IOWA NEWSPAPER ASSOCIATION
Editorial on Hosting Youth Exchange and Study Students
Bringing an International Experience to Your Home and Your Community
During my junior year of high school at Guthrie Center, a family in our rural community hosted a Youth Exchange and Study (YES) student from Nigeria. Sandra and 19 other Nigerian students were selected by Iowa Resource for International Service (IRIS) and awarded scholarships through the State Department to build bridges of cultural understanding in Iowa communities while attending local high schools and living with host families. Sandra became a good friend to many in Guthrie Center and enjoyed sharing her culture while embracing new opportunities here in the United States.
Exchange programs are incredible platforms to engage individuals and communities in cultural awareness. By sharing customs, perspectives, and differences in governance and religion, we can view our own systems and ideologies more critically and recognize why we think the way we do. These civil dialogues help us understand cultural differences while celebrating the elements of humanity that connect us all. The 21st century faces many environmental and social challenges. Because actions in one part of the world have implications throughout, it is necessary to open these dialogues if we are to solve our greatest challenges. These conversations can be uncomfortable in the preliminary stages but necessary for a resilient future.
At 16 years of age, "cultural awareness" and "a resilient future" were not part of my daily vocabulary, but my interactions with Sandra and other exchange students shaped my world-view and influenced where I am today as a YES Program Assistant with IRIS. Over the course of the year, I learned about traditional Nigerian food and family dynamics, clothing styles and African pop stars. I discovered my perspective of Africa had been limited to news reports of extreme poverty and civil unrest in isolated regions. While these issues are significant and must be addressed in many African countries, I did not see the rich diversity and potential beyond them until I began engaging in conversations with Nigerian exchange students. In recognizing my naivety, I was humbled and better prepared to learn and exchange ideas.
I know Sandra endured periods of homesickness, and I can imagine she felt moments of isolation in a predominately Euro-American, middleclass community and school district. However, she adapted to her new family and home through a supportive host family and community. I am often amazed by the generosity and openness of many Iowans to exchange students. Even though allowing a stranger into one's home and personal life can be daunting, it is a risk hundreds of Iowans take each year because they understand the value of enriching their family, school district, and community with a different culture.
Hosting is also highly rewarding and a fun opportunity to share American culture. Exposing a foreign exchange student to the plethora of foods at the Iowa State Fair, watching an American football game, or trying to explain the connection of giant rabbits and eggs during Easter are just a few of the experiences host families can provide. While these activities may seem trivial to us, they allow the exchange students to experience an American lifestyle and culture beyond the image created by Hollywood and celebrity blogs. The students learn how to be leaders and transform their year abroad into a platform for change in their own communities. Hosting may be a 10-month commitment, but it has the ability to transform attitudes and cultural awareness in the United States and the students' home countries that allow for collaboration and peaceful negotiations. We should never underestimate the difference we can make in our global community.
IRIS is an Iowa-based non-profit organization dedicated to creating uniquely Iowan experiences for YES students. The IRIS staff develop enrichment activities throughout the year and provide support to the host families, students, and schools. If you are interested in hosting a YES student through IRIS, please visit www.iris-center.org or call the office at 515-292-7103. There is no perfect host family composition. We welcome retired adults, young couples, families with children still living in the home, and anyone willing to open their home and provide a safe, supportive environment for the students.
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Iowa Resource for International Service (IRIS)