One of the things I’m most thankful for this Thanksgiving is the way our family has grown this year. Napa joined our family three months ago through the YFU intercultural exchange program, and during that time we’ve learned a lot about each other, our countries and cultures, and the nature of exchange student life. It’s been an amazing adventure already, and we’re only three months in!
My biggest takeaway from this time – apart from not knowing how we’re ever going to part with our beloved Napa when it’s time for her to return home to Thailand next year – is the strong belief that we should ALL be more like YFU exchange students.
First, a bit about Youth for Understanding: I’m truly amazed by the YFU program and the way the staff and volunteers care for and prepare these kids for their year away from home. YFU team members are always hosting events, sending out helpful emails to host families and students, and thinking of everything before any needs arise. They’ve been facilitating intercultural exchange relationships since 1951, so I guess it’s no surprise they are great at it! But I’ve been really impressed by the program at every turn.
Now, about the YFU students themselves. Through this program, I’ve been blessed to get to know not just Napa, but her entire cohort of YFU intercultural exchange students based in central Ohio for this academic year. This includes two other kiddos from Thailand plus others from Japan, Chile, Germany, Denmark, China, the Netherlands, France and perhaps a few others I’m forgetting right now.
We get together with the YFU gang once a month for fun and learning opportunities, and smaller groups of kids get together socially beyond that, too. Never have you met a more engaging group of 16 year olds! These kids are bright, adventurous, positive and open-minded – and they have all left their homes and families for a year in search of greater global understanding, confidence, personal achievement and perspective. I am utterly amazed by them, and by their families!
At several day-long YFU orientations, we have learned how to be good host parents and stay out in front of any possible misunderstandings or issues that could pop up. The students, too, have been coached and counseled about how to be good intercultural exchange students and ambassadors for their countries. But you know what? So many of the tips given to the students are things we ALL should be doing, every day. For example, in a recent pre-Thanksgiving email to all students, YFU advised the following (in italics):
- Your journey as an exchange student will be full of ups and downs, but whatever may come your way, YFU wants to encourage you to take every opportunity to enjoy yourself and grow as a person! Tell me this doesn’t apply to every single one of us? Life is always full of ups and downs – and we should always keep growing and finding the positive and having fun.
- Make sure talk with your host family about their traditions and plans for the Thanksgiving holiday so that you know what is planned and you can feel more part of those traditions. If you have any fall holidays and traditions, share that information with your host family. We never know what new family traditions may come together. Wouldn’t it be great if we all tried on this attitude of inclusivity and asked our friends and neighbors about their cultural and family traditions, and embraced our differences rather than fearing them?
- Please remember to be on your very best behavior on Thanksgiving (and always) and be very polite to the families and visitors that you encounter! Do not sit off by yourself or wander off to your room during the Thanksgiving celebrations. Even if the family is just sitting around watching football, it’s an important day. Participate with your family no matter what they are doing. Visitors will often be curious about you and your culture so be polite and answer questions. I’m sure there are a few American teens who could use this advice. Heck, imagine if ALL of us took these insights to heart. How would our Thanksgivings be improved? What if all of us, not just the YFU students, committed to engaging and participating rather than retreating to our comfort zone?
- You should be asking what you can do before the celebration and help your family get ready. No matter where you have dinner (unless it’s in a restaurant) you could participate in clean up afterwards, help wash or dry the dishes. This is considered good manners for both boys and girls in this culture. Make a great impression on everyone and start the holidays off right by being the very best family member that you can be! This is my favorite one. Imagine how we could light up someone’s day by following this guidance, rolling up our sleeves and pitching in instead of sitting down while others do the work of preparing and clearing away a gigantic Thanksgiving feast?
- In the spirit of our Thanksgiving holiday, consider writing a thank you note to show your appreciation to your host parents, your YFU Area Rep, and your high school principal and guidance counselor. For schools and YFU volunteers, this little gesture it will be one more reminder that YFU students are special. For your host families it will show them that you truly appreciate being part of their family. I love this one, too. What if we all added one more Thanksgiving tradition to our plates – writing thank you notes to the people in our lives for whom we are truly thankful. I’m a card and letter writer by nature, but it’s been a while since I’ve done this. I am so inspired by the idea of doing it at Thanksgiving!
- Celebrate your role as a young ambassador of your country in the USA! This bit of advice to YFU students also applies to us. Aren’t we all ambassadors of our family, our school, our neighborhood or our workplace? How can we step up and shine in these areas to be true ambassadors and lights to others?
It’s not fair to expect our intercultural exchange students to rise to a standard we aren’t meeting ourselves. If we’re expecting them to be their best and bring it – we must do the same. It’s an honor, a privilege and a joy to host a YFU student and be part of this amazing program. I love how it’s encouraging our family to be our best individual selves, even as it helps us grow as global citizens.
I’d love to hear your stories about hosting or being an intercultural exchange student – and about how Thanksgiving can be better when we ALL step it up and bring our best selves! Whatever this fall harvest season means to your families, I wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving from our home to yours.