Hiding in Plain Sight: The Changing Needs of Cultural Exchange

Intercultural exchange takes many forms in the United States and elsewhere. In the U.S., international exchanges at college and post-graduate levels have been underway perhaps 90 years ago or more; they gained in popularity and began to include secondary students in the years after World War II. Success of the well-known Fulbright Program—which began right after the war—probably contributed to increased interest. Several of the organizations active in international youth exchanges today have now celebrated their 50th or 60th anniversaries.

Senator Fulbright wanted to promote “international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science.” International exchange at the high school level has similar goals: to expose foreign teenagers to the United States with the intent of fostering long-term understanding and cooperation at a person-to-person level. Those teens return home with (hopefully) a more accurate understanding of the U.S. and positive impressions of the American people, which (hopefully) translates into better relationships between countries as those teens become adults and leaders in their own right.

think outside the box

High school exchange programs have achieved a great deal over the years, with important limitations. Spending a semester or academic year abroad is not free; in addition to program fees, most students must be prepared to pay for personal expenses during their time abroad. The result is that most students coming to the U.S. come from comfortable economic backgrounds. Many students have already been to the United States on vacations or short-term study programs. For students in some countries, it seems to have become a rite of passage more than a cultural learning exercise; if a significant number of your classmates are doing an exchange year in the U.S., then you feel the need to do it, too, without necessarily thinking about alternatives or whether it is the “right” thing for you.

So, one might ask, do we still need middle-class intercultural exchange primarily between Europe and the United States in today’s global economy and inter-connected world? Perhaps a more appropriate question might be to ask whether other intercultural experiences may have become just as important. We need to expand the concept.

In the U.S. in recent years, we have seen increasing numbers of Asian students (primarily China and South Korea) participating in incoming exchanges. Beyond that, few students of color participate, whether at the secondary or post-secondary levels. Very few come from Africa and other regions troubled by political unrest. Virtually no U.S. high school students study abroad (about 1,100 in 2013-2014 according to data from the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel). Only about 1 percent of all U.S. students enrolled at institutions of higher education study abroad. Senator Fulbright’s original goal of “international good will” calls out for attention.

YES logoThe U.S. government does directly sponsor some students; see, for example, the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program. Congress established the YES program in 2002 as a response to the events of September 11, 2001. The program encourages teens from primarily Muslim countries to participate in international education exchange in the U.S., and more than 6,000 students have participated. Since 2009, the program has also sent U.S. students to study in Muslim countries (currently about 65/year).

A different type of organizational example—but equally distinctive—is Mobility International (MIUSA), based in Eugene, Oregon. MIUSA aims to provide exchange opportunities to people with disabilities. Its projects include the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs; the organization also works with the YES program and other U.S. Department of State international exchange programs to assist students with disabilities coming to the U.S.

There is another place where intercultural exchange would be valuable, and it doesn’t require intercontinental airplane trips. Last year, the public radio show This American Life did a two-part podcast episode called The Problem We All Live With. The episode stuck with us. It made us think about another very real American need for intercultural exchange, one of a totally different nature — or is it really that different?This American Life part 2
As events in Ferguson, Missouri (and other places around the U.S.) have made clear, a massive cultural divide exists between different ethnic and economic groups in this country. In the podcast, reporter Chana Joffe-Walt interviewed a young Latina woman who went from a high school that is 1% white to a college that is 75% white. Upon reflection, the student seemed to realize during the interview just how little she knew about white culture in the United States.

Kiana Jackson: Everybody’s really friendly. And I kind of didn’t expect that as much. Just coming from like, going to school in the south Bronx and just commuting all the time, everybody’s not so friendly. And here like, everybody will stand there for like a whole minute holding the door for you till you get there. Just friendly all the time. And sometimes you’re like, you don’t know if it’s genuine, because you’re not used to it.

[Later in interview…]

Kiana Jackson: Some of the kids from my high school who are like seniors now, they’ll talk to us and be like, oh, what school should I go to? How do you like your school? The advice I give to seniors is like, OK, everybody’s going to want to be around their same kind of people.

But if you’re always in the same environment, always doing the same things with the same people, you become naive. Or like, you don’t really know about the world. It’s better if you experience something different, because you get a feel of other people. And you end up changing, you end up becoming a different person, a lot based on the community you’re surrounded by. And that’s reality. Your environment really makes you.

Kiana notes at college that people held the door open if they were entering the building immediately ahead of her. At first, she assumed this was “a white thing”; after all, she was with mostly white people. But was it really, she began to ask? Could it be a city vs suburban/rural thing? Could it be an economic thing? Could it be something else entirely?

Most white teenagers, when it comes to black and Hispanic culture, probably would have similar initial reactions. Whatever you see, must be because they’re black/Hispanic/whatever. Most of us have no idea what is “normal” in each other’s lives. How much is “white,” “black,” or “Hispanic,” as opposed to economic, urban, or rural—much less regional or country-specific?

We need to find new ways to bridge cultural divides in the United States, divides that have only been made more dramatic by the effective re-segregation of many of America’s schools in recent years. International youth exchange is great, and we would like to see more of it; we believe U.S. students and our students from other countries benefit from getting to know each other. But we believe that we need an equal effort at the domestic level. We need American high school students to be trading places with other American high school students.

A recent article, Why a Global Education Doesn’t Have to Mean Going Abroad, discussed elements of this at the university level. It reviewed several university programs that have initiated “study away” programs (as opposed to, or in addition to, “study abroad”). The article reviewed programs where students live with immigrant families in Maine; where students live with minority or immigrant families in Los Angeles before going abroad or to another culture in the U.S. such as German-speaking Amish in Pennsylvania; and a U.S.-Mexico border-studies program involving issues critical to migrant communities.

490852727 make things happenPrograms like this are just a beginning. Unfortunately, our culture and our educational system act against U.S. students being attracted to such programs. If affluent students from one part of the U.S. spent a year in less affluent schools in another part of the U.S., they would be concerned about the impact it might have on their admission to college or on their ability to play on sports teams at school. These are reasons U.S. students also give for not being able to spend a semester or academic year abroad. An additional—and likely unstated—reason will also be that students and parents are afraid, much as they are afraid to go to most Asian countries, many South American countries, and Africa.

In many ways, different parts of the U.S. are more alien to many of our children (and to adults as well) than are many European countries. That’s something we should try to do something about.

Photo credits: Thinkstock.com, YES program, This American Life.

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