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YFU Blog - Recent stories about Youth for Understanding

Filtering by Category: Go Global!

YFU Campus Ambassadors: Meet Crystal

brandpointyfu

As we celebrate International Education Week, YFU is excited to announce the launch of our new Campus Ambassador Program (CAP). Following a competitive application process, five YFU young alumni were selected from across the country to serve as our inaugural class of Campus Ambassadors. As a continuation of their exchange experience, they will mentor prospective study abroad and international students, and share YFU exchange opportunities within their schools and communities across the country. Stay tuned throughout the week as we introduce these student leaders. 

“I believe in exchange because it allows you to realize just what you are capable of accomplishing.”

Name: Crystal

From: Washington, DC

Went on exchange to: Japan

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My name is Crystal, and I am a freshman attending American University in Washington D.C., majoring in International Relations and Political Science. I adore traveling, and my hobbies include drawing, reading, golfing, playing piano, and exploring new places. I studied abroad with YFU the junior year of high school over summer vacation in Nagoya, Japan.

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YFU Campus Ambassadors: Meet Miranda

brandpointyfu

As we celebrate International Education Week, YFU is excited to announce the launch of our new Campus Ambassador Program (CAP). Following a competitive application process, five YFU young alumni were selected from across the country to serve as our inaugural class of Campus Ambassadors. As a continuation of their exchange experience, they will mentor prospective study abroad and international students, and share YFU exchange opportunities within their schools and communities across the country. 

“Studying abroad helps to inspire students to think about their upbringing under the influence of a certain culture and the cultural imprints that have contributed to a large part of their personal identity.”

Name: Miranda

From: Chicago

Went on exchange to: Germany

Hi, I'm Miranda! I'm 17 years old and a high school senior from Chicago. I spent my sophomore year of high school in Germany with YFU on the Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange Scholarship. I'm currently fluent in German and am working on advancing my French. I hope to one day speak eight languages fluently. I have a deep appreciation for languages and their culture and hope to apply this passion to a major in International Relations and potentially a career in the Foreign Service. My favorite food is gyoza. :-) 

“I believe in exchange because it is one of the most powerful ways in which a student can foster kindness, curiosity, and creativity in an increasingly globalized world. ”

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Studying abroad helps to inspire students to think about their upbringing under the influence of a certain culture and the cultural imprints that have contributed to a large part of their personal identity. 

YFU Campus Ambassadors: Meet Misha

brandpointyfu

As we celebrate International Education Week, YFU is excited to announce the launch of our new Campus Ambassador Program (CAP). Following a competitive application process, five YFU young alumni were selected from across the country to serve as our inaugural class of Campus Ambassadors. As a continuation of their exchange experience, they will mentor prospective study abroad and international students, and share YFU exchange opportunities within their schools and communities across the country. Stay tuned throughout the week as we introduce these student leaders. 

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

Name: Misha

From: Virginia

Went on exchange to: Sweden

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

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A Tale of Two Cubas through the Eyes of Two Leaders

brandpointyfu

Re-entry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cuba: Day 7

brandpointyfu

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

Day 7 –Friday, July 17

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

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

day 7_1

day 7_1

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

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

day 7_2

day 7_2

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

day 7_3

day 7_3

lunchrestaurant

lunchrestaurant

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

Casadelasamericas

Casadelasamericas

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

parade of cars

parade of cars

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

stilt walkers

stilt walkers

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Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 12.30.12 PM

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

rick withem

rick withem

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

  • Dr. Paul Heins, GMCW’s Assistant Music Director

  • Chase Maggiano, GMCW’s Executive Director

  • Dr. Thea Kano, GMCW’s Artistic Director

  • Next to me, Gina Palmisano, Recruiting Manager for YFU’s Study Abroad Program

  • Alex Lopez, YFU’s Director of Travel, who unlocked his country of birth to his adopted US home

  • Scott Messing, YFU’s Vice President of Administration and the Exchange Experience

  • and Kirk Sobell, GMCW’s Director of Patron Services

Planning crew

Planning crew

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

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

The Day’s Takeaways:

  • Cuba seems to be in a perpetual state of “tug-of-war” with itself. On this day, I was reminded that the role of religion is just one of many unsettled questions for the nation and its people, but like most things in Cuba, the Cuban people find a way to navigate around the politics of any situation.

  • Dancing with people erases so much distance and division that politics can create. Whether with our Santeria dancers or the young people at the Bertolt Brecht Theater, laughing while we tried to match steps had us almost forget 50 years of division.

  • I am so lucky to work with incredible volunteers – thank you, Rick! – and a team of professionals – see that great looking group in the photo!

Previous Blogs:

Cuba: Day 6

brandpointyfu

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

Day 6 – Thursday, July 16

Esperanza.

No word could greater symbolize our voyage to Cuba during this historic time than the Spanish word for “hope.” That emotion would come crashing down on us like a ton of brinks on Day 6, as we visited Convento de Nuestra Senora de Belen, an 18th century convent in the middle of Old Havana, which now houses a senior center with a health clinic and pharmacy, physical therapy for the elderly, services for youth with disabilities, an eye care center, a location for meals for those in need, support for single mothers, occupational training and an onsite daycare for workers.

Welcome

Welcome

We were told that GMCW would sing for a group of senior citizens but that they had also prepared musical and dance numbers for us. As we walked into the central courtyard, more than 200 senior performers met us – they were in full costume and cheering loudly as we arrived.

I was invited to greet the group as YFU’s President and said that our journey so far had me drawing one simple conclusion: two peoples with so much to give to one another should no longer be kept apart. The audience erupted into applause, and I filled up with tears. To see hundreds of faces that had remembered life before our two countries stopped diplomatic relations was a stirring thought. What had these men and women seen over 50 years, and what esperanza did they have for this new future?

Esperanza

Esperanza

The Cuban performers were entrancing, throwing their entire hearts into a series of welcome performances. As GMCW concluded its set, many of the Cuban seniors joined them on stage, and then the entire audience broke out into a song for us again.

day 6_1

day 6_1

To hear hundreds of voices sing to us with tears running down their faces struck the most powerful chord of the week. One woman came up to me after the exchange, screaming “El Presidente! El Presidente!,” with tears rolling down her cheeks. Through an interpreter, she shared with me, “We’ve been waiting for you for 50 years!” – the time period of the embargo.

The senior citizens shared so many stories with us that day: stories of pain and loss, of children that had left for the United States, of relatives who still hoped to reunite, of a deep hope that perhaps a new day had dawned. It was the perfect scene to summarize so much of what we had seen. Esperanza indeed.

Later that day, we had a chance to walk around the city without guides. It was somewhat surreal to see a replica of our own Capitol Building, built originally as the site of the Cuban Parliament by Batista. Even more ironic, it is going through a similar renovation to its dome as is our own Capitol in Washington, DC. Starting this year, it will again be used as the seat of Parliament in Cuba, the first time since Castro’s Revolution in 1959.

Capitol replica

Capitol replica

After our walk, we would visit the Museo de Bellas Artes, dedicated exclusively to Cuban artists from the mid-16th century through the modern day. I have always believed that the arts capture moments in history better than any other medium. To see the story of the Cuban people play out on canvas and in sculpture was among the best history lessons one could get in an hour.

Lennon

Lennon

Cuba is a nation shrouded in history. Ever since Spanish occupation, there has been a special nightly celebration from the 18th century San Carlos de La Cabana fortress, a tradition evoking the announcement of the closing of the gates of the city and of the channel at the entrance to the city’s bay. What a stunning view of Havana and another window into her soul.

day 6_2

day 6_2

We ended the evening at a quaint jazz café, taking in even more music. The city and the country breathes its music.

As the day concluded, I found myself wondering about all the people of this island nation had seen and the genuine hope they’d expressed for the future. So many have asked what I think will happen once diplomatic relations are normalized. I’ll share those thoughts in my last blog post about Cuba. I ended this day just praying that the hope that we had seen on the faces of the senior citizens would be realized. They had indeed waited for 50 years. Could our two nations deliver on the promise? As President Clinton once famously said, “I still believe in a place called Hope.”

The Day’s Takeaways:

  • It is indeed possible to have a flash mob/dance party with 200 senior citizens!

  • Our seniors often possess the greatest wisdom. Through their eyes, I understood the true meaning of hope.

  • Art tells a story that other media cannot. What would the canvases of the Cuban artists of tomorrow say about this time?

  • All of us on the trip wanted desperately to believe in the promise of esperanza. Could our governments fulfill the wish?

Previous Blogs:

Cuba: Day 5

brandpointyfu

Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.  Day 5 – Wednesday, July 15

There are vivid reminders of the once closer ties between Cuba and the United States. Certainly some of that comes through the stories of those who remember the interaction pre-embargo, but as with so much of this trip, art, served as a great reminder of the ties that bind.

Ernest Hemingway fell in love with Cuba and lived much of the last part of his life there. It’s where he wrote “Old Man and the Sea,” as well as a “A Farewell to Arms.” We started day 5 with a visit to Hemingway’s home in Cuba. Located about 12 kilometers outside of Old Havana, Hemingway initially did not want to live in the home. His wife, however, worked to set up a paradise in Cuba before convincing him to make the move. It was exciting to see the house where this iconic US author had completed some of his best work.

For any one that loves the written word, to see where Hemingway wrote was a true thrill. Ironically, although his wife had a separate tower building/office built for him where he could see all of Havana, he liked to write standing up in a guest bedroom. On the site was Hemingway’s beloved boat “Pilar,” which in his time was docked at the nearby town of Cojimar, the inspiration for the “Old Man and the Sea.” In addition to the estate, which his wife donated completely furnished minus a few paintings to be a museum, we got a chance to see where his beloved pets were buried on the grounds. All of this helped to shape our impressions of the man who found a way to love both Cuba and the United States, regardless of policy differences. His example may serve us all well, at least that part of his example.

cuba day 5_1

cuba day 5_1

After visiting the museum, we rode to have lunch at Bodega de las Brisas “Paladar” in Cojimar, a restaurant near the water that inspired his masterpiece. Local artist studios now take the place of other trade in this historic fishing village. It was exciting to see artists still trying to capture the beauty of the place as Hemingway had done decades before.

Later that afternoon, we returned to ICAP to have a discussion with leaders of CENESEX(the National Center for Sexual Education), the Cuban governmental agency that oversees the education and research of topics of human sexuality in Cuba. We received a presentation on LGBT rights in Cuba and were afforded a chance to ask some fairly pointed questions about the struggle that gay people experience in Cuba.

day 5_2

day 5_2

After the presentation, it was exciting for GMCW to sing with Mano a Mano, Cuba's first openly gay chorus. Mano a Mano was assembled differently than GMCW, which is a community, all volunteer chorus. Mano a Mano is supported by a grant from the government and its members are paid. It will be interesting to see if the model can sustain itself, but the performers themselves were fantastic. The US and Cuba choruses even performed together, as international media covered the whole event. I was excited to have our YFU volunteer, Rick Withem, chronicle this trip through his amazing photography. Not only was Rick an amazing documentarian for us, he brought his considerable skills as a YFU educator/host dad to bear in helping us navigate culture shock issues. Rick picked up some 20 new friends this trip! (He’s the one with the gray beard in these photos).

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Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 5.09.49 PM

Later that night, our hotel, Quinta Avenida Hotel, sponsored a concert for GMCW, setting up a stage in the lobby. We were so moved by the combination of rainbow and Cuban flags in the hotel. The men of GMCW were again in wonderful voice, and we were pleasantly surprised and touched to see some of the performers from our first day in the lobby to root us on. They asked musical as well as diplomatic questions; our efforts to break down barriers through music were starting to have an impact.

day 5_3

day 5_3

Day 1 performers return

Day 1 performers return

The exercise in going to Cuba was as much about people to people interaction as anything else. We were starting to see an impact despite the layers of political and social issues. I am so often struck by the simple power that YFU holds: bring people together and let the inherent desire for peace play out. While it’s often not that simple, sometimes the ingredients are right to have a transformative impact. I hope that this is what is happening through our visit to Cuba.

The Day’s Takeaways:

  • The US and Cuba share a seminal artist in Ernest Hemingway. What can artists see that we can learn from in approaching diplomacy? How do they see beauty where we see only conflict, and what can we learn from their approach?

  • People to people exchanges have a chance to supersede politics. Our artist friends from day one wanted to support their new friends. Could we find a way to do that once we normalized relations?

Previous Blogs:

Cuba: Day 4

brandpointyfu

Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.  Day 4 – Tuesday, July 14

By Tuesday we had had some intense experiences and were grateful for a day that was mostly educational. At this point, the Chorus had sung so many formal and informal concerts; they were ready to let their voices rest.

We left our hotel at 8:30 am to travel to Las Terrazas, a rural experience of a sustainable development project in a mountain area located within the Sierra del Rosario biosphere reserve in a newly named province of Artemisa (created when they split the greater Havana area into a new set of provinces).

Signage

Signage

The area’s history is fascinating. Once serving as a coffee plantation, it was decimated after the fall of the Soviet Union took out much-needed resources. The Las Terrazas Community Project was developed to restore the area while providing jobs, and creating a new industry of “eco-tourism” for that part of Cuba.

UNESCO named it a world heritage site in 1985 in acknowledgement of the success of the effort.

We started our day with a presentation on the reserve and its importance as an economic driver for the region. What an exquisite and lush landscape, and what a contrast to Havana!

day 4_1

day 4_1

After a brief bus trip through the reserve, we were fortunate enough to be able to take a brief swim in a sulfur water area. Crossing the footbridge, we got a chance to see why this was a popular eco-tourist hot spot. From a hotel nestled into the trees to smaller and more primitive huts, visitors to the area could swim, zip line or go hiking. Farm animals were raised in nearby houses to provide food for residents and tourists alike. It was stunning!

day 4_2

day 4_2

It turns out that the Gay Men’s Chorus wouldn’t get a complete break, as they gave a mini-concert from a tree-tophutto those swimming with us.

Thea conducting

Thea conducting

After lunch, we visited an area near the old coffee plantation and took in a studio of a local landscape artist. All in all, it was a nice diversion to what had been some deep thinking about Cuba-US relations the days before.

Later that night we would go to a local club and restaurant for dinner (and, of course, some more singing!). As we settled into the evening meal, the club’s local performer came out. This would become a moment when this being a YFU-sponsored trip would come in handy. As the performer entered the dining area, you can see the shock of many of our delegation. While the performer, herself, was black, her exaggerated makeup made her look as if she had come out in “black face.”

We had several African American delegates on our trip, and it created an atmosphere of some confusion. Some in our delegation left the restaurant for the hotel. The next day we were able to discuss with our Cuban guides the history of this type of performance in their country and to learn about some very different connotations. This gave us a chance to talk about YFU’s training called “Colored Glasses,” where we talk to exchange students about seeing a culture not through our own lens but of that of the host country being visited. I was proud of the dialogue and reminded that exchange is challenging even when the two nations don’t have as difficult a past as Cuba and the US. This would not be the first or the last of the culture shock on our trip!

The Day’s Takeaways:

  • Nature is never so far gone that something beautiful cannot emerge from the ashes.

  • Interpreting culture is never easy. We bring so much of our own history and experiences into our travels. It’s not easy but so vital to try to see a people through their own lens as much as we do through that of our own. This is why YFU exists!

Previous Blogs:

Cuba: Day 3

brandpointyfu

Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.  Day 3 – Monday, July 13

Reading about the Cuban Revolution helped me understand some of the positive things this movement brought to the Cuban people. For instance, the nation’s near 98 percent literacy rate combined with their near universal access to health care are laudable attributes for any society. Day 3 of our journey also brought reminders of just how “controlled” Cuba’s system can be.

We started the day with a mandatory visit to the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the People (ICAP). The session, which focused on Cuban/US relations, is a required component of all trips to Cuba by citizens from the US. I had met Kenia Serrano Puig, ICAP’s President, briefly the day before, but didn’t have a strong sense, at that point, of the organization’s mission. Its expressed purpose is to reach out to the international community and form ties of friendship between Cuba and citizens of other countries who are either sympathetic to, or open minded about, Cuba’s post-revolutionary ambitions. We now would have an attendant from ICAP attend most of our concerts and presentations throughout the rest of the week.

Cuba Day 3_1

Cuba Day 3_1

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC would have two performances today: one at the National Library of Cuba, a significant cultural facility for the nation situated very near Revolution Square. The performance itself was held in a lovely intimate theater. Many members of Cuba’s LGBT community came out for the performance, and while the Chorus was “in great voice,” as it was throughout the trip, the real power of this session happened in the question and answer period following the performance. One gentleman jumped up and excitedly said he never thought he’d see the day a gay chorus was performing in the National Library. Another gentleman asked our delegation how it had formed a safe gay community in the United States and what the path might look like to “feeling heard” by one’s government and people. It was a powerful reminder that the yearning for human rights is inherent in people.

Cuba Day 3_2

Cuba Day 3_2

After a brief bus ride, we made our way to Casade la Cultura – or the House of Culture – in Arroyo Naranjo. Sections of each city have Houses of Culture to organize activities for neighborhoods or broader regions. These government-sponsored arts centers organize classes in dance, music, theater, etc. We were met there by several international camera crews. At this point, word of our visit was starting to generate some greater media attention. The House of Culture itself has a courtyard, classroom space and large, sky-blue central gathering/performance space. The electricity was out during much of our visit, which meant the major source or circulated air – fans on the wall – were out of commission. All of the artists – GMCW and the young people who performed for us – were in great spirits as we shared performances as a sign of greeting for one another.

Cuba Day 3_3

Cuba Day 3_3

Our attendant from ICAP led the audience in a song of greeting for us. This would be the first of many such stage-managed moments he would lead, and while our delegation was aware of how differently this was handled in Cuba versus the US, we never doubted the sincerity of warmth of the everyday Cubans called upon to express these moments of welcome.

Audience sings to us

Audience sings to us

Later that evening we would attend a block party organized by a local CDR, or Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. Originally established by Fidel Castro to provide block-by-block monitoring of counter-Revolutionary activities, we were told the modern-day CDR has morphed into units to help organize community festivals, voluntary community projects and organize community attendance at mass rallies. That night, I had a chance to greet residents of the CDR, and our delegation was received with songs by children and performances by adults, including a gifted flutist who was attending the National University of the Arts in Havana.

Cuba Day 3_4

Cuba Day 3_4

Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 11.06.57 AM

Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 11.06.57 AM

We spent a few hours sharing songs and refreshments with the designated CDR, as well as bringing toys and other supplies for the children of the neighborhood. While I think many in our delegation initially struggled with how this neighborhood organization played a role in Cuba, we soon defaulted to a universal truth: governments and people are different. We danced and laughed a great deal that night, and as we boarded our buses for the hotel, thought much less about the differences in our political systems and much more about the commonalities of two peoples seeking peace.

The Day’s Takeaways:

  • All people yearn for community, which can take many different forms depending on culture.

  • The quest to be valued as a person will always find a voice, even when systems or society is not quite ready to hear it.

  • Even if we disagree on how a society is organized, we are wired to want to find a place of unity – even if it’s simply through dancing or sharing a song. Sometimes it just takes us decades to get there.

 **Series will continue on Monday, picking-up with Day 4.

Previous Blogs:

Cuba: Day 2

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Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.  Day 2 – Sunday, July 12

We tell all YFU students that there is an arch to their exchange experience, with the first days being the “honeymoon” period. You spend so much time planning for and thinking about an exchange experience that you almost can’t believe you’re actually in your destination country. That was certainly my experience on our first full day in Cuba.

We started our very balmy morning with a tour of “Old Havana,” the historic center of the city first built up during the period of colonization from Spain. UNESCO declared this area of town a World Heritage site in 1982, and it was easy to see the reasons. The architectural landscape of Old Havana is a case study in extremes. Recent efforts had some of the historic structures brought back to life while others looked as if one slight touch of a hand could topple them down.

Day 2 Cuba_archetecture

Day 2 Cuba_archetecture

The City Historian’s office has been spearheading a building-by-building renovation of the historic structures. This was also the first moment that the Cuban Revolution and its history struck me. We were told by our incredible guide, Elisio, that a famous visual artist had struck a deal with the early Castro government to spend her own money to renovate a major mansion as long as she could live in it until her death. This was the only deal struck, as we were told, it went against the ideals of the Revolution.

Old Havana, in many ways, encapsulated a history of this nation: from colonization of the Spanish and British to the period when Fulgencio Batista first served as the elected president of Cuba and later held it as a dictator until the Cuban Revolution. You could see the triumphs and the scars etched into the buildings, with each facade telling some part of the story of this remarkable nation.

Day 2 Cuba_Mural, Trumpeter

Day 2 Cuba_Mural, Trumpeter

After lunch, we traveled by bus en route to Casa de La Amistad (House of Friendship), where we would present the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC for their first concert. On our way over, we stopped at one of the Cuban Revolution’s most signature monuments in Revolution Square. The equivalent of our Washington Monument, the square is dominated by a tribute to Jose Marti, a poet and journalist who is seen by many as the “Founding Father” of Cuba. Opposite to that monument is Cuba’s Ministry of Defense, which is emblazoned with the image of Camilo Cienfuegos. Although he officially stepped down as Cuban President in 2008, Castro is omnipresent in Cuba. Speeches refer to him as simply “Fidel,” with a messiah-like connotation. Everyday Cubans we got a chance to speak to believe nothing significant will change in Cuba until after his death. It was a stark reminder of the impact – for better or for worse – that one human being can have on a society. I found it chilling.

Day 2 Cuba_fidel, monument

Day 2 Cuba_fidel, monument

The story of Case de La Amistad is one of love and scandal. For our delegation that day, it was only the former. There we shared a concert with Mariana de Gonitch Chorus, a group of young Cuban artists who had prepared an entire set for us in English. I had a chance to address the crowd, talking about the importance of this trip at this moment in history. Throughout the trip, we had a profound sense of the importance of being in Cuba in this specific week: one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. It would play significantly in our experience. The Mariana de Gonitch Chorus immediately blew us away with their talent and warmth, no more so than when they broke into song with our US National Anthem immediately following a performance of their own. Tears rolled down our delegations’ face, as we knew that singing the US anthem would have been unheard of in year’s past. Throughout the next two hours, we shared songs of our respective countries and ended up singing “We Are the World.” One couldn’t help but wonder if the promise of the lyrics would hold true for the relationship between our two nations after so many years of division.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 1.28.14 PM

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 1.28.14 PM

We tell YFU students that they should take advantage of a country’s iconic culture when visiting. Later that night we concluded our day with a performance by the Buena Vista Social Club at El Tablao de Pancho restaurant. Many of the lead singers of the group have been performing with it since before the Cuban Revolution. I couldn’t help but imagine what they had seen over the past 50 years and what they would hope to see as our two nations tried to find a way back together. We were even invited to share the stage with them.

Day 2 Cuba_BVSC

Day 2 Cuba_BVSC

It is said that art, in its many forms, is the quickest way to the truth. I ended Day 2 wondering what further truths I would find by sharing our music, our struggles and our stories.

Q.A

Q.A

The Day’s Takeaways:

  • Architecture can be one of the most objective storytellers in a country. Battles and triumphs often find a way to etch themselves into buildings in a society.

  • One person has the potential – for better or worse – to forever alter the lives of thousands.

  • Language barriers are surmountable when we share culture from the heart. It’s amazing what hearing one’s own national anthem sung by another people can do to erase feelings of isolation and division.

  • Art and artists are sometimes the best ambassadors. Sharing culture through song, even if you don’t understand the meaning of the lyrics, finds a way to stretch out a hand to another human being.

Previous Blogs:

Cuba: Day 1

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Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU's first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.  Day 1 – Saturday, July 11

90 miles. As a former resident of western New York state, I would drive 90 miles regularly to get from my home in Olean to Buffalo to fly out of the airport or to take in a show. That amount of mileage for anyone who has ever lived in a rural area is as common as being stuck on the Beltway for two hours in Washington, DC.

But 90 miles had a much larger significance for me as I woke up at Miami International Airport Hotel at 3 a.m. with 20-plus delegates from Youth For Understanding and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC who were headed to Havana, Cuba – 90 miles away. We would be in the air only about half an hour, far shorter than the four hours it took to get through all the paperwork and logistics of our charter flight to the capital city of Cuba.

cuba airport

cuba airport

The first sign that this was not a normal airline trip came through the many hours of prepping to simply board the plane. While some travel restrictions have been lifted, you can still only take charter flights to Cuba from the United States. It gave a sense of anticipation to the beginning of our journey, and, if I’m being honest, heightened my expectation for what I might see when I arrived. For more than 50 years, the US embargo of Cuba had created an invisible fence between two neighbors. I couldn’t help but wonder what existed on the other side of a policy-created wall and whether it would live up to the reporting we see in the United States media. The guys from the Chorus decided to whittle away some of the time by singing an impromptu performance at the airport. Their roles as musical ambassadors had already begun.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 10.19.18 AM

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 10.19.18 AM

I had the great luxury of sitting with Dr. Thea Kano, GMCW’s Artistic Director, on the plane ride over. YFU and GMCW share a common element to our missions: both organizations believe that when we open up our hearts and minds to the “other,” something transformative can happen. For YFU, this trip wasn’t a political statement: it was a chance to live deeply our mission: bringing people who did not understand one another closer together. I have seen the impact of people to people exchanges so many times at YFU. This trip had the potential to really move the needle for those that participated.

We had been planning this trip together for months. To sit on the plane at this moment was somewhat surreal. About a half hour in, Cuba came into focus through our plane window.

Approaching Cuba

Approaching Cuba

Landing in Havana was an experience in contrasts. To look out our window on the tarmac and to see an American Airlines plane, reminded me that much of the rest of the world has no restrictions on coming to Cuba. To have a jet titled “American” smacked of irony. Getting our bags reminded me of the impact of the embargo and the recent loosening of restrictions. Mixed among our bags were medical supplies, wheelchairs and electronics, all neatly wrapped in plastic blue bubbles.

Airport Cuba 2

Airport Cuba 2

Alex Lopez, YFU’s Travel Director and a native Cuban, was the architect of our trip. I would later come to realize the profound role Alex has played over 40 years in trying to bring the Cuban and US people together. He greeted us at the airport and got us settled into buses for the ride to the hotel, where we were supposed to receive an arrival orientation. It was a lot of fun to travel in the shoes of exchange students who go through a similar journey: pre-departure and arrival orientations, all administered through folks at YFU. We were living a sliver of their experience.

We would stop at a park and for lunch before getting to the hotel. So much of Cuba is trapped in a time warp. The park, full of children and a few adults, were playing tug to loud, thumping music and seemed more than a little curious about two busloads of Americans who had invaded their summer-time fun.

Tug

Tug

It was, in effect, a cultural “stare off.” Two peoples who have been kept apart for so long. And here we were. What else would the trip hold?

We had lunch at El Tocororo Restaurant, housed in a former mansion in the Miramar section of the city. An eclectic space, it has been frequented by artists, writers and other cultural leaders. The walls were adorned with corkboards ascribed with the names of famous guests. We were invited to add our delegation to the wall, drawing our shared symbol of the merger of both of our flags with the rainbow/pride heart. It would be nice to think our presence will be a part of the place for a while.

Signage

Signage

As I mentioned in my previous blog, we were greeted at the hotel by both the United States and Pride flags. The hotels are government-run in Cuba, which made the gesture seem that much bigger.

Later in the evening we headed to Paladar La California for dinner. The leaders of our delegation were privileged to share an intimate dinner with Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the Charge d’Affaires at the now US Embassy in Cuba (it was still the US Interests Section when we were there). It was fascinating to hear Ambassador DeLaurentis describe this time of transition in diplomatic relations. This was his third stint at Cuba. I asked him why he kept coming back (other than being assigned, of course!), and he said he has always believed there was a way through the political standoff, and he wanted to be help if could. He seems cautiously hopeful. “Hope” would be a theme for our trip.

Ambassador

Ambassador

We spent two hours at the restaurant before heading back before a very long day two. The Ambassador inquired about the music we would be bringing to Cuba. Our delegation was more than happy to oblige his curiosity with what was an anthem for our trip: “Make Them Hear You.”

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Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 11.19.42 AM

Would we actually “hear” one another on this trip? We weren’t sure, but the early clues of day one made me curious to find out.

The Day’s Takeaways:

  • A short distance can be a huge hurdle when mistrust, stereotypes and a lack of real-life information stand in one’s way.

  • The human need to help another cannot be embargoed. Watching medical supplies show up in the baggage claim reminded me that political policies have a truly human impact.

  • The joy of children playing tug in the summer knows no international boundaries. If we can find a way to capture that innocence and curiosity of “the other,” we have a shot at deeper understanding.

  • If there is a hope, there is a chance at peace.

Previous Blogs:

Flags Are Powerful Symbols

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A note from YFU USA President & CEO Michael E. HillToday, the Cuban and US flags will be raised over their respective outposts in each country’s capital, marking the transition from having “interests sections” to full diplomatic embassies.

Cuba Flags

Cuba Flags

Just last week, I was privileged to join a US delegation of Youth For Understandingand Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC participants on a weeklong visit to Cuba. Our seven days in and around Havana were packed with educational, cultural and deeply meaningful encounters. I’ll be writing about my experiences all week but wanted to share one image on the day that flags will fly as a symbol of hope and promise here in Washington, DC and in Havana. 

This trip marked firsts for both YFU and GMCW. For YFU, it was our first adult study tour in our nearly 65-year history. For GMCW, it was a historic invitation to be the first openly gay choral group to be invited to sing on the island. For both organizations, however, it signified something much deeper: an opportunity to break down barriers while raising intercultural understanding about LGBTQ and human rights through song and deep personal engagement.

When we arrived at our hotel – which was government run, as all hotels are in Cuba – we were greeted by a rainbow/pride flag – the sign of LGBTQ people – flying alongside the US flag. We were told it was the first time a Pride Flag had ever been flown at a government building in Cuba. To say we were floored by its presence would be an understatement, as there are actually very few Pride Flags even available in Cuba outside of their “International Day Against Homophobia.”

Flags are powerful symbols. So, too, are people who reach a hand out to one another after 50 years of bitter disagreement. I look forward to sharing my thoughts throughout the week, but find myself thinking today of a journey our Founder, Dr. Rachel Andresen, took to South Africa at a time when that country was going through renewed diplomatic relations. Ironically, she, too, took a chorus – the YFU Chorale – to spread a message of hope, love and intercultural understanding.

May our respective flags serve as a reminder that people engaging with one another’s cultures have a shot at changing the world for the better.

The Summer of 66

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Written by YFU Alum Alicia Pond for The Light

“If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That’s the best I can manage.”  -- Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

AliciaPondProfile

AliciaPondProfile

I had been on an airplane only once before the departure of the 50 member, 1966 YFU Chorale to Latin America. During the 60’s, air travel was out of  reach for most people. No shorts or pajama bottoms on board; flying was so noteworthy you dressed in your best. There were no check-in lines, TSA agents, wands, x-rays, or limits on your luggage.

In order to reach the first city of our tour, Santiago, Chile, our flight itinerary started in Detroit and included stops in New York, Trinidad, Buenos Aires, Cordoba, Mendoza, and finally Santiago. There were many unforgettable experiences en route, like the lay-over in New York’s Eero Saarinen-designed TWA terminal – a dramatic, curvaceous and futuristic structure. Saarinen himself described it as “a building in which the architecture itself would express the drama and specialness and excitement of travel.” Another memory was the amazingly “sympatico” Argentine pilots who invited us to visit them, one by one, in the cockpit for a tour. Those were innocent times.

The most unsettling memory was the pilot’s announcement that there had been a military coup in Argentina while we were in the air. Neither the airline crew nor our group of parochial Michigan teens knew exactly what to expect when we landed in Buenos Aires. At the bottom of the stairs we filed off the plane and were met by a gauntlet of soldiers with rifles and bayonet tips. After gawking at our armed “hosts,” we were allowed to continue on to Santiago.

The Andes had me transfixed when we traveled to Sewell – a copper mining town no longer inhabited but is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We were at an altitude of almost 8,000 feet, a dizzying statistic for Midwest flatlanders. It seemed as though I was standing on top of the world surrounded by jagged, snow covered peaks– in June!

I recall a concert in the coastal town of Valdivia because only six years prior, Valdivia had suffered from the world’s worst recorded earthquake (a magnitude 9.5) and rubble was still visible. I was interviewed in Valdivia by the local press about the Chorale and my photo appeared on the front page equal in size to that of Salvador Allende, President of the Chilean Senate and soon to be elected President of Chile.

We went on to sing in Uruguay. In a suburb of Montevideo, I stayed with a family who had a teenage son who remained my pen-pal for years. My family here wanted to gift me with a custom-made suede ladies’ suit (fine leather products were a source of pride to Uruguayans). They took me to a dressmaking shop where I was given a pile of fashion magazines and told that I need only select a style I liked from the magazine and it would be recreated for me in just two days. I was rather flustered when I had to strip down to my slip in front of the male tailor, but was further mortified as the entire family joined me in the fitting room. Standards of behavior in the US were rather different in 1966.

Pond in Guatemala on a medical mission earlier this year

Pond in Guatemala on a medical mission earlier this year

Our final stop was Rio. The friendship I developed with my host family has turned out to be one of the most consequential and durable of my life. So much of that stay in Rio de Janeiro is seared into my mind, so many firsts and so many lasting impressions. Forty-nine years later, we Skype frequently, my husband and I are godparents to one of my host-sister’s sons, we visit each other frequently and I consider myself to have one of the best Brazilian music collections in the Midwest!

It’s not as though the music-making and the Chorale did not leave wonderful impressions, but getting out of my comfort zone, opening myself to all that was new and different during those nine weeks, led to enduring friendships, heightened insights and new paths in life. It made me the person who has built homes in Tajikistan, performed election work in the Ukraine, Macedonia, Kazakhstan, Kosovo and Russia; visited Bhutan, India, New Zealand, Botswana, Japan and more. There is no doubt much of what is “me” can be traced to the experiences from the summer of ’66.

Many Chorale items have been donated to and are now archived with the Library of Michigan. To search the archives, go here. If you have stories, journals, pictures you would like to share, please contact John Favazzo directly at jfavazzo@yfu.org.

A Remarkable Gift

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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-14A-preview

jason-14A-preview

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 Jason@jason-jennings.com. 

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

YFU for Life: The Vintage Magical Tour 2015

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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

Alida

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

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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

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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

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Written for The Light by Katherine Brown

KatherineBrown

KatherineBrown

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.

I AM YFU

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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

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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)