Peru seems like an exotic place to visit. New Orleans is supposed to have incredible food. But travel can cost a lot of money. Plus, with all the commitments the average person has — maybe a sports team, a job, or a pet — it’s hard to find the time.
There is an innovative way to learn about different cultures without leaving your home. Virtual exchange programs connect people around the world so they can build relationships, entirely online. Participants can log in from their phones or computers, often at any time of day, for structured activities with other people around the globe. These activities can range from simple conversations to group projects and games. Some virtual exchanges connect classrooms to classrooms; in others, any interested individual can join in.
World Learning is among the pioneers of virtual exchange programs. In 2016, we built on our popular Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program — an in-person exchange that brings Iraqi students to the U.S. to learn about American culture and build leadership skills — with the launch of our Digital Young Leaders Exchange Program (DYLEP). This virtual exchange helps even more young people from across Iraq connect with American teens and share their cultures.
Interested in joining a virtual exchange program? Check out these six reasons why you should try one — with some extra encouragement from our DYLEP alumni:
1. To meet new people
Virtual exchanges can connect people who might otherwise be unable to build relationships: Youth living in situations that would make it impossible for them to travel or even attend school — such as living in conflict zones, rural areas, refugee camps, or on the move — can befriend someone a world away, too. All they need is access (however spotty) to the internet.
This accessibility allows for unparalleled diversity on program, and with diversity comes perspective. When youth around the world come together, they bring with them unique experiences, cultural insights, and opinions. Virtual exchange programs make space for participants to practice confidently and respectfully sharing their ideas, and it provides a forum to develop critical 21st century skills of cross-cultural communication and conflict resolution.
“Before DYLEP, I felt super awkward talking to people from other countries and different backgrounds than me because I didn’t know what was appropriate,” says Janell, a DYLEP 2017 alumna. “I know a lot of people my age feel the same way, and perhaps even adults too. But today, because of DYLEP, one of my best friends lives 6,500 miles (an eight-hour time difference) away from me.”
2. To see the world through new eyes
When you develop relationships with people around the world through a virtual exchange program, you can share your daily experiences and learn about what others’ lives are like. Send a photo of your breakfast to your partner around the world and learn what they are eating for their meal (though make sure to remember the time change so you don’t wake your partner up).
One DYLEP alumna, Mariam, commented that this led to her own growth: “The exchanging part of the program was what changed me the most; we shared so many amazing things including cultures, stories, lessons, friends, and most importantly, values.”
3. To keep up with other commitments
Virtual exchange programs provide a way to explore your interest in international living even if your semester or summer is full of commitments. You can access programs from your phone or computer, wherever you are and whenever fits your schedule.
Virtual exchange also provides the opportunity to explore international perspectives on your current commitments, whether that’s marching band or after-school math tutoring. You might find that a peer in Iraq also loves Bach or struggles with geometry!
A DYLEP 2017 alumna, also named Mariam, says that the program even helped her develop her language skills: “I couldn’t speak a whole sentence in English because I was afraid that it could be wrong, but now I enjoy speaking every word. I use every opportunity to speak in English and show off the great fluent skills I got from the program.”
4. To “study abroad” without breaking the bank
Sometimes travel is out of reach when you want it the most. Exchange programs provide low-cost or even free opportunities to learn about new cultures, make friends overseas, and even find communities to visit later in life. Virtual exchanges are a great and affordable way to begin that exploration.
Mehsin, a DYLEP 2017 alumnus, says that virtual exchange helped him have a chance at international exchange. He hopes others will have that chance, too, so that they can “realize the importance of the digital world” and expand learning opportunities for all.
Meenu, a 2017 DYLEP alumna, recalls the time her virtual host family hung out online chatting about Bollywood, Hindi, and Iraqi movies. “It was then I saw those intercultural connections created,” she says. “Our locations appeared to be diametrically opposed, but our conversations were bound by the strings of our shared humanity.”
5. To learn about global issues
Many people watch the news to learn what is happening in the world. But how do you learn what it actually feels like to live through current events? Why do teachers protest in Kentucky? What is it like to be a teenage girl in Baghdad? How does it feel to be a refugee? How can a teenager in Portland, Oregon, help a teenage refugee in Jordan?
In her exchange, Janell learned about domestic politics in Iraq from her new Iraqi friends, getting their insight into what it’s like to live in a country with a different political system. Her online friends from Iraq also shared their personal experiences with her, allowing her to learn new perspectives on the world. “I have asked some of my friends and even adults if they know what’s going on [in Iraqi politics] and only one person knew,” she says. “If I hadn’t participated in DYLEP, it’s sad to say I probably wouldn’t know either.”
Building friendships in an online exchange program also allows you to experience global issues at a personal level. You will meet other youth passionate about solving the issues they face, from racism, to climate change, to violent conflict. By working together, you may find that your communities can work together to solve major global issues.
6. To build peace
Some people say that the world has gotten smaller with globalization. Yet many people rarely get the chance to build strong relationships with friends who live in other countries. Only 1.6% of U.S. undergraduate students studied abroad in the 2014–2015 school year.
Virtual exchange has the potential to bridge this gap and help people around the world come together. The Digital Young Leaders Exchange Program, for example, recorded huge increases in warmth felt between populations who participated in the summer exchange.
Peace-building is difficult and requires commitment and passion. Do you have what it takes? Why not try a virtual exchange?
Written by Haley Lepp, program associate for Iraqi Youth Programs at World Learning.