Studying abroad isn’t just fun and games. With the right preparation and mindset, it can create citizen diplomats.
At 2 p.m. Friday in the Hall of Philosophy, Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill and Daryl Weinert, chair of the board of trustees at Youth For Understanding USA, will have a conversation about the impact of student exchange. Their discussion will close Week Four’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “Religion and Statecraft Today: The Soft Power of Global Peacemaking.”
“I came to YFU because I believed that if we could get teenagers around the world to see more similarities than differences, they had a shot at tackling issues of poverty and inequality and the ‘isms’ that were plaguing society,” said Hill, former president and CEO at Youth for Understanding USA.
The title of Friday’s lecture, “The Soft Power of Global Peacemaking, One Young Person at a Time,” hints at what both Hill and Weinert called Youth for Understanding’s greatest strength: its focus on individuals. The organization is one of the world’s oldest and largest student exchange programs and sends primarily high school students to and from 60 countries around the world.
Weinert said building empathy and understanding is the goal of groups like YFU, and that works best if you do it through individuals on the ground.
“It’s folks bringing their own background and their own culture and their own nationality to others, again on a one-to-one basis,” Weinert said. “It’s not sitting in a negotiating room trying to hammer out a trade agreement or whatever it might be. It’s very much on a human scale.”
Weinert, who is also associate vice president for research and business operations at the University of Michigan, participated in YFU himself in 1980 when he went to Spain during high school. He said he and his parents were naturally a little nervous about the experience, but it was definitely the right decision. Students who participate in the program, Weinert said, have a higher level of curiosity than their peers and are ready to embrace adventure.
When that adventure goes well, it can change the trajectory of the students’ lives. Weinert went on to work for the Peace Corps in Nepal and the National Service League, which he said he never would have done before his experience in Spain.
Weinert said that like him, other young people who participate in global programs, are opened up to other cultures and ways of thinking, creating a cohort of citizens who are more globally focused and compassionate. It can be challenging to accept a new culture at first, he said, but YFU does its best to help prepare students for the experience.
Hill said one of the most significant aspects of being president of YFU was the ability to see thousands of young adults every year overcome those new challenges and come out the other side as better, more aware people.
A similar transformation happens to visitors at Chautauqua Institution, Hill said, just in a different way. This is what soft power really is, he said: the transformation of individuals that eventually leads to real change in society. This is the cornerstone of YFU, and Hill said he wants to help Chautauqua become a leader in soft power, as well, because engaged citizens can do more than elected leaders.
“It’s the everyday citizen who makes the conscious decision to make the world a better place,” Hill said.