How International Exchanges Connect Women to the World — And Each Other

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Held on March 8, 2018, International Women’s Day is an opportunity to showcase the achievements of women around the world and press for gender parity in all corners of society. World Learning will be celebrating all week long with stories showcasing the contributions of women in our global community.

International exchanges make a difference. World Learning offers dozens of exchange programs every year for people from more than 150 countries — including professional exchanges, academic exchanges, and youth programs such as our flagship exchange program The Experiment in International Living. We believe that when people from diverse cultures and backgrounds know and understand one another, they build global partnerships that create a more peaceful and just world.

Women play an important role in those exchanges, whether they’re participants or members of host communities. Read on to find out how the women of the World Learning community — in their own words — have built relationships with other women, other places, and even learned new things about themselves through international exchange programs.

Connecting with Other People

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An Experimenter bonds with her host sister in Morocco.

On the last day of our week living with a host family in Ait Ouahi, Morocco, I walked with my homestay mother to the bus that would take us to Fes. During the walk, she took my hand, and in that moment, everything was said through our interlaced fingers. I realized this was not a goodbye, but the beginning of a wonderful friendship.” — Aidana, a former Experimenter to Morocco.

My homestay experience was one that I will never forget. In my short time in Kwanokuthula, I was able to be a part of a family that stretched far beyond the small family I was living with. My sisters and mama taught me a lot about communication, love, and how to make a stranger feel an overwhelming sensation of being welcomed and at home. — Mya, a former Experimenter to South Africa.

My homestay experience quickly became something that I knew I would never forget. Even though there was a language barrier I could tell that they were all excited to have me in their home and to help me understand the Italian culture. My host sister, Marika, helped me pronounce Italian words as I did the same with her in English. It is because of her that I successfully know my numbers in Italian. My host mom, Angela, made sure I felt safe and welcomed into her family. I’ll never forget the second day that I was homesick, and she hugged me and kissed my forehead as she said comforting words in Italian to make me feel better. — Brisa, a former Experimenter to Italy.

You’re making personal connections with people from around the world. We’ve made so many good friends and now, especially with Facebook, we don’t lose touch. We’re continually communicating with the girls and young women who have stayed with us from Iraq, Pakistan and other places. And they invite us to visit.” — Charlotte Langley, a retiree based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who along with her husband has hosted international guests since 2003.

Connecting with Other Cultures

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Keun Joung Yoo from South Korea (center) with her Seattle host family.

We need these programs now more than ever as a counterbalance to the negativity we see, and to build social activism. The key to peace is citizen diplomacy. Nothing works better than sitting around the kitchen table telling stories. We tell the people who think about hosting, don’t be afraid. It’s an awesome experience and you’ll develop lifelong friendships around the world.” — Janine Magidman, a veteran teacher at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School who oversees a growing network of host families for the thousands of exchange students who want to come to Seattle.

“I never again viewed ‘foreigners’ as really foreign, and I came to view close personal contact between people of different nationalities, ethnic groups and religions as the best means of dispelling the mutual suspicion and distrust that creates barriers to peaceful co-existence within and between nations.” — Morelle Lasky Levine, a former Experimenter to Mexico who went on to become one of only a few women to become Foreign Service Officers in 1957.

We all genuinely grew to love each other. We hosted two Iraqi students, one a Shia, the other a Sunni, and they really bonded, too. We were all saddened when they had to depart. … People who’ve participated in exchanges become more than friends, they become incredible allies, and you find that they generally like Americans, if not their government’s policies.” — Paula Schriefer, a former employee of the U.S. Department of State who now lives in Denver and hosts students from the Middle East.

[Exchanges provide] the cultural experiences at home without having to travel. You begin to realize we’re all very similar, despite our differences, especially the kids, who just want to hang out and use their phones. Real people are not scary; they want a happy life, just like we do.” — Carla Lynch, an assistant professor of nursing from Tulsa who has hosted students five times.

Connecting with Themselves

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Maya (in traditional Miao clothing) with village children during her rural homestay with The Experiment.

What I took away from that summer was that I loved being an exchange student. That is, I loved a form of travel and exploration that allowed me to linger and opened up the possibility for deep connection with a place. — Emily Robbins, a novelist and former Experimenter to France. She’s currently working on her second novel, which was inspired during her time as an Experiment group leader in Jordan.

We wanted to use our lessons to make a change. We became very motivated, and realized we didn’t have to be professionals to bring about that change.” — Kassandra Escalante, a Jóvenes En Acción participant who was inspired to launch a youth leadership and empowerment program with her friend Amelia Guerrero at their high school in Puebla, Mexico.

My summer in China left an indelible mark on my values and the way I view others. Not only did The Experiment teach me how to integrate into a new culture, it taught me how to reexamine my own. In immersing myself into the Chinese culture, I was able to see things from the Chinese people’s point of view. While this may sound cliché, I consider this new perspective that I gained over the summer to be priceless. — Maya, a former Experimenter to China.

Every human has a goal, but sometimes we just need a chance to show our abilities. Now I’m a leader. Now I’m a strong female. I can face everything in the world.” — Hamsa Ahmed, an Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program participant who won financial support from an Iraqi Ministry of the Interior official for her plan to host an arts festival in Baghdad to help internally displaced children heal from the psychological wounds of war.

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World Learning empowers people, communities, and institutions to create a more peaceful and just world.

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