It's a small world after all

The world seems a little smaller and friendlier these days following the two successful cultural exchanges our family had this past summer. We befriended two Japanese law students who were studying American culture at a local college, and we opened our home to a French high school student interested in living with an American family and perfecting his English.

We spent a total of 11 hours with the young Japanese women, and 10 days with the French teen. Although the exchanges were relatively short, they provided some of the most memorable experiences of the summer. It still makes me smile when I remember how we tried to explain “root beer” to Asuka and Miki during a picnic lunch (pizza, however, needed no translation). I also smile when I picture the sweltering evening at the Minnesota State Fair when we introduced Jules to SPAM and the music of Michael Franti and Spearhead (the latter was a big hit; the former, as with root beer, was more difficult to explain).

Cultural Exchange

If we could jump back in time and host our visitors again, I would certainly do a few things differently. At ages 17, 15, and 12, my kids are ready to take on the responsibilities of hosting a young person from another country, but it would have helped everyone if we’d taken more time to talk through these responsibilities beforehand. It can be challenging to anticipate the needs of a guest when you haven’t hosted before, to put yourself in their shoes and consider, “What things do I take for granted that might be interesting for this person to experience?” Overall, I think we provided our visitors with a representative glimpse of our family life. In return, my kids had the opportunity to think more deeply about issues we don’t discuss every day, like: What does being an American mean to them? What cultural stereotypes exist and why? What separates people of the world, and what is universal?

Participating in a cultural exchange is beneficial at any age, but it can be especially formative for tweens and teens. According to the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, students who participate in a youth exchange—either as a host or the person being hosted—develop multiple skills, including improved communication, improved problem solving, greater knowledge and awareness of other cultures, traditions and customs, improved sense of self and purpose, a greater capacity to engage in shared projects, and improved critical thinking.

Minnesota families have many different cultural exchange options. One of the most well-known is through Rotary International. Vicki Dilley, officer with the North Star Rotary Youth Exchange, which covers more than 120 Rotary clubs in southern Minnesota and western Wisconsin, says the hosting experience is enriching for everyone involved.

"It really makes your family more outward and less inward, and more accommodating to someone who’s not just a guest in your home but becomes another family member," she says.

Dilley and her husband were both Peace Corps volunteers, and they have hosted many young people through the years through many different programs. They started when their oldest child was two—and now she’s a Peace Corps volunteer herself, in Nicaragua.

“The world is her platform; it’s where she feels comfortable,” Dilley says.

Hosting is not without its bumps. Often, in the early stages of an exchange, Dilley fields calls from families who are perplexed by a particular behavior of their student. She encourages them to think about it from a cultural perspective, as they try to help the student adjust to living in Minnesota.

“Just because we do it here doesn’t mean it’s right; it’s just different. I say that over and over to people, ‘It’s not right or wrong, it’s just different,’” she says.

Most families make it through the challenges of miscommunication and cultural differences and develop lifelong friendships with the families of their host students, which leads to further travel. And the young people who host a student develop skills that help them become more engaged in the world around them and more willing to reach out to people from different cultures.

That seems to be the message my kids have received from our recent experience. When our family travels to France this spring, we are looking forward to reconnecting with our French friend and meeting his family. And although we have no immediate plans to visit Japan, the idea is appealing, especially knowing that we have pizza-loving friends there who would welcome us with open arms.

Joy Riggs is a mother of three teenagers. She lives in Northfield. Send comments or questions to