- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Peanut butter and chocolate. Who would have guessed they are impediments to international understanding?
The two exchange students with the Youth For Understanding program laugh about it now. But they both said getting used to the American diet was one of the first issues they struggled with when they came to the United States last summer.
Avadoo Iortsor, 16, of Nigeria stayed first with a family in Bowie. Chocolate and sweets were an unexpectedly large part of her host family’s diet, Iortsor said. “I used to cook Nigerian for myself every night,” she said.
Iortsor has since changed host families and is staying in Lexington Park with Gordon and Jennifer Ingmire, where vegetables are frequently included in meals ... another hurdle for Iortsor, who says that is not common back home. “I am getting used to it,” she said.
For Lisa Hurni, 17, of Switzerland, the problem was George Washington Carver’s all-American creation, peanut butter, served frequently at her host family’s home. The Dodges, who live in Lexington Park, have two young boys, R.J., 8 1/2, and Tyler, 6.
“It’s just all about peanut butter,” Hurni said of the American diet.
Both Hurni and Iortsor are students at Great Mills High School. A third YFU student, Gabriel Costa Gorayeb, a student from Brazil and a standout on the soccer field, is studying at Chopticon High School.
Youth For Understanding was established as an international exchange program in 1951, when 75 German teenagers were hosted by volunteer families in Ann Arbor, Mich., with the hope of building bridges, re-establishing ties, between Germany and the United States after World War II. The effort has continued, based on the belief that people from different countries and cultures have more in common than they might think and they can even learn to appreciate those things that are different, like a preference for peanut butter and chocolate.
Since its beginnings, the program has now expanded to involve more than 50 countries.
“In a way, you bring about world peace,” said Tchi Sogoyou, field director for the Southeast District for Youth For Understanding, on Monday about those who participate in the YFU program.
And while a student exchange program might not seem like fertile ground for volunteers, YFU absolutely relies on volunteer participation, Sogoyou said.
Not only are the host families volunteers (they are not paid for providing room and board for the exchange students), but volunteers are needed to interview potential host families and potential exchange students. Volunteers are needed to check up on the exchange students and their host families. Volunteers can give presentations at schools to help students and staff understand the program. Volunteers can do administrative work. Students can volunteer to help an exchange student get oriented at their school. Area residents can even volunteer by preparing food for an orientation or social event for the program.
“Our volunteers enable YFU USA to receive more than 2,000 international students and send over 500 American students abroad each year,” Sogoyou wrote in an email.
Carley Dodge of Lexington Park, the host mom for Hurni this year and a local volunteer area representative and coordinator with Youth For Understanding, is hoping to interest more volunteers in Southern Maryland.
“Any way you would want to volunteer, we have opportunities,” Dodge said.
Dodge offered a variety of reasons why she gives so much time and effort to YFU. One was the chance to give back to the program. She was a YFU exchange student to Brazil back in 1992-1993. She said the experience was eye-opening.
“It gave me a better perspective of what Third World is all about,” she said, describing the people going through trash and picking up discarded vegetables and fruits in order to survive.
When she and her husband moved to Lexington Park about 10 years ago, she had no contacts here. “So, I was OK ... what can I do?” Dodge said.
She remembered the life-changing experience she had with YFU and contacted them about serving as some kind of volunteer.
“It opened up the door for me,” she said, noting that she immediately made friends through her work with the group.
She began first to just talk about the program to others, trying to encourage them to become host families. Now, Dodge, in addition to a variety of other tasks associated with being a volunteer area representative and coordinator, also hosts a teenager herself every other year, she said. Hurni is the Dodge’s third student.
“It’s good,” Hurni said of the experience. “I have a better knowledge of English. I saw the country.” She said that the highlight of the year so far was a trip to Disney World and Universal Studios with the Dodges over Christmas break.
Dodge noted that the learning and the cultural exchange goes both ways. “My children get to learn another culture and they learn to interact with other cultures,” she said.
Dodge, who has two sons, gets to “mother” a girl when they are hosting a student, helping them prepare for the prom and homecoming and events like that. She also gets insight into a teenager’s world now ... something that she says has clearly changed from her own teenage experience.
And through her volunteer work with YFU, she gained a much better understanding of how the St. Mary’s schools work, she said.
But ultimately, the exchange is about being open to relationship. “It’s getting over that fear,” Dodge said.
The students have to overcome the fear of leaving home and facing a lot of unknowns.
Iortsor talked about some of her fears. “We had stereotypes of Americans,” she said. “My friends said, ‘They’re going to discriminate. They’re racist. Don’t go.’ But they were nice. And the place is really pretty.”
Dodge said there are fears for host families too. But it is worth it, she said. “They become part of my family.”