‘Sharing culture is reward for student exchanges‘
By Kim Bo-eun
Volunteerism is the key to promoting international student exchanges, according to the nonprofit organization Youth For Understanding (YFU).
“What distinguishes YFU from other numerous exchange programs is that it is built on volunteerism,” Heather Clark, a field director of YFU USA, said in an interview with The Korea Times on April 12.
“The volunteers work out of the goodness of their heart, and are individuals who are aware of the value of cross-cultural training.”
Volunteer hosts for the organization open their homes to visiting international students. The basic provision is three meals and a bed, but the experience offers so much more to both the guest and the host.
Clark is in charge of the district of Northland, Mich. She made a six-day visit to Korea from April 10 together with Betsy Kiefer, the YFU field director of Greater Minneapolis, Minn.
Kiefer has been a host for 34 students over the past 25 years. “The experience of having young people from around the world sharing their culture, and my family in turn sharing ours, is a reward by itself,” she said.
“This year my family will host the daughter of a young man from Finland, who stayed in our home decades back,” Kiefer continued.
“All of the students who stayed with us are like my own sons and daughters; the life-long friendships are another fulfilling aspect of being a host.”
Clark and Kiefer strive to find the most suitable host families in their respective districts. “About 20 percent of 2,000 families remain active as volunteer hosts every year, and the rest are selected through an in-depth online application process and an interview,” said Clark.
The purpose of their trip was to better accommodate the needs of Korean students. While here they visited the Korean Folk Village in Yongin, south of Seoul and met with students who plan to go to the United States this fall through the YFU exchange program.
“It’s like a Korean study tour,” said Kiefer. “We are here to learn more about Korean culture so that we can understand Korean students better,” she continued.
In Korea, the families that send their children abroad all become potential volunteer hosts. However, not all of them end up as hosts since the number of outbound and inbound students do not match.
This year, four students from other countries are staying with Korean host families.
YFU puts an emphasis on the growth of students in terms of psychosocial and intellectual maturity. Hence, it ensures that the host families are ready to provide an environment in which this can happen.
Prior to having the students, the families attend sessions that get them ready and are also given booklets containing specific guidelines to follow.
YFU was founded in 1951 in Michigan by Rachel Andresen in order to promote intercultural exchange. The nonprofit international student exchange organization has about 70 networks across the world.
More than 1,000 Korean students have visited the United States through the exchange program in the past 23 years.
“The Korean students seem to be a little uptight when they first arrive,” said Kiefer. “However, like the blooming of a lotus blossom, although it takes time, students eventually bring out their full potential.”
Clark noted that there are systematic procedures for students experiencing difficulty adjusting. She said the volunteer-based workforce provides counseling regarding school and host family-related issues, so that any issues that arise are adequately addressed.
Kiefer has witnessed countless cases in which the students had a life-changing experience during their stay. Among them is her own daughter, who went to Spain through the YFU program. Her daughter is now in a leadership position in a large banking system in Minnesota.
“Before the exchange program, she had been shy and reticent, but through the experience she became self-confident and personable,” said Kiefer.
When selecting participants, school transcripts and English proficiency test scores are taken into account, but YFU focuses more on a student’s personality.
YFU Korea conducts an intensive interview with the families of applicants to learn about them, instead of making a decision merely based on scores on paper, according to Shin Chung-ha, president of YFU Korea.
“I encourage Korean parents to send their children to study abroad,” said Clark.
“Although parents would naturally be concerned about their children, the best gift from them would be to let go,” Kiefer said, adding, “This is where we come in, to provide guidance and nurture.”
The writer is an intern for The Korea Times. Contact her at email@example.com.