In today’s hyper-connected world, students have all sorts of information available at their fingertips and can gain, in almost real-time, insights into events and activities that are shaping global cultures. This technology has made the world more connected than when Dr. Rachel Andresen founded YFU in 1951. But, technology does not provide a filter for bias and misinformation. Only through deep engagement – people to people – can disparate cultures truly come to understand one another. Tomorrow’s leaders must have access to forums that provide opportunities for authentic engagement and youth-led dialogue. Study abroad programs with traditional intercultural exchanges provide the ideal vehicle for such unfiltered interaction, but there are barriers to entry for too many young people, including cost, fear of the unknown and crowded educational requirements.
With partners in 56 countries, YFU brings more than 65 years of experience in homestay-based international educational exchange programs. Through the launch of the Virtual Exchange Initiative in 2016, YFU began the important process of expanding programming to actively engage underserved youth who have little or no access to physical exchange.
By removing barriers to participation of traditional in-person exchanges, the YFU Virtual Exchange Initiative is helping to close a very real gap - building cross-cultural bridges of understanding amongst individuals who might never travel past the borders of their home communities. Inspired by the legacy of our founder, YFU is taking action to illuminate the pathway to intercultural understanding through a 21st century network of light.
YFU Virtual Exchange meets the needs of youth lacking educational opportunities to develop and benefit from mutual understanding. The Initiative aims to create an inclusive, safe space that gives voice to the socially isolated, underrepresented youth and the academically vulnerable, as well as young women, minorities, and migrants. The flexible framework of the program allows students to discuss conflict, culture, current events, and topics that matter most to them. Empathy is formed among youth from vastly different backgrounds through this sharing of interests and common fears. Participants of the virtual exchange experience intercultural learning while advancing global competencies and 21st century skills through specially developed curriculum. Ultimately, YFU’s virtual program aims to:
- Harness technology to engage participants in dialogue to combat stereotypes, build international connections, and enhance diversity of thought
- Shrink the achievement gap by addressing disparities in educational opportunities based on ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status
- Counter extremism by influencing attitudes and combating radical views
- Provide personal growth and empowerment opportunities
By promoting a sense of common humanity and reinventing the intercultural exchange movement for the new age, students have the opportunity to advance communication competencies, grow as individuals, and to become active members of our greater global society.
Through their everyday interactions, students break down the stereotype of “the other,” while learning to embrace similarities and appreciate differences. Our society is increasingly interdependent and it is imperative that we make an effort to be better acquainted. Curiosity about the world expands cultural awareness and acceptance of other ways to live, which leads to broader perspective and greater understanding.
The opportunity for interpersonal diplomacy that young people hold in their hands can change the perception of classmates, of communities, and, ultimately, of countries.