Trading places

change your lifeEarlier this week, a woman I admire bravely hugged her 14YO son goodbye as he set off on a European adventure. Underneath a healthy dose of momma-trepidation, she’s thrilled for him to have this experience. We’ve had a few conversations about what he’ll gain from it, and I–for the millionth time–thought, We need more international youth exchange programs.

Then this morning, a colleague forwarded an article about the Christian church struggling to come to terms with racism. (You can read it HERE, if you’re interested.) It’s crazy to me how segregated the vast majority of American churches remain, and I thought, We really need a church exchange program.

Somehow that thought took me back nearly twenty years, when I was a young whippersnapper with all the answers at a global company. Every time someone from a non-US location would visit or one of my American colleagues would grouse about someone from “over there” just not getting it, I’d think, We really need a business exchange program. In fact, I even tried to float it by HR a couple of times.

Then I remembered that a couple of months ago, while I visited the parent company of my current employer, I was confronted by the diversity of the different lines of business housed in each of our subsidiaries. I found myself surprised at how uninformed our parent was about what we do, and vice versa. Again I thought, We really need a company exchange program.

It seems to have become second nature for me to think of a culture swap any time communication or behavioral hurdles arise, and I thank my experience with youth exchange for that. You see, immersing oneself in a different culture–whether it be geographical, religious, commercial, racial, or pretty much anything else–allows you to get a little bit closer to understanding the why in someone else’s actions. It also breaks relationships into individual encounters, rather than sweeping judgments about a broader group. It not only shapes the person going on the exchange, but also the people receiving her on the other end.

If I had to pick a metaphor to describe the effects of exchange, it would look something like this video that went viral yesterday (PLEASE watch it):

As the winning pitcher consoles the friend he just struck out, I’m internally screaming YES! YES! YES! We CAN be friends with someone on a different team.

So get out there and explore someone else’s world. Get to know your neighbors, near and far. Spend time with people who don’t look/think/eat/believe like you. They might be across the ocean or across the street. We don’t always have to agree, but we’ll all be better for it.

P.S. Thanks, Amy, for giving your son this incredible gift.

P.P.S. Here’s a link to another article, shared recently by a friend. Kumbaya, everyone.

Fanning the flame

When I wrote Beyond your ZIP code a week or so ago, I thought my passion for international youth exchange had been rekindled. Boy, was I wrong.

Last Saturday I took part in the International Youth Exchange Expo that started this discussion. I represented one of four local companies in an effort to show kids and their parents the connection between exchange and career paths. I was supposed to tell people about all the international opportunities a company like mine has to offer, right here in this sleepy little community.

Well, once I started talking, I couldn’t stop. But instead of covering the employment community’s need for people with international experience, I talked about how exchange changes a person’s worldview in general. It makes people better problem solvers, because they have tackled something that once seemed impossible, in a language that wasn’t their own. It makes people better listeners and more respectful of others’ opinions, because they’ve had to look at the simplest of issues from a different cultural perspective. They’ve had to make sense out of what doesn’t seem to make sense. They’ve had to see things through different eyes. They’ve learned to appreciate the differences and learn from them, even adopting some for themselves.

I went on and on and on.

I saw lots of smiles and nods as I spoke, but I think the parents appreciated what I had to say more than the kids did. That’s okay, because if it helps convince them to send their babies off into the wild, wild world to see what it’s like, then I did a good thing.

No, my passion for youth exchange wasn’t rekindled when I wrote the ZIP code post. That was just the spark that got me going again. After Saturday, NOW the flame is really raging.

Let me know if you want to talk about it. I’ve got a lot to say.