

Maria Cecilia Torres

Maria Cecilia Torres

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



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

Oscar Cabrera

Oscar Cabrera

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

A Family’s Tradition


Written for The Light by Misha PutnamFamily traditions are founded on novelty and strengthened in iterations. Our family has been intertwined with Youth For Understanding from the very start. It began in 1983, when Tokyo native Tomoko stepped into her new life as a YFU high school exchange student in Colorado. There, she befriended a classmate, Bob, and they remained connected through the years, eventually leading  to their wedding in 1989. Bob and Tomoko’s cultural exchange broadened as they learned more intimately the influence each respective culture had on the other. As he learned Japanese and developed a taste for her cooking, she got her driver’s license and became an American citizen.

Micah Putnam in Japan in 2009

Micah Putnam in Japan in 2009

As parents, they started a bilingual family with my older brother, Micah, and later, me. We both grew up with equal doses of Japanese and American cuisine, traditions and travel to familiarize ourselves with the culture of our extended families. Close ties to Japan influenced Micah to spend a semester of his senior year in Yokohama with YFU. As Micah stayed with the Suzuki family, we hosted their son, Yuta, in a yearlong exchange at our New Mexico home. By the time Micah had come home, the two had integrated into the others’ family so seamlessly that we truly felt like siblings. The year Yuta spent with us was a year of laughter and friendship that has kept our two families close.

Misha Putnam

Misha Putnam

Four years later, it was my turn. I spent my entire sophomore year in Sweden, experiencing all the wonders of an exchange year; right down to the language, the host family and the friends. What separated my exchange from that of my mother or brother was I was able to blog about my experience and came to form indelible bonds among the greater YFU community. Through every camp and orientation, to the individual students and leaders that became important during my year, I fell in love with YFU and the spirit of acceptance and affection, the hilarity, and above all, the sense of an even greater extended family.

As soon as I came home, I began volunteering every chance I got, including convincing my parents to host for a second time this coming year. I am happy to announce our tradition will continue as we welcome Arttu from Finland into our home for the school year. Our ties with YFU have brought more diversity, excitement, and joy into our lives than we ever anticipated. As a family, we are thankful for the global community we are now a part of and even more thankful for the life-long friendships we have formed.

The Journey Home – 50 Years Later


Christmas Eve, 2014. My husband and I are lucky enough to be able to come home for Christmas and we are in my parents’ restored 1761 house in a small village about 20 miles from Frankfurt, Germany. My husband and my dad are off somewhere, and it's my sister, my mother, and myself trying to add the final touches to the Christmas tree. We are all laughing and talking at once; although it's only been two years since our last visit, phone calls can't cover everything, and we are trying to catch up on each other's lives. Mostly, we are laughing about my plastic tree ornaments, purchased because they will not break in our suitcase, while Lucy, the family cat, takes a swipe at one of my mom's glass ornaments and sends it crashing to the floor.

We are waiting for a visit from my sister's boyfriend, whom I've never met. Francesco is everything she promised; a handsome, charismatic Italian who owns a restaurant about a half hour away and who will host my sister's 50th birthday party in three days.

On Christmas Eve, two of my brothers arrive to join the celebrations. The dinner table is full of people and good food, followed by the uproar of passing and opening presents. It is a wonderful evening, full of love, hugs, family and laughter, and I know I will remember this Christmas for a long time.

Two days later my sister turns 50 and it begins to snow in the morning. The snow is beautiful on the trees, bushes and old houses in the village; everything looks like a picture of an Alpine village. Not realizing it is time to stop, the snow keeps falling and now the serious business of snow removal becomes necessary. By law, each resident must clear a 4 foot walkway around their property. Sadly, because our village streets are so narrow, old, and crooked, the village does not have any snow removal equipment. The area between the cleared walkways are filled with parked cars and are now  about six feet wide with snow and icy ruts.

After a nail biting trip out of the village, we arrive at Francesco’s restaurant and are escorted into their back dining room. The lights are dimmed and each long, deep window has a candle burning in it. Tables with white cloths and fresh flowers are everywhere. Along one wall stretches more tables joined together and filled with an amazing array of Italian appetizers, a prelude to the four main courses displayed on the tables around the corner. The room is full of Italians. These are Francesco's extended family who love my sister and who are now prepared to love our family. Trays of drinks are passed and 40 people sit down to feast.

After dinner, Francesco wheels in a cart with a massive birthday torte. So large that he baked the layers, one at a time, in his pizza oven! We all sing Happy Birthday in German, then English, then Italian (sort of). Francesco gets out his guitar, sits down at one of the tables and plays and sings for the next hour. Magic! My parents, husband and I leave for the trip home, but the party continues long after we leave.

McCutcheon with her host father Carl and host mother Maria celebrating 50 years as a YFU family

McCutcheon with her host father Carl and host mother Maria celebrating 50 years as a YFU family

On January 30, my parents celebrate their Diamond (60th) anniversary. As is the village custom, people start dropping by the house around 10:00 in the morning; the mayor comes and the local priest, along with various neighbors and friends. My mom and I are in the kitchen frantically washing out champagne flutes and making more open-faced sandwiches as visitors come and go. At noon, there is a dinner planned at a restaurant in our village. The restaurant is closed except for our party and we take up the whole main dining room with one huge massive table for 45 people. Our florist has sent flowers and they fill the length of the table. My last brother and his family, who live over two hours away, are able to fight through the snowy conditions to be there, as well as my aunt, uncle, various cousins and their families, some friends of my parents, and all us kids. A close family friend from Poland makes the 12 hour drive to our village with his whole family to help celebrate, which was very special for my Mom and Dad. There are speeches, toasts, and lots of pictures. It is a glorious time that goes on all afternoon, and is a proper celebration of such an important milestone.

Lest I give the impression that all we do is party, in between all these special celebrations, there is the daily cooking and cleaning. As usual, I hang over my mother's shoulder as she cooks, writing down her recipes as fast as possible, and trying to guess if a large handful of chopped onions is either more or less than a cup, and hoping to be able to reproduce what she is making when I get home.

At the end of our trip, a final celebration is in order. On January 2, my husband and I host a final get-together with our immediate 17 member family. Now, I wish for a better command of the German language, with fewer “cooking”, “cleaning”, and “shopping” words and more “feelings” and “gratitude” words. They are most certainly needed, because I am giving a short speech to commemorate the 50 years that have passed since I first became a part of this very special family in the summer of 1965. I tell my family that my initial exchange experience has led my life in a totally unexpected direction. One that absolutely and forever changed my life and the person I would become and has shown me another, broader, and better world than I had ever imagined. At the end of the speech, I am privileged to present my parents with a wonderful letter from YFU President and CEO Mr. Michael E. Hill, and a YFU Certificate of Recognition for their lifelong commitment to intercultural exchange.

That first summer, I remember my Dad telling me he signed up for an exchange student because he wanted his children to know other cultures and people in the world. These were far loftier thoughts than I, aged 16, had when I signed up as an exchange student with Youth For Understanding. It is impossible to overstate how clueless I was. One summer was all it took for us all to cement the relationship that has lasted for 50 years.

I remember surprising my family with a visit for my Grandmother's birthday; my German father showing up unexpectedly in Michigan after the birth of my son, pulling a little wooden wagon filled with blocks; and then again, after my divorce to make sure my son and I were alright. There are too many visits to count. The foreign exchange that began in 1965 between myself and one German family has widened and grown to include many countries and many, many more people. As we have passed the 50 year mark, it is amazing to look back and reflect on how much our original exchange has profoundly and happily affected the horizons of so many people.

McCutcheon with her host cousin Dirk who plans to visit the US in 2016

McCutcheon with her host cousin Dirk who plans to visit the US in 2016

From Gymnasium to the State Department


Written for The Light by Katherine Brown



I’ve based my entire career on my Youth For Understanding experience 20 years ago as a high school exchange student in Esbjerg, Denmark. I had just turned 16 in August 1994 when I began my semester abroad. I remember the experience being difficult. I struggled with the language and the winter. I was deeply homesick, but I met incredible friends who carried me through the experience and helped me to discover a curiosity about the world and America’s role in it.

My classmates were incredibly worldly; they were active in debating the future of their country and that of Europe just five years after the collapse of Communism. I remember sitting in gymnasium and learning about the war in Yugoslavia and the conflict in Northern Ireland. Both events had been elusive to me as a teenager in Los Altos, California. When questions came up about U.S. foreign policy, heads turned to me. I didn’t know what to say. I remember never wanting to feel that ignorant again and wanting to be part of the conversation, as they were.

Brown speaking in her new role as Executive Director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy

Brown speaking in her new role as Executive Director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy

I currently serve as the Executive Director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy at the State Department, which serves as a watchdog and an advocate for the role public diplomacy plays in U.S. national security. Luckily for me, the work is meaningful. In all of my work travels – from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Kenya – I carry my original exchange experience with me in big and small ways. I always aim to project the sense of humility and openness I felt so profoundly as a teenager. When legislators and policy makers ask why exchanges are worthy of investment, I can deliver the data and tell the stories with personal conviction.

I hope one day to return to Denmark, as I remember the warmth of the culture, the magic of the winter holidays, and the transformative friendships I made.



Written for The Light by Daryl Weinert

In 1979, a Youth For Understanding volunteer walked into my Spanish language classroom at East Detroit High School and began to speak, changing my life forever. I headed home that day with excitement in my heart and a map of the world in my pocket. The map depicted the many countries where YFU had programs. That night, and for weeks to follow, I perused the  map and pondered the possibilities.

I chose to apply for a program in Spain. One June day in 1980, scared, I flew to Madrid and moved in with my Spanish family. My Spanish was halting and limited, but their hearts were big. They shared their country with me, from Castilla to Valencia, from Galicia to Murcia (where they had a summer home on the Mediterranean Sea).

Weinert in Spain in 1980

Weinert in Spain in 1980

It was heady stuff for a Midwestern boy whose foreign travel until that point had consisted of a few trips across the Detroit River to Windsor, Ontario. My time in Spain opened the world to me, a world of diverse cultures and scenery, but perhaps more importantly, a world of possibilities.

Following my YFU exchange, I attended the University of Michigan, earning degrees in Engineering and Economics. After graduating in 1986, I returned to backpack across Europe. In February of 1987, I left for a two and a half year assignment with the Peace Corps in Nepal. Not having had enough of intercultural living,I volunteered for a Department of Energy sponsored program in Hungary in 1992.

How did my YFU experience affect me? Three things stand out: First, living and surviving outside my home country filled me with self-confidence; second, it forced me to challenge assumptions about myself and my culture; and finally, it instilled me with a potent mixture of humility and empathy. All of this has made me a better professional, a better citizen, a better spouse, and a better parent.

Since that summer in Spain I have kept in touch with YFU. At first, by simply sending a modest annual donation, but more recently, I have been volunteering my time as a member of YFU’s Board of Trustees. Since 2012, I’ve had the honor of serving the organization as Board Chair. Through this work, I hope YFU can continue to offer students and families life changing experiences leading to global understanding.

DW Cafe

DW Cafe

Sports for Understanding


Written for The Light by Flynn Coleman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Years of Discovering the “Goodness”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MEH Collage

MEH Collage

The Road Home: Andrew Reflects on Everest Journey


See below for Andrew's final dispatch describing his trek down from Mt. Everest Base Camp, through damaged villages and finally back to the United States.On behalf of Andrew and the entire YFU community, a sincere thank you for your support of Andrew and our mission to advance intercultural understanding, mutual respect and social responsibility through educational exchanges for youth, families and communities.

Above: Saying goodbye to Everest Base Camp

Above: Saying goodbye to Everest Base Camp

Here’s the brief update:

  • On Wednesday (5/6) I arrived safely in Philadelphia.

  • Last Wednesday (4/29), we departed Everest Base Camp.

  • Walking down the Khumbu Valley and through the streets of Nepal revealed even more devastation than we had seen at Base Camp. Luckily, we were able to spend two days helping Sherpa in the village of Phortse with their reconstruction efforts.

  • Thanks to all who made this expedition and my safe return possible, particularly Scheels Sports, Casual Adventure, Happy Harry’s and Ag Warehouse for their generous donations to YFU. May our desire to understand and support diverse communities around the world never wane.

Above: The Sherpa village of Phortse, where we spent two days helping community members rebuildevacuated from IMG Camp

Above: The Sherpa village of Phortse, where we spent two days helping community members rebuildevacuated from IMG Camp

Here’s the longer update:

Last Tuesday, our expedition prepared to depart as planned. Wednesday brought good hiking weather, so we descended ~14 miles and 3,000’ to the village of Pheriche.  On our way down the valley, we camped (rather than stay in Sherpa teahouses) due to the widespread structural damage caused by the earthquake.  In Pheriche I finally felt safe, and I slept harder than I had for many days.



On Thursday we moved down to the village of Phortse.  We had heard that there was a 1,000+ person line at the tiny Khumbu airstrip at Lukla, and rather than rush down the Valley to join the queue, we figured it made more sense to stop in the hometown of many of our Sherpa team members to see if we could be of use.  For two days, we helped community members demolish damaged structures, so that they would have a foundation for reconstruction.  It felt wonderful to be able to help, and by the time we left, there were multiple families who insisted that there was nothing more that we could do until they got carpenters and electricians in.

Above: Earthquake damage in the Khumbu Valley

Above: Earthquake damage in the Khumbu Valley

Sunday we slept in Namche Bazaar (~12,000’), and on Monday we hiked ~12 miles down to the Lukla air strip at ~9,000’.    The paths / roads were desolate compared to our hike in.  Gone were the tourists, trekkers, and yak trains bearing Western luggage.  The half dozen or so trekkers we did see over the 5 day descent seemed very out of place. Earthquake damage was everywhere.  The worst hit buildings seemed to be the older ones, which usually had rounder stones held together by less sophisticated mortar.  We saw far less damage in newer buildings, in which the masonry seemed much tighter.  Our morale was high, but folks seemed to be thinking increasingly about home.  By the time we landed in Katmandu early Tuesday morning, people headed straight for showers, shaves and beds.  We knew that it would be more difficult for us to plug into relief efforts in Katmandu than it was in the rural villages, and so many of us flew out soon after arriving in the capital.  I left just 6 hours after I arrived, and I was on a flight with dozens of Polish and British search and rescue specialists.  They told me that the initial crisis had passed and that they were leaving because the next task—restoring water and power to neighborhoods that had lost it—was in the government’s hand.  I was disheartened to learn that the government had created some bottlenecks by attempting to tax donated relief supplies and by demanding that all supplies go through a slow customs process before they get to the people, but I was encouraged to learn how many international crisis responders had made it to Katmandu within the first twelve hours after the earthquake.  The death toll continues to climb, but it seems that the worst has passed.

Above: Earthquake damage in Katmandu; the first floor of this building gave way

Above: Earthquake damage in Katmandu; the first floor of this building gave way

On Wednesday morning, I was positively beaming as I watched the patriotic video on loop above the US Immigration Desk at Philadelphia Airport, and I told the Customs Officer I had never been so happy to pass through international arrivals. When he found out where I had been and what I had been doing, he thanked me for doing what I could to help out.  I told him that I thought he—and many others—would have done the same thing.  If he had seen someone struggling in the cold in a dangerous environment, I bet he would have looked for a blanket or sleeping bag to help the person cover him or herself.  If he had seen a place with more injured people than medical professionals, I bet he would have tried to help people adjust their positions or fix their bandages.  And if he had seen a dining room with blood-spattered walls, I bet he would have tried to help clean it before people used it again.  None of it was rocket science, after all, and the necessity of action was clear.  The only thing it took was being able to ask myself what I would hope someone else would do if I was the one suffering. This is something I have been trying to do ever since my exchange year from Grand Forks Central High School over to Germany at age 16, and it is something I hope more and more young people will learn to do through Youth For Understanding and its peers.  And that is why I am so grateful to all of you for supporting YFU—particularly Scheels Sports, Casual Adventure, Happy Harry’s, and Ag Warehouse—the principle supporters of YFU on behalf of this expedition.

Thank you again.

Sincerely,Andrew Towne

Read all of Andrew's blog updates from his Everest trip:

T-99 Days


Reblogged guest post from 2014-2015 CBYX Scholarship Recipient, LindseyOnly 99 days until my exchange year comes to an end. 99 days!

That isn’t a very long time!

And my host parents say that time will just fly faster the closer it gets to my departure date! It’s already going by pretty fast!

It feels like it was just yesterday when I flew in to the Frankfurt airport. When I met my 3-week host family. When I got to know the people in my Orientation Course.

Wasn’t it just yesterday when I hopped on that ICE train to Berlin (and sat in the completely wrong seat in the completely wrong train car) to meet my permanent host family?

Didn’t school just start? Wasn’t Christmas just a few weeks ago? When did it turn 2015? In just a few short days, am I really going to turn 17?!

I guess time goes by extremely fast when your brain has to figure out and process a lot of new things all the time.

With every new day comes a new chance for me to meet someone new, to try a new food, experience something I’ve never even dreamed of experiencing, or to settle in to the German culture. I am truly grateful towards my family, my host families, and also Youth for Understanding. Without the help of the CBYX Scholarship, I would never have had the chance to live my dreams. Because of YFU, I have become fluent in German, learned how to assimilate into another culture, gotten to try authentic German food, been able to see places that I didn’t even know existed, gotten to meet people from all over the world…and the list goes on!

So here’s to an amazing 99 days ahead of me! (and beyond!)

I hope my fellow exchange students here in Germany, in the US, and everywhere else in the world are enjoying their time too!


Andrew's Firsthand Account from Mt. Everest Base Camp


Above: destruction in central base camp after avalanche

Above: destruction in central base camp after avalanche

See below for Andrew's chilling first-hand account of the earthquake and avalanche at Mt. Everest Base Camp and the extraordinary efforts that followed.

Here’s the brief update:

  • A 7.9 earthquake struck Nepal on Saturday, killing thousands in Katmandu, causing severe damage to many villages in the Khumbu Valley and triggering a massive avalanche that obliterated about one-third of Everest Base Camp.

  • As of today (Monday), all of our IMG expedition team is safe and accounted for. Unfortunately, the death toll across base camp appears to be more than 15 and climbing.

  • Our endeavor to reach the summit has been officially called off, considering the damage to i) base camp, ii) the Sherpa community in the villages up and down the Khumbu, and iii) the route up Mt. Everest. We will begin trekking back down the valley sometime in the next few days and I hope to arrive back in Philadelphia in time to graduate from Penn on May 17th.

  • The international aid effort has been impressive, which I think reflects a growing empathy for the victims of foreign disasters. By promoting intercultural exchange through Youth For Understanding (YFU), hopefully such international awareness and care will only continue to grow.

  • Thank you all for your support and concern, and in particular to Scheels Sports, Casual Adventure, Happy Harry’s and Ag Warehouse for your terrific support of YFU.

Above: meal tents converted into medical tents with injured being evacuated from IMG Camp

Above: meal tents converted into medical tents with injured being evacuated from IMG Camp

Here’s the longer update:

The last 49 hours felt like a week.

Saturday (4/25/2015):

First, there was the avalanche.  Felt like I was sitting on the edge of a large trampoline as somebody else jumped on the middle.  It was disconcerting when something I have taken as stable my whole life begins to move underneath you.  It made me realize how much I take for granted, like stability in the very ground that we live on and build on.  My first reaction to the earthquake was fear that it might destabilize the glacier under our feet—that a mighty crevasse might open up underneath us.  Very quickly, though, the threat from above became clear.  We heard rumblings above us in all directions, and when I looked, I saw only a wall of snow ~ a quarter mile high rushing toward us from the north.  In retrospect, this may have been the plume created after the real thrust of the avalanche had already hit central base camp.  At any rate, I did not know where to go, but I figured I wanted to be able to see the hell that was about to rain down on me, and so I stayed outside.  I thought about the likelihood that the plume might carry rock and ice chunks, and so I assumed the fetal position behind a medium sized boulder, hoping it might act as a shield from any flying debris.  I put my elbows by my sides and my fists against my forehead, hoping that I might create an air pocket, should a blast of snow cover me.  I was breathing hard, waiting for it to really come down hard before taking one monster gasp before I was buried.  In retrospect, putting my face in my jacket might have 1) reduced the likelihood that my mouth and nose filled with snow and 2) increased the likelihood that I would have an air bubble to breath.  Live and learn.

When I stood up, I had about 3 inches of snow on me but nothing more. I was lucky.  Our expedition leader quickly confirmed that all of our International Mountain Guides (IMG) team was accounted for, and the next thing I heard was a discussion between him and Himex about which would serve as the most logical hospital, since the Himalaya Rescue Association (HRA) hospital had been destroyed.  They agreed that IMG was easier to access, and we began to clear our communications tent and our dining tents for casualties.  Within an hour, they started to pour in--some walking, most being carried.

The first role I assumed was that of a traffic cop, helping to direct casualties to the right tent.  Soon, the doctors were in search of supplies to use in treating the patients, bedding them, and keeping them warm.  I helped collect Nalgene water bottles for use as hot water bottles that patients could clutch, and I led a group of people to neighboring camps to find more sleeping bags and foam mattresses, after we had donated our own.  More camps and their doctors arrived, and soon there were multiple large medical kits.  Once we were sure there were enough sleeping bags, pads and warm water bottles to go around, I started looking for ways to be helpful inside the patient tents.  At first, this meant helping to distribute food, water and trash bags, but before I knew it a doctor asked for help setting a splint on a patient who had broken his femur.   The next patient we helped had compound fractures in both of his legs; when we lifted up the sleeping bag covering him we saw both of his legs at right angles to where they should be when he was lying on his back.  He received a heavy dose of pain medication and we wrapped both of his legs to two hiking poles, using sections of foam sleeping pad to insulate the legs from the poles and bandages.

We moved to the next dining tent, where my first task was to help prevent a gentleman’s toes from developing frostbite. He had broken his pelvis, shattered the bones in his hand, and dislocated his elbow, and the bandages around his legs were so tight that his feet had gone numb despite having dry socks and a heavy sleeping bag around them.  He was grateful for the foot massage and hot water bag I gave him and was surprisingly lucid and understanding, given his severe injuries.

The final gentleman I helped had an 8cm cut across his forehead which went down to the bone, and my responsibility was to help clean up his face after the doctors had bandaged his gash.  He, too, was remarkably kind and even maintained a sense of humor as I cleaned his face.  He kept saying in broken English “I look good, yeah?”   He even fell asleep with a smile on his face.  By the time I was done cleaning him, the doctors had finished their second sweep of that tent, so we cleaned up and made sure the patients had everything they needed for the night.  By this time it was approaching midnight—the earthquake had struck just over 11 hours earlier.  The doctors suggested there was nothing more we could do until the sun came up and helicopters began the medevac, so I went to sleep after checking in one last time in the head trauma tent.

My Sherpa climbing partner lost a cousin in the avalanche and had a nephew with a serious head trauma.  He had no idea how his small village in the next valley had fared in the earthquake and he was quite distraught.

Above: view of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse (L to R) from the slopes of Pumo Ri

Above: view of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse (L to R) from the slopes of Pumo Ri

Sunday (4/26/2015):

I awoke at 6:00 am to the sound of the first helicopter, and remarkably, no additional patients had died during the night.  By 6:15 I was helping move patients to the helipad. This required a bit of coordination, as there weren’t enough stretchers to go around and one doctor was keeping a master list of patients in rough order of urgency of evacuation.  I felt useful going between the four tents, finding the specific patients who needed to be prepped for each subsequent helicopter and helping to move them to the landing pad we had built at the edge of our camp.  By late morning, all of the casualties had been transported to the next closest Himalaya Rescue Association hospital in Pheriche, and within a couple of hours we learned that an MI-17 chopper had carried them all safely to Katmandu.  This was good news, because the earthquake had knocked down one of the walls of the Pheriche hospital and they were not equipped to handle the 25-40 patients that had come their way.

With the injured evacuated, we began to clean camp.  Within an hour, there was a 20’ area outside of the head trauma tent littered with blood soaked sleeping bags, water bottles and soiled clothing and bandages.  I helped sanitize our dining tents, first sweeping them and scrubbing the floor mats, then disinfecting the tent walls.  By noon, the camp was beginning to look like normal, except for the piles of debris and the large stockpiles of medical equipment.

While all of this was happening, one of our IMG guides and a team of Sherpas went into the icefall to check its condition—to see if the climbers at Camp I and Camp II had a chance of climbing down on their own.  A number of ladders had fallen down and the camp of the “Ice Doctors”—the elite team of Sherpas who create the route through the icefall each year—had been destroyed, so the conversation quickly turned to helicopter evac of Camps I and II.  Located at ~20,000’ and ~21,000’, Camps I and II require incredibly talented helicopter pilots to access.

Almost exactly 24 hours after the initial earthquake, we got the first major aftershock, measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale.  As before, we had just sat down for lunch in our newly cleaned dining tent, and as before, we all ran outside to watch for avalanches.  It was much cloudier that afternoon, and so we could hear new avalanches coming, but couldn’t see them.  Finally, we saw the tail of one running down the Khumbu Icefall from the direction of Camp I.  This second earthquake had little impact on base camp, but we later learned that it worsened the condition of the icefall and badly damaged the village of Pangboche about half way down the Khumbu Valley.  We heard the second earthquake was particularly terrifying for Camp I because they heard avalanches in all directions but couldn’t see anything.  Luckily, no one on our team (and I believe no one on the mountain) was hurt by the second earthquake.  Helicopters couldn’t fly the rest of the afternoon, so we relaxed a little bit and began to prepare for the following morning.

Above: medical evacuation team near IMG camp

Above: medical evacuation team near IMG camp

Monday (4/27/2015):

If the clouds lifted, helicopters would attempt to bring down all of the climbers and Sherpa from Camp I and Camp II.  At 6:00 am this morning, they began doing just that.  After somewhere north of 50 helicopter sorties, each carrying 1-2 passengers without gear, we learned that everyone on the upper mountain had been brought down to safety.  These evacuations didn’t require nearly as much base camp manpower as did loading the sick the previous day, and so a group of us hiked over to the Himalaya Rescue Association hospital to help them dig out the rest of their equipment.

The wreckage around base camp was phenomenal.  The first destroyed tent was about 100m from my tent, and by the time we had walked 200m from my tent we were in the epicenter of the destruction.  As we dug out the hospital, we discovered tents buried by multiple boulders the size of mini-fridges, and we could only imagine the impact caused by such objects falling from thousands of feet above.  We heard a story about one doctor who was standing next to someone watching an avalanche fall from the northeast when the much larger avalanche pummeled the two of them from the northwest.  One doctor was left standing; the other was hit by a boulder and found over 400 meters away toward the middle of the glacier.

By early afternoon, about 50 hours after the initial earthquake, all of the seriously injured had been medevacked and all climbers from the upper slopes of the mountain had been brought to safety.  Finally, we could relax a little bit and digest what we had just been through.

Our expedition leader brought us all together to announce that our expedition was officially over; the earthquake and avalanches had destroyed much of the route through the dangerous icefall and many of the Ice Doctors had either been killed in the avalanche or had left for home after their camp was annihilated.   That, plus the risk of further aftershocks and avalanches and the need for many of our Sherpa teammates to go back to their villages to take care of the earthquake damage there, made the decision quite simple.  Our team will spend Tuesday packing and hopes to begin the trek out of the Khumbu the following day, Wednesday.

What will I remember from this tragedy?

1.  The selflessness and emergency management skills of the doctors who flooded our camp and our IMG team

2.  The resilience and perseverance of the patients who remained calm and even expressed gratitude throughout our best attempts to treat them.

3.  The willingness of everybody to pitch in—whether they were clients or guides or Sherpa, and whether they were helping by treating patients, keeping the stoves going, managing logistics, or donating their only sleeping bag to the victims.

4.  The building international aid effort for the people of Nepal, and particularly the thousands killed, injured and suffering in Katmandu. I truly believe that international responses to tragedies like this get better as the world becomes smaller and people are better able to empathize with one another.  And nothing builds cross-cultural understanding quite like teenage intercultural exchange.  I could not be prouder to be here on behalf of Youth For Understanding (YFU), and I could not be more grateful for the support to YFU (Youth for Understanding (Andrew Towne) from so many, particularly Scheels Sports, Casual Adventure, Happy Harry’s, and Ag Warehouse.

Read a follow-up article in the Grand Forks Herald here.

Above: Andrew receiving a sundi necklace for good luck during his puja blessing ceremony at base camp

Above: Andrew receiving a sundi necklace for good luck during his puja blessing ceremony at base camp

Update from Everest Base Camp



Our deepest sympathies go out to the people of Nepal. A powerful earthquake of magnitude 7.9 hit Nepal, causing mass devastation and loss of life. We are relieved to report Andrew Towne, YFU Alumnus to Germany and a member of the YFU USA Board of Trustees, who was climbing Mt. Everest to raise funds for YFU, is safe and healthy. -------------------------------

andrew update

andrew update

We received the following email from Gary Towne, Andrew's father, after a 45 minute phone conversation he had with Andrew on Sunday.

Update from Gary Towne

Andrew is well and uninjured, has spent the last 36 hours without sleep, helping to find and care for the injured and helping with MedEvac. All of the severely injured have now been evacuated by helicopter. Several dozen people remain at Camps 1 (20,000 ft.) and 2 (21,000 ft.). It seems that these climbers experienced fewer if any injuries, none serious, but the situation is still not yet completely clear. Present concern is to determine the best way to help these people down the mountain. The altitude is near the limit for helicopters, so only 2 or 3 climbers can be evacuated on each trip. On the other hand, the ropes and ladders through the Khumbu Icefall (through which they must pass if descending on foot) have mostly been destroyed. Setting these ladders and ropes takes a large team of Sherpas at the beginning of each climbing season. There may not be that many left on the mountain; and, in any case, it appears that the icefall is very unstable, continuing to collapse, and is unsafe at this time.

Andrew stressed that the tragedy is profound—for the Sherpa community in every village of the Khumbu valley and elsewhere, as well as the entire nation of Nepal—the worst natural disaster to afflict the country in historical memory. At the same time, he clarified that this year’s avalanche had a very different effect from last year’s. The 2014 avalanche affected only Sherpas, who were rigging the ropes and ladders, and who face much greater risks than visiting climbers. Each climbing season, a Sherpa may make 30 or more trips through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, one of the most dangerous parts of the climb, because they do the rigging and repairing as described above as well as guiding the groups of visiting climbers. Each visiting climber, however, traverses the Icefall only about 6 times—it is part of altitude acclimatization hikes as well as the final push to the summit.

This year’s (2015) avalanche was more diffuse in its effect. Not only was the total number of casualties substantially greater (exact figure not yet known), but the spread of those injured was indiscriminate. Both Sherpas and visiting climbers were killed or injured. Observers on site seem to agree that the source, location and path of this year’s avalanche were unprecedented and could not have been anticipated. The Khumbu valley ends in a cirque (French, or cwm, Welsh), a semicircular valley ground out of the mountain’s base by the root of a glacier. Last year’s avalanche fell from the east side of the cirque. This year’s avalanche fell mainly from an ice cliff in the saddle of Pumo Ri (and perhaps some other slopes) on the north and west. The falling masses of snow and rocks created a huge aerosol avalanche and accompanying air blast that came together at the bottom, and, blasting out through the most direct path, hit the upper part of Everest BC and blew many tents across the Khumbu Glacier towards the lower Icefall. (Adapted from the International Mountain Guide (IMG) web blog.) Most observers Andrew has spoken to feel that, in normal conditions, without the violent earthquake that dislodged the ice cliff, this avalanche would not have occurred.

Chance, Fortune, or Providence played a major role in which parts of the camp were most affected.  Some areas seem to have escaped nearly entirely due to positions farther from the Khumbu glacier or under a protective ridge. Andrew’s tent was only 100 meters (1 football field) from the edge of the devastation. 200 meters from his tent was squarely in the middle of the worst hit area. Even in severely hit areas, deaths were unpredictable. According to one report, a boulder crashed through a tent, drove a climber through the tent’s side and crushed him, while leaving two companions still in the tent relatively unscathed. For more frequent updates and an official perspective see the IMG blog.

Plans for the future are unclear. In the short term, the situation is still evolving, and safety of the greatest number is the highest goal. Priorities include the evacuation of the teams at the higher mountain camps and the continuing search for those who may be still buried. (UPDATE: as of Monday morning Nepal time, reports suggest that Camp I and Camp II have been safely evacuated to lower elevations, thanks to some of the world's best helicopter pilots flying 50+ sorties.)

Whether teams remaining on the mountain will be able to finish their climb and reach the summit has not been determined. Whether Everest climbs will be closed for the remainder of this season or even further into the future is also not determined. The Sherpa people, upon whom all such expeditions depend, have suffered profoundly, and the full extent of the effect on them is not yet known. Their dedication, faithfulness, fortitude and well-being must be remembered in any consideration of Himalayan climbing. The income they derive from guiding is a very important support for them, their families and communities, but we cannot forget that they put their lives on the line to earn it, as Saturday’s tragedy so clearly shows. (UPDATE: IMG has officially ended its expedition up Mt. Everest, due to the devastation of the Khumbu Valley and its impact on our Sherpa team members, the destruction of the route through the Khumbu icefall, and the continued risk of aftershocks and further avalanches. We are mourning the deceased, praying for the injured, and focusing on a safe descent of those at base camp.)

Andrew sent his deepest thanks for expressions of concern, support and prayers. He also wanted to make several points. His Everest attempt has been a benefit in support of Youth for Understanding (YFU), an old and highly respected international exchange program with which Andrew went to Germany in his high school junior year and of which he is now a board member. He is paying his own way; all money contributed goes to YFU. In addition to many individual contributions, Andrew also received major corporate support as YFU Partners from Ag Warehouse of Finley, ND, Happy Harry’s Bottle Shops & Scheels Sporting Goods of Grand Forks, ND, and Casual Adventure Outfitters of Arlington, VA. Whether or not he is able to complete his climb, he feels an obligation to acknowledge their generous support.

It is still possible to contribute to YFU. Bill Harwood, Grand Forks and UND graduate now retired from the State Department (and incidentally once stationed in Kathmandu), said of YFU, “When I worked for USIA, YFU was a major grantee organization. It had started back in the Eisenhower days, as I recall. During the next 50 years they got major contributions from corporations like Toyota. . . . Then [there was a] falling off of federal and private donations . . .” YFU remains a very worthy and venerable organization for fostering international understanding, worthy of generous support.

That is also very true of the aid efforts for the Sherpas and Nepal in general. For anyone who wishes to contribute to the Sherpas, Support For Sherpas, a British group, seems to be responding to that specific need, while Mercy Corpsand Global Giving, both American groups, have opened efforts for all of Nepal. I’m sure there are others, but these were some I could find on short notice. All three have easy-to-navigate donation methods.

After such an extended update, I expect that I will be winding down pending further major developments. If you wish frequent updates, check the IMG blog.

Thank you for all of your expressions of concern,Gary Towne

See related article in Grand Forks Herald.

and finally—

A moment of levity in a picture not all of you may have gotten—the yak with Andrew's gear ascending a "street" in Namche Bazaar.



April 22, 2015 Update Prior to Earthquake

First, Andrew's father corrects the record...

"Thanks for Andrew's update. I reread the article in The Lightand thought I'd correct a minor error.  Andrew's FIRST summit was Mount Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak, at the age of 6 in 1988, just before we left Vermont for North Dakota.  He is at the left in the picture. His brother Jonathan, 8, is on the right."

Andrew and brother

Andrew and brother

Andrew's update!

Here’s the brief update:

  • On April 14, we arrived at Everest Base Camp (~17,500’)

  • We descended back down the valley to acclimatize at about 19,900’ on Lobuche Peak on April 19.

  • We returned to base camp two days ago and are getting ready for our first venture into the Khumbu icefall on the 23rd.

  • Our team is strong and morale is high. We were fortunate to receive Buddhist ‘puja’ blessings both at base camp and in Pangboche village with Lama Geshi, the spiritual leader of the Khumbu Valley.

19,900 feet, just below the summit of Lobuche with the summit of Ama Dablam dominating the horizon.

19,900 feet, just below the summit of Lobuche with the summit of Ama Dablam dominating the horizon.

Here’s the longer update:

In the last two weeks, we finished the trek to the head of the Khumbu Valley--Everest Base Camp (~17,500’). Along the way, we visited Lama Geshi in Pangboche for a Buddhist puja blessing. Lama Geshi fled Tibet during the Chinese takeover and is considered the region’s spiritual leader. Before blessing our climb, Lama Geshi had an audience with a woman from a neighboring village, and seeing how significant it was to her to be able to meet with him made us even more grateful for his time. Lama Geshi encouraged us to “Give up all intentions to harm others from our heart and do our best to benefit them all. If each and everyone of us feels the Universal Responsibility to do so, we will all enjoy the feast of peace!” At 83 years old, Lama Geshi was spry and obviously delighted in everything he did, saw and felt. It was clear that he was at peace with us and his surroundings, and our team left with a larger worldview and sense of purpose.

From Pangboche, we ascended past the tree line and spent a few nights in the town of Pheriche, ~14,500’. We climbed nearby ridges during the days and enjoyed sampa cake and yak stew in the evenings. I read The Boys in the Boat during our downtime, which brought back a flood of fond memories of college rowing.

After camping for a few nights ~16,000’, we finished our trek to base camp. Located on the NW edge of the Khumbu Glacier, Everest base camp is a series of camps stretching out about half a mile. In the picture below of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse, base camp is on the outside ridge of the curving glacier at the base of the icefall. Camps generally draw water from the west side of the moraine and use the east side of the moraine as the path for accessing other camps and the Khumbu icefall, which leads up into the Western Cwm that separates Everest from Nuptse. IMG’s camp is fantastic.  Our summit team includes ~24 climbers, 8 guides, and about 50 Sherpa guides, porters, cooks and camp managers. Our tents occupy the high ground along the ridges of the moraine and at the center we have dining tents, a common tent with internet and electricity, and a large Buddhist altar for pujas and prayer flags.

We spent two nights taking in base camp before hiking back down the valley to Lobuche Peak (20,128’), which we ascended to within a couple hundred feet of the true summit to help us acclimatize. The views from the summit ridge were incredible—we could see four 8,000m peaks (Cho Oyu, Everest, Lhotse and Makalu) as well as the shorter but equally famous peak Ama Dablam.

By the time we got back to Everest base camp two days ago, we were beginning to feel much more comfortable living at these high altitudes. Yesterday, our expedition had a large puja blessing ceremony at base camp, during which we each received a sundi necklace for good luck during our climb. The ceremony was similar to the one we attended with Lama Geshi, but longer, larger and more involved. What struck me most was how genuinely happy all the Sherpa seemed to be during the ceremony. The part where we each got flour painted on our faces to symbolize our hope that we may all live long enough to grow a white beard quickly turned into a game of tag, with Sherpas delighting in smearing the flour quickly and profusely on those who least expected it. And the traditional Sherpa dance at the end of the ceremony lasted almost 45 minutes, as more and more Sherpas suggested additional songs and even invited westerners to sing and dance alongside top 40 music blaring from two small portable speakers. I left the puja with the realization that joy is a choice—it is a state of mind that we can embrace and accept where and how we want. Our Sherpas very much chose for the puja to be a joyous, fun occasion, and their energy infected all of us. I hope that as I climb the mountain and eventually return to the States, that I too will be able to choose joy and contentment as easily and regularly as our teammates do here.

Over the next three weeks, we will be moving up and down Mt. Everest in rotations—climbing and sleeping higher on each rotation than we did on the previous one. Between rotations, we will rest and recover at base camp, and on our third rotation we will attempt the summit. The mountain looms over 2 vertical miles above us right now, but by focusing on health, nutrition, and taking one small step at a time, I think we will make the most of this opportunity. I reflect regularly on the lessons I’ve learned from so many of you, and climbing, joking and becoming acquainted with the Sherpa make me continually proud to be taking this mountain on as a way to advance intercultural exchange for teenagers.

Sincerely,Andrew Towne

How Will You Give Back this Global Youth Service Day?


Did you know that April 17-19 is Global Youth Service Day? Consider hosting an event that gives back to your community while helping to increase awareness that we're all citizens of one world.This occasion provides the perfect opportunity to come together with your fellow volunteers, staff, students and families to share our mission within your local communities. Think about the causes that inspire you and come up with your own project or find a local event to participate in.

Have fun and get creative! You could:

  • Be ambassadors for peace - bring together area exchange students and cultural groups for an interactive intercultural day celebrating diversity

  • Offer to tutor students in language or world history

  • Get together with your neighbors and plant a community garden

  • Connect with elderly citizens through cultural presentations at a local senior residence

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Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 1.01.53 PM

One needs look no further than YFU students Sarah and René for inspiration.

René volunteered in a broad range of community service activities including walking to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, dismantling holiday decorations for the City of Ann Arbor, removing invasive plant species in Ann Arbor parks and cutting branches at a park on Nature Area Workday, shoveling snow for elderly neighbors, leading games for children at a pool event, and helping raise awareness of CBYX, YFU, and exchange through booths at community events. For GYSD René pulled weeds and invasive species in local forest to help regrowth of native species.

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Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 1.02.06 PM

While on program, Sarah completed more than 137 hours of community service! Her involvement included everything from coaching youth soccer, volunteering at American Red Cross blood drives, participating in community recycling events, organizing international lunches where students brought dishes representative of different countries and discussed the culture and food of the country to classroom presentations on her native culture and language. She continued her involvement by participating in GYSD as a volunteer at the City of Portsmouth's Quarterly Hazardous Waste Collection, Document Shredding, and Electronics event.

Find more ideas and tips inYouth Service America's planning toolkitfor creating your own GYSD community project!



Share your service projects & photos on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using #yfuGYSD. We’ll be following along and might even share your project on our social media. We can't wait to see how you will get involved!

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Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 1.06.14 PM

Greetings from the Khumbu!


andrew update

andrew update

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

Dear Friends,

Here's the brief update:

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

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

Here's the longer update:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Our Founder, Our Inspiration


Article reprint from 1986 interview with Rachel Andresen


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Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 1.06.54 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 1.07.15 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original 1986 interview with YFU Founder Dr. Rachel Andresen

Original 1986 interview with YFU Founder Dr. Rachel Andresen

Two Countries One Home – Welcome to the United States


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

MEH Selfie

MEH Selfie

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

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

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

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

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

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

MEH student collage

MEH student collage

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

Very truly yours,

Michael E. HillPresident & CEOYFU USA

West Hills Middle School Students Enjoy Arctic Adventure as Part of Multicultural Celebration


West Hills Middle School sixth graders recently traveled electronically to the Arctic through a presentation by YFU exchange student Amisuna Berthelsen from Greenland, assisted by Marta Corriga from Italy. The program featured a live Skype hookup with a Greenlandic classroom where American and Greenlandic students could see and question each other about some of their vast cultural differences.  Among the tidbits that “Ami” shared about Inuit culture:

  • He never saw a tree until he was eight years old (visiting Iceland) and had to touch it to see if it was real.

  • His family has never had a car (there are virtually no roads), but they’ve had a boat and a dogsled.

  • He lives in the world’s smallest capital of 15,000 people. His country has almost 60,000 people, about the same population as West Bloomfield, yet his country is more than three times the size of Texas.

  • Typical foods include raw whale blubber, seal, musk ox, and, of course, pizza.

  • Greenlandic children speak Greenlandic, Danish, and English.

  • Ami never had a snow day until he came to Bloomfield.

Tweet from Andy Gignac from Skype classroom event.

Tweet from Andy Gignac from Skype classroom event.

The American students asked their Greenlandic peers about trends, sports, school, weather, and foods in their countries. When the American students asked about their electronic connectivity, all laughed when many of the Greenlandic students whipped out their smart phones. The assembly concluded with the Greenlandic version of Pharrell Williams' song, “Happy” followed by an Italian version of the same, as all danced together.

The assembly was a prelude to the Multicultural Celebration to be held at West Hills Middle School on the evening of Friday, March 27 from 6:30 to 9:00 pm.

Ami and Marta are two exchange students representing the group of eight YFU exchange students who have attended Bloomfield Hills High School this year living with local host families.

YFU is currently seeking host families for exchange students coming in August for the 2015-2016 academic year.  Visit the YFU website to learn more. Roll out the welcome mat, and see the world through the eyes of a new exchange son or daughter!

On Top of the World


Kicking and screaming, 13-year-old Andrew Towne protested his father’s proposal for the family to spend six months in Northern Italy while pursuing a Fulbright Scholarship. After all, Towne would miss the all-important transition to 7th grade, moving from class to class rather than being stuck with the same teacher all day! Six months later, Towne protested even louder, not wanting to come home.This introduction to an unknown place opened Towne’s eyes to the idea of exchange. When his sophomore-year German teacher suggested he apply for the Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX) scholarship, it didn’t intimidate him. Towne knew he wouldn’t be able to go on exchange without a scholarship, but when faced with the prospect of studying abroad, he said “it sounded like a great adventure.”

Paired with YFU, Towne experienced the depth of support and learning for which YFU is known. “The first month, I was in East Germany, nine years after the wall fell, living with a farmer in a village of 150 people learning German.” He remembers profound conversations with his East German host father. “My host father had been a young boy when World War II ended. He remembered being greeted by US soldiers when they crossed the Elbe River. When I asked what he thought about ending up under Soviet rule, he shrugged and said, ‘sometimes you get unlucky.’”

Towne learned that he and his host father had another connection. “For the entire time he was living behind the Communist wall, he was grateful that he was close enough to West Germany that he could pick up Johnny Cash on the radio. He loved the fact that my grandfather in Vermont was also a Johnny Cash fan.” Towne reflected, “he took it all in stride. That type of perseverance through 50 years of communism was a real eye-opener.”

Towne credits YFU for challenging him to think critically through facilitating very deep, personal conversations. One such conversation occurred during the week-long, mid-year orientation that is a staple of the YFU experience. Together with fellow U.S. and German exchange students, an alumnus described being assaulted by Neo-Nazis. “He was heartbroken, not so much by the beating, but more by the fact that so many onlookers who could have stopped the fight would look on without doing anything.” Towne continued, “he was a 16-year-old at the time, just like me. He looked us all in the eye and quoted Nietzsche, saying ‘those who are but half-and-half spoil every whole.’” The alumnus challenged his audience to consider action in the face of adversity. “I never forgot this story. It was real. It was tragic. I heard it first-hand.”

The exchange experience changed Towne’s life trajectory from music to foreign affairs. However, his experience returning home fundamentally changed the way he lived his life. “All I wanted to do was talk everybody’s ear off about this great experience I had, but I quickly realized that among teenagers, perhaps no one really wants to see your vacation photos.” Towne began bottling up his great experiences and wondered what others held inside. “I really try to approach everybody with a curiosity about what they are passionate about.” He continued, “Everyone has something — I love finding those things that really light people’s fire. And I attribute that to my exchange year.”

This summer, Towne will summit Mt. Everest to raise money for YFU.

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

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

“My biggest fear is of heights. Period,” Towne said. “A friend of mine, while I was an exchange student at the University of Nairobi — a choice that was motivated 100% from my YFU exchange year — asked if I wanted to climb Mt. Kenya, the second tallest mountain in Africa.” Towne thought about the physical challenge and considered the opportunity to confront his fear of heights and responded, “that sounds like a great idea!” At that moment, his addiction to climbing began.

Towne’s interest in endurance sports started in Germany. He said, “Before Germany, I thought I would become a professional musician. While there, I started jogging recreationally. And then in college, I walked onto the rowing team.”

Rowing proved to be very challenging from an endurance perspective, and Towne considered quitting many times. Through perseverance, “I learned to trust myself – that when faced with a tough challenge, I wouldn’t give up in the face of pain or difficulty. I grew to relish opportunities to prove that to myself over and over again.”

Now an accomplished mountaineer, having climbed the tallest mountain on five of the seven continents, Asia’s Mount Everest is his next challenge. When asked about the dangers of climbing the world’s tallest peaks, Towne said, “every mountain poses certain risks. On Mount Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in South America, our expedition actually had to step over a body on the trail. Five people died during the two weeks I was on that mountain. On Mt. McKinley, two people died during my second climb. When you are on these mountains, everyone is cognizant of death.” He continued, “I am a very conservative mountain climber. I strongly believe the mountain will always be there, so when it comes to decisions that involve weather or conditions, a lot of climbers get themselves into trouble by pushing themselves when conditions suggest they shouldn’t. I don’t make decisions like that.”

Towne took on his first mountain, Mount Kenya, because “it provided an opportunity to accomplish an endurance feat that involved conquering my fear of heights.” Now he continues to climb “because I love the way it takes me to remote parts of the globe. Mountaineering, like YFU, makes the world feel smaller.”



Student Exchange Empowers Young Citizen Diplomats and Fosters Global Understanding


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

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.

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.

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.

“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.

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.”

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:

#myYFU – Instagram Contest


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

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

#myYFU Instagram Contest

#myYFU Instagram Contest

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

Eligibility & Rules

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

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

  • YFU Student/Alumnus must be in photo.

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

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

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

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

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

  • Entries must belong to the submitter.

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

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

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

Enter now for your chance to win a Polaroid Cube!