By Monica Schreiber
Visiting another country as an exchange student is a life-changing experience. Immersing yourself in a different culture and language leads to exciting new adventures and offers the rare opportunity to see the world from a new perspective. That’s certainly what we hear from the many young people who have participated in Neighbors Abroad exchange programs since the 1960s.
But it can all be overwhelming. Living with strangers. Navigating a new language. Being completely out of your comfort zone. Maybe even limited access to Starbucks (the horror). The payoffs are huge in terms of life experience, but it takes some effort to make the most of it all.
When you’re visiting another country, whether on a Neighbors Abroad program or in any other capacity, you represent your home country. Fair or not, even well intentioned people often will make sweeping generalizations about “Americans” based on how you behave. This can be especially true for teens. The teens we send abroad—we think of them as Young Ambassadors—don’t just represent the United States, they proudly represent Palo Alto and the greater Silicon Valley region.
That said, with a few tricks and gentle reminders, any teen (or adult!) can go forth into the world with all the confidence of a foreign diplomat. Here are a few tips for winning hearts and minds – and ultimately having the time of your life:
The great thing about these practices is that they will serve you well at any point in your life, whether you’re navigating high school, college, starting a new job, or embarking on a new relationship. Ask questions, be engaged, smile, try new things, express gratitude, use your knife and fork correctly, and … Put. Down. Your. Phone.
Neighbors Abroad offers long-running exchange programs in Oaxaca, Mexico, and Tsuchiura, Japan. We also offer opportunities for students and adults to visit our Sister Cities in other capacities. Click here for brief summaries of Neighbors Abroad’s exchange programs. Email email@example.com for more information. I’ll put you in touch with the right person.
By Sarah Burgess
I’ve always heard that life comes full circle, but perhaps never fully appreciated that saying until now.
In 1975, I went to Oaxaca as part of the Neighbors Abroad exchange program. That summer experience (six weeks in Oaxaca, four more weeks with our Oaxaca siblings here) changed my perspective on life, my cultural awareness, and made me a Spanish speaker. I made lifelong friends. I danced the Guelaguezta dances I learned in Oaxaca in the May Fete Parade and at Neighbors Abroad functions. The next year I got my first summer job working for Adventure Travel Service in Palo Alto where one of the owners was the President of Neighbors Abroad at the time. I made travel reservations for the incoming exchange students, and chaperoned the Oaxacan kids going to Disneyland and back home. Of course, life catches up. I graduated from college and law school, my Oaxacan family and I lost touch, I had a family of my own, I used Spanish in my legal practice and hoped it wasn’t getting too rusty.
Fast forward to 2018, when I chatted with Bob Wenzlau, who I knew from our kids' school and sports. Turns out, he was now President of Neighbors Abroad, which I knew was being reinvigorated. Finding out about my Oaxacan connection, he asked if I’d help with Oaxaca. In saying yes, I thought I’d be giving back.
Turns out Neighbors Abroad is the gift that keeps on giving. I have been so enriched, once again, by my involvement. What a wonderful, hard working group of people to work with and make friends with--all devoted to international relationships.
My high school Oaxaca connections have continued to grow, as well. One of the students I had chaperoned, Flor Sanchez, is a principal in our partner, Vidas y Suenos, and succeeded me as VP of Oaxaca. When I visited Oaxaca in April 2022, a surprise awaited me: my Oaxacan mother, with whom I had lost touch, was waiting to see me at the Albergue Josefina, a home for vulnerable children whose families cannot care for them. Neighbors Abroad has supported the Albergue for many years.
I take over as President from Bob Wenzlau, who has done so much for Neighbors Abroad - brought it from an organization which was searching for present day relevance to the place we are today. I cannot thank him enough for all the effort he has put in--and the results are clear. In the last week, I have met with representatives from Ukraine, China, and Sweden, all trying to accomplish the same mission: to create relationships which transcend politics and national constricts and see each other as people, living in the same world.
Join us. We are working together to form friendships, promote a sustainable future, make connections on a personal as well as business level, and create education and cultural opportunities. Everyone is welcome.
In January 2023 I finished eight years as president of Neighbors Abroad. The memories form a many sided box. A side for accomplishment, a side for friendships made, a side for the discovery of culture, a side for furthering an institution. While it is hard to place any lid on this box, I am delighted to ponder the fullness and weight of a life changing experience.
Two articles by the Palo Alto Weekly, the first article from 2013, and the second article from 2022 provide convenient brackets to my 8 year tenure as President of Neighbors Abroad. Each offers a separate lens of where we were as an organization when beginning and winding down my term as President. Skipping to the chase, we made great progress establishing our relevance to serve Palo Alto’s international and now domestic engagement. Yet our incoming President Sarah Burgess, and our leadership team including myself as a president emeritus, still have many of the challenges identified in 2013. This post shares our progress as an organization, and closes with a few personal anecdotes that are the icing on the cake to a rich and productive term.