As a child, I was fascinated with people not from Minnesota. World travel was not commonplace where I grew up and classmates from other countries were non existent until my high school years. It was exciting to meet my great uncle Larry who spoke Spanish as his native language and to hear his stories of childhood in Spain. He inspired me to learn Spanish at the age of 9. It was memorable to go to what was one of the first Mexican restaurants in Minnesota, “La Casa Coronado” and to enjoy my first tamales.
These events sound commonplace, but there was a time in Minnesota when areas were more isolated due to less highways and little immigration. It was considered “ideal” to blend in and even dress alike. How exciting it was when our town had an influx of refugees from Vietnam during my high school years! Before then, our only Asian neighbors were restaurant owners from China.
I remember sitting in the gym when a beautiful girl named Anh entered, carrying her tennis shoes and looking frightened. My heart melted seeing her fear and I greeted her. As I tried to explain that she should wear her shoes, she politely nodded and said “thank you.” This was a defining moment in my life, as I realized my world was very small and needed expansion.
Fast forward to grade 12 where we had 2 exchange students: Elena from El Salvador and Erik from Belgium. My new friends were the best education I received in my senior year! You see, at this point in time, the only kids I had met not born in the USA were from Vietnam or Mexico.
From Elena I learned of poverty, political unrest, the importance of family, grace, dignity and gratitude. She bore an incredible amount of grace in meeting our stares of curiosity with her bright, wide smile. Elena was quick to educate us on her customs and we learned from her generous example to be more thankful and humble. We were pen pals after graduation for about five years. Occasionally I wonder if political unrest caused her letters to cease.
I could write volumes about Erik! We became very close and he called me his little sister. For over 10 years, Erik and I corresponded. Erik had an interesting perspective on Americans. From the television and movies, he thought our country was crawling with what he called “hippies.” In the spring, he went to a rock concert with me and he excitedly pointed out “hippies.” Another endearing quality of Erik’s was he would correct our grammar! On the day of graduation, we embraced and cried.
Erik visited the USA 9 years later on business. It was not the meeting I would have preferred. About a dozen classmates met at a restaurant. At the time, my former husband accompanied us and his domineering, entertaining personality took over our time together. Nevertheless, it was wonderful to see my Belgium brother again!
We all have varying belief systems. My belief system says things happen for a reason. Through career changes and life events, I found myself working in the same school district that educated me. What a blessing to end up educating international students in the ESL (English as a Second Language) program! The students taught me more than I could ever teach!
My blessing of working with ESL students came to an end due to budget cuts. After a stint working with a wonderful company that did not align with my life purpose, I ended up with Council for Educational Travel USA! We place and supervise international exchange students. It truly feels like life has become full circle!
With the advent of social media we are able to communicate more around the world. However, that does not replace the experience of spending time with others firsthand. It is priceless witnessing “firsts” with our students: the “Welcome to the USA” signs at the airport, the wonder of snowfall, homecoming, American food, Mall of America, Halloween and more!
I think we may all agree that we are greatly influenced by images on media and may assume things that may or may not be true. For example, not all Minnesotans act like the characters in ‘Fargo.” Another example is not all Muslim women wear Hijab. By spending time with those brought up in other lands, we receive a valuable education not found elsewhere. That education can create a ripple and that ripple may extend around the world.
I invite you to join me on CETUSA’s mission of: Reaching out to encourage a lifelong journey of global peace and understanding. You may do this as a host family or as a local coordinator, which is a rewarding part time endeavor!