The Beginning of a Lifelong Journey
Exchange students from Spain, Somaliland, and Japan in front of the Brooklyn Bridge during a sightseeing tour in NYC
Andrea (Spain), Nasrin (Somaliland), Kanon (Japan), Brooklyn (New York)

Students meet in New York, prepare for exchange year

PAX students come to America with a sincere desire to experience and better understand the United States. For many of them, the initial spark of curiosity about the U.S.—the same one that inspired them to apply to the program—will not be satiated in June at the end of their program. Having had their appetites whetted throughout the intensive cultural exchange experience, they will want more. 

It may be the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the U.S., American culture, and the English language for some. For nearly as many, it will be their first big dip in the pool of “otherness” that intrigues them even more than any singular aspect of the U.S. This sets many on a lifelong journey of cultural exploration.

Once these cultural explorers begin to understand that there are far fewer “good” and “bad” aspects of other cultures than they initially attribute them, they begin to appreciate the beauty of seeing the world differently. Identifying this opportunity for wisdom, understanding, and reflection about their own culture is the most powerful thing most students (and many host families for that matter) will take away from the program.

For some, orientation is a chance to dip their toes in this pool—not only as a result of the new exposure to America but also as a result of the diversity of their peers. It’s fun to watch.

This past week, one Thai student exclaimed, “Actually it was the most wonderful experience in my life to meet so many people from so many cultures!” Meanwhile, Leire from Spain was so excited that she had “spoken to people from completely different cultures, such as Japanese, Chinese, Korean, German…and learned a lot about them!”

Of course, while most people will find initially approaching a new culture fun and interesting, the landscape is also dotted with potential pitfalls. Orientation presents students with tools to be successful in spite of these. These tools naturally focus on approaching American culture but many will serve these young people well regardless of their future, international endeavors.

Exercises focusing on expectations lay the ground work. It’s natural to have a picture in your mind of something entirely new and to which you are really looking forward, but reality is always going to differ from that mental image. To illustrate this, groups of students are presented with a brown lunch bag and are encouraged to speculate together as to its innards.

Laughter fills the room once students finally spill the contents onto the table. Candies, plastic spiders, and everything in between...The lesson? There will be plenty of sweet moments, but there will certainly be challenges along the way as well. For one Chinese student, this was the most important lesson she took from the orientation, “Because it’s true that we have hopes, but we don’t know what is going to happen.” She continued, “It is nice to be surrounded by all of the other exchange students. You feel better being with people in the same situation as you.”

One reflective young man from Germany stated plainly, “Some bad things will happen too.” Exploring some of the common “bad things”—more appropriately dubbed challenges or obstacles—that exchange students encounter always engages the students. As the days draw closer to the one in which they will arrive in their host community, family, and school, being able to grab onto real examples gets the gears turning.

Between the two of them, Pia and Irina from Germany found the problem-solving workshops focused on approaching the host family, homesickness, social circles, and food all very useful. When asked what she learned at the orientation, Pia replied, “Pretty much everything from how to deal with problems to how to handle homesickness.”

Of course, always useful is the now “world famous” PAX fable The Ostrich and the Giraffe (it must be world famous when you think about how many people from all over the world have either read it or acted it out). Anna from Germany was one of the lucky ones who had the chance to act it out, and as she explains in the video summary of her experience, although both animals are confronted with the same situations, it’s the engaged and proactive giraffe who has the successful experience. “Stick your neck out—be a PAX giraffe!” reads the final line of the piece.

So be on the lookout for a giraffe-like exchange student headed to a community near you. That’s a mindset that will serve these students well, no matter how many cultures they explore…or is that just the overly positive, “fixer” American point of view? This intercultural communication stuff is hard!

—The PAX Press Editorial Team