Not in Kansas Anymore
How a Summer Exchange Experience Turned into a New Life
It had been a while since Girish Keniya visited Manhattan, Kansas. Since his first time there as an Experimenter 43 years ago, he’s immigrated to the United States and had a long career. He says his exchange experience was key to making a life in the United States.
When he was a boy in India, Keniya heard about exchange programs and was taken with the idea of learning about other cultures. “Every night, I used to go to the airport and see the planes coming and going — the dream is building up in you. You want to be the one doing that: to fly to a different country somewhere.”
He connected with a group that was part Federation EIL, Inc., a worldwide network of exchange organizations co-founded by The Experiment in International Living more than 60 years ago. Federation members promote intercultural learning experiences through homestays, group travel, study abroad, language training, work exchange, and other cultural immersion programs.
Not long after, Keniya became part of a group of Indian youths traveling to the United States. After visiting New York City and Washington, D.C., the group headed west.
“We took this bus to go to Sterling, Kansas,” he recalls. “I was used to skyscrapers and a city, and this was mile after mile after mile when we saw nothing but cornfields. I asked myself, ‘Where in the world am I going? My God, how am I going to live here?’”
But when he arrived, he found that his hosts, Jerry and Cathy Hutchinson, were ready to do everything possible to make his life among those cornfields easier. They’d prepared well, but he still missed a few things from home.
“I asked if they had tea,” he recalls. “They gave me hot water and some tea bags.” But something was still missing. “I said, ‘Do you have any spices?’ Well, they had black pepper! So, I mixed it up with tea and milk!”
Keniya found himself in unfamiliar territory in other ways, too. When the Hutchinson’s baby daughter, Holly, would cry, Keniya found he was able to comfort the baby and get her back to sleep.
That wasn’t the only new knowledge he found in Kansas. His host, Jerry, worked at a radio station, so Keniya asked to come along. “I started helping his brother at the station. The AP news was coming in at the station and I’d take the printout and give it to the person to read on the air.”
After his stay in Kansas, Keniya bought a three-month bus pass and traveled all over the country. It helped make up his mind: “I went back to India and told my dad I want to go back to America.”
This was a big deal, in part because he was the oldest of his siblings and everyone expected him to remain in India and play a senior role in his family. A few years later he married, and he and his wife eventually did move to New Jersey.
Keniya ended up with two jobs — one selling menswear at a department store, and the other at Burger King. Eventually, through connections in India, he got an opportunity to sell diamonds to jewelry manufacturers in America. It was the start of a long career.
Then, traveling to trade shows throughout the U.S., Keniya was inspired to manufacture his own jewelry. It was a big leap from sales to manufacturing, but soon he was traveling to those same trade shows to sell his jewelry.
He’s proud of where he’s gone. “Never give up on your dream,” Keniya says. “If a guy like me, coming from basically zero, can do something like this with my future, anyone can. You have to try and fail, try and fail, but learn from your mistakes.”
Keniya never lost touch with his host family in Kansas. Cards and greetings went back and forth for 43 years. And this year, the successful businessman finally went back to see where his younger self first found a home in the U.S.
“My godson knew I’d been to Kansas, and he was going to a trade show in Kansas City. He said, ‘Come on — I’m going to just buy a ticket for you’.
“So, after 43 years, I did it. And the only thing that had changed was that we were gray.” This time, Keniya wasn’t working at Jerry’s radio station — he was an on-air guest, interviewed about his visit in the ’70s.
Keniya credits The Experiment for giving him the inspiration to make such a major transition. “It gave me the strongest platform to take off from. I got to learn firsthand about another culture, how families are functioning in the rest of the world.
“In India, the only thing we knew about the U.S. was Hollywood. We did not have a concept of how people really lived, and what are the challenges and problems.”
It’s an experience he hopes others will try. “I wish more and more young people would go out and see. Now the world is different — with a click you can see anywhere, but it’s not the same thing as going and living with a family firsthand. That’s eye-opening.”