Cultural Exchange

Madison students gain insight
from foreign visitors

Many American students later visit
their counterparts overseas

(May 2013) – Since August 2005, Madison, Ind., has participated in the Center for Cultural Interchange (CCI) Green Heart International Exchange program, welcoming students from many different countries and backgrounds into local homes, schools and social circles. Often, attention is focused on the exchange students themselves, who leave the comfort zones of their own families and communities to adapt to foreign environments. In the process of celebrating the brave adventures of these exchange students, it is easy to forget the gift their presence brings to our community.

Cultural Exchange

Photo courtesy of Carolyn Alcorn

From left, pictured are Riley McGarry, Molly McGarry, Pia Wenke, Carolyn Quigley-Alcorn, Malte Frenzl and Alex Nunan.

Our world of social media may shrink borders and distances, but it also can depersonalize us. It is easy to befriend someone in Moscow on Facebook, but we miss out on the old-fashioned blessings of meeting strangers face-to-face, inviting them into our homes, breaking bread with them at our tables.
Youth in Madison are, in some respects, even more at a disadvantage than their peers in urban areas, where cultural diversity is part of the fabric of every day life. Big cities boast arrays of ethnic restaurants, dance and drama from across the seas, the music of dialects from Ireland and India, Bali and Brazil. Although some of us have opportunities to travel, for the most part, we watch the play of world events on the news and forget how enriched we can be by personal interaction with people who embrace different religious beliefs and cultural traditions.
Madison benefits from this well-organized national cultural exchange program, which forges meaningful intercultural connections between young folk, their families and the school population as a whole.
Local coordinator Carolyn Alcorn credits the openness of local families to be hosts, in part, to the Ulster Project. “It opened our hearts and we saw how important it was to foster these kinds of exchanges.”
Since then, she has been tireless in her efforts to match CCI applicants from Germany, Sweden, Spain, Italy, Belgium, France, Hungary, Brazil, Thailand, China, Taiwan, Viet Nam and South Korea with host families.
“The mission,” she states, “is to introduce diversity into our community in the interests of promoting peace, understanding and tolerance.”
In its seven brief years in Madison, the program has had far-reaching effects. Tama Kennedy, host mother for an exchange student from Brazil, wanted her son’s eyes to be open to the rest of the world.
“Among other things,” she said, “the experience helped him realize how much we take for granted here, how lucky we are to enjoy the freedoms of this country and, in particular, to live in a town like Madison where helping one’s neighbor has not gone out of fashion.” 
“Stereotypes are busted all the time,” Alcorn reports. “Kids who believed that people from certain countries were backward and ignorant were blown away by the academic capacities of exchange students.” 
In addition, math teacher Lee Strassel talks about the effect on students of watching kids from different cultures. “They witness the struggle and the way in which they overcome the language barriers. It’s inspirational.” 
“It’s almost as if sometimes we still embrace a World War II attitude about foreigners,” says David Sloan, who, with his wife Carole, has hosted six exchange students through various exchange programs, even after their youngest had long since left home. 
Realizing that it was all right to explore cultural differences, a student asked his Vietnamese classmate, hosted by the Colussi family, “Is it true you guys only eat bugs over there?”
It doesn’t take our teens long to let go of ignorant biases and open their minds.  “They get the message,” says school counselor Lori Slygh. “They make the leap that we are all the same.”
The gifts of heightened awareness of the world at large, broadened horizons and enhanced capacity for tolerance are considerable. But a further bonus is that while most students are only here for a year, the connections continue and grow, often to include new relationships between extended families.
Chelsea Stephens went to Hungary with two friends to visit her host sister for three weeks. Alex Nunan will join his exchange sibling in Germany this year, while his sister, Kendra, participates in an ambitious project in Tanzania.
Becky Staab says their family would’ve never gone to Viet Nam were it not for the invitation from Ming’s family.
Leslie Grote found a new friend in the mother of her host student when they visited in Germany. Even students who were not part of host families have begun to take advantage of the opportunities to travel abroad to visit their new friends.
“The effects of the program,” says Alcorn, “just continue to ripple out.”
Shawe Memorial High School principal Phil Kahn agrees. “Families should be encouraged to host an exchange student. It is a wonderful opportunity.”
“You bet,” says Sloan. “Even for people like us who are no spring chickens.  Our lives have been so enriched.”

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