Imagine you’re visiting the United States for the first time, only just beginning to familiarize yourself with the people, the places and general surroundings. Suddenly, you’re inundated with news about a hurricane that will affect entire areas of the country, especially areas where you’re staying. What do you do?
Many of the international students and other participants on exchange programs with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs begin their exchanges by experiencing one of America’s most important values: helping out others in times of need … and, in this case, just a few days after arriving.
International participants in the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study program (YES), the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX), the International Visitor Leadership Program, the Community College Initiative, the Youth Ambassadors (YA) program, and other exchanges worked side by side with other volunteers to give back and show support for Americans displaced by recent hurricane damage.
They purchased, packed and distributed supplies, gathering clothing, food, cooking utensils, hygiene supplies and toys for children and taking them to FEMA campgrounds. They spent time at local shelters and churches hearing the stories of displaced families. They held bake sales to raise funds to support hurricane relief. They even gathered food for local animal rescue organizations to help pets affected by the storms.
Volunteerism is a key part of the exchange experience, whether it is foreign exchange participants giving back to their U.S. host communities or Americans studying abroad teaching English at schools and helping local NGOs in their host countries:
- Each year, participants in the YES Program, FLEX and the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program (CBYX) perform more than 125,000 hours of community service. As a part of celebrating Global Youth Service Day this year, YES students in the U.S. alone volunteered more than 5,500 hours in 47 host states throughout the US.
- Fourteen Community College Initiative cohorts at host colleges in eleven U.S. states together contributed over 29,000 hours of volunteer service last year.
And these are just a few examples. Exchange participants have cleaned beaches, taught American schoolchildren more about their home countries and cultures, volunteered at food banks for the homeless, served in soup kitchens, raised funds for charities, and completed countless other acts of service.
Perhaps the most powerful result of these experiences is that they often lead to new friendships and shared compassion among people who otherwise might not have met one another. These participants are not only sharing their own culture, they are taking back to their home countries a new enthusiasm for the American spirit.
About the Author: Becca Bycott is a Social Media Manager with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Editor's Note: This entry is also pubished in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.