The travelers are all strangers when they meet. One of their first activities is to discuss stereotypes about each other’s countries. They are upset by what is revealed. Yet they soon realize the stereotypes are just that, and aren’t an indication of who the individual person is or what their country or culture is really about. As one attendee, Jack Garner says, “It really changes your perspective of how you see people and think of them. It changes your life when you get to meet these people from all over the world.” Jack is 13 years old and spent a month in Argentina last winter and two weeks in Istanbul this summer through Children’s International Summer Villages (CISV), a cultural exchange program. His fellow travelers were ages 11–19.
Talk to the group of kids who have traveled internationally and it is apparent that they have an understanding of life that belies their youth. Most are just 11 or 12 years old when they take their first international journey, without their families.
Jack’s father, Greg Garner, explains that it is becoming widely accepted that age “11 to 12 is the best time for teaching international relations, developing friendships and learning about human rights. After that age, you’re too influenced by stereotypes, the American version of history, the influences of today’s media, etc.” After seeing the positive effects of the international trips on his children, Jack and daughter Taylor, 15, who has visited Guatemala, the Czech Republic and will go to Brazil in December, Greg became the chapter president of CISV (www.cisvusa.org).
In CISV, 12 delegations of four kids (two boys and two girls) from 12 different countries live together, work together and eat together in a campus/dorm environment. They spend their days participating in hands-on activities that teach them about cultural understanding, international leadership, world peace, human rights and diversity. Costs range from $900 for two weeks to $1,600 for four weeks plus airfare. Limited scholarships are available.
Raina Miller, now 12, spent two months in France this summer when she was 11, through Adolesco (www.adolesco.org), a student exchange program that matches American children ages 9–17 with kids in France, Spain, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Adolesco costs $1,430 plus airfare with no scholarships available at this time.
Raina lived and vacationed with her host family and attended school with her exchange sister, Anne. Anne returned with Raina to Denver, living with her family, going to the Grand Canyon and attending seventh-grade classes.
When Raina heard about the opportunity to travel abroad, she was immediately excited and eager to go. Her mom, Tara, wasn’t so sure, saying that the hardest part was worrying about her daughter flying alone all that distance. Tara recalls crying at the airport even as her daughter “danced down the jetway to the plane.” She adds, “We wanted her to go because we thought it would be good for her even though it was hard for us to not have her here.”
Jeff Lewis, whose daughter Audre went to Japan at age 11 through CISV, can relate. “In our house, it felt like it threw us off our axis a little bit. It was strange not having her around.” The kids, however, reported having very little homesickness because they were having so much fun and were so busy.
Despite their concerns about sending their children abroad, each of the parents had confidence that their children could handle the experience. But they and their children say these journeys are not for every child or every family. “The most important thing is it has to be the child who wants to go,” says Tara. “If the parents try to push a child who doesn’t really want to go it’s not going to work very well. Or if the child wants to go but the parent isn’t comfortable with it, it’s going to be hard. Both the parents and child have to be in agreement that this would be a good thing.”
The kids recommend that anyone who goes on these trips should be kind and open-minded toward others. They say the experiences are easier for a child with an outgoing personality but also feel there are benefits for shy kids. Taylor cites her own brother as an example of someone who was shy before going: “Once he came back, he was talking to everybody; he was enthusiastic about everything. It helps a person who is shy find their voice.”
Jodi Clifford, whose daughter Ellie went to Great Britain with CISV when she was 12, says, “The biggest change I’ve noticed with Ellie isn’t something that’s tangible. But I hear her talking about her experience, and she has this kind of awareness now of how big the world is and how small the world is. I mean, she now has a friend she emails with from another country!”
Jeff agrees, impressed that when his daughter Audre “talks about different languages, or food she sampled, she has such a bigger view and a better understanding of where she fits in, not only in the house, or neighborhood, but in the world. When I hear her talk about what she has taken from this experience, I see her being able to articulate who she is because she has been around kids from other cultures.” He adds, “I expected a better understanding of geography but it’s her self-awareness that’s impressive.”
As for the impact these travel opportunities have on their children’s futures, Jodi says, “I think that when you’re aware of the world out there, that opportunities open themselves up. They are no longer intimidated by the possibilities, which are endless. I hope that’s what it leads to—the bigger picture of what’s possible.”
Watch a video of the kids talking about their cultural exchange experiences at FrontPorchStapleton.com.
For more information about CISV, contact Greg Garner (Greg@garnerco.com) or Traci Van Pelt (email@example.com). Learn more about CISV at their Welcome Home Party and Annual Auction: Nov. 9, 6–9pm, Erico Motorsports, 2855 Walnut St., Denver. RSVP to Greg or Traci. Cost: $30/adult, $20/kid, $70/family of four includes food and wine. CISV will hold a local mini-camp from 1/31–2/2/14 for kids to better understand what the program is about.
For more information about Adolesco, contact Tara Miller at Tara.firstname.lastname@example.org.