Intercultural Virtual Exchanges Provide Youth Opportunities to Develop Understanding and Create Communities
Cultural exchange is as vital as ever; it forms the ultimate reality check to a worldview based on stereotypes. Founded in 1951 to offer the world a new beginning after the devastation of World War II, our intercultural exchange organization, Youth For Understanding (YFU), has been altering perceptions one person at a time through a core program that offers high school students the opportunity to spend up to a year living and studying abroad. Aside from their marriages and the births of their children, YFU alumni cite their time as international exchange students as the most important moment of their lives. Passionate belief in the benefits of intercultural exchange inspires us now to make the model stronger still – and extend it to meet the needs and aspirations of people who may never be able to participate in a traditional exchange.
In 2016 YFU announced the creation of a Virtual Exchange Initiative to expand on its mission to advance intercultural understanding, mutual respect, and social responsibility through educational exchanges for youth, families, and communities. The pilot program encourages online open dialogue among teenagers in the US and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Perhaps most notable is that YFU’s virtual programs aim to be inclusive in nature, ensuring a voice is given to young women, minorities, migrants, the academically vulnerable, socially isolated and underrepresented students. YFU’s Theory of Change asserts that underserved youth who have little or no access to physical exchange benefit from the mind-opening opportunities offered through a virtual experience. Further, the accompanying programmatic activities can bring personal growth and empowerment opportunities a) leading to community engagement for peaceful interaction and b) encouraging young leaders to emerge and become peer mentors, leading to peacemaking on a broader scale.
In line with the concept of the “Third Place,” participants of YFU’s Virtual Exchange Initiative are invited to engage with students from around the world in a safe environment, one that contributes to the development of cross-cultural understanding and the creation of a sense of community. Broadly defined, the “Third Place” is where one goes to feel free to express her/himself as an individual, while also feeling a sense of belonging within a community.
The “Third Place” (or Third Space) is named after its position behind being at work or home. It typically brings a sense of satisfaction or happiness, perhaps in part because it often removes barriers of pre-defined social roles. For example, in the case of a teenager, at home they play the role of child within the family; at school (the equivalent of a work space) they play the role of student within a defined educational structure; in the “Third Place,” they have more freedom to choose their own social role.
Historically the “Third Place” has also had a location – the corner café, a bar, the library, and other such physical spaces – as defined individually by person. In the United States, Starbucks capitalized on this concept for years, providing a neutral space for Americans across a wide demographic spectrum, in which customers were welcomed as friends, recognized as regulars, and made to feel a part of the “Starbucks community.”
We assert that in a modern context, the same experience can be achieved for youth across international boundaries through virtual spaces. For some, like those who have experienced hardship or been impacted by conflict, the virtual sphere provides a peaceful place to express individuality, demonstrate curiosity and develop empathy. Behind the educational and cross-cultural components of the YFU Virtual Exchange Initiative lies the opportunity for students to discover their “Third Space.”
American sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote how community spaces are essential to civic society and engagement. His theory proposes that there are eight hallmarks of the “Third Place” to include: neutral ground, a leveling place, conversation (as the primary activity), accessibility and accommodation, the regulars, a low profile, a playful mood, and a home away from home.
These characteristics are applicable to the Virtual Exchange Initiative. YFU’s virtual exchanges are neutral spaces, separate from the formal obligations of work/school and home, where one can come and go at will, especially as related to the asynchronous programs. Each student enters the forum on a level playing field; there are no political, socio-economic, religious, or demographic factors that limit participation. Each student is provided equal opportunity and support from facilitators to engage with and learn from each other. Conversation, whether through words, images, or video, is the primary activity, and thematic prompts encourage playful, positive, and meaningful dialogue on topics such as culture, conflict and current events. Technology is rapidly becoming more widely available, allowing organizations such as ours to introduce opportunities for intercultural understanding to students from developed countries, remote areas and crisis zones alike. “Third Places” are notorious for accepting all individuals, therefore, it is a space where one feels included, and the absence of pretense and competition encourage open expression. Providing a “home away from home” the virtual exchanges stimulate positive emotions and psychological comfort in feeling like one is rooted within a global community of peers and friends.
The YFU Virtual Exchange Initiative promotes our sense of common humanity and reinvents the intercultural exchange movement for the new age, providing students the opportunity to advance communication competencies, grow as individuals, and become active members of our greater global society. By removing barriers to participation within traditional in-person exchanges, we are helping to close a very real gap, and building cross-cultural bridges of understanding amongst individuals who might typically never travel past the borders of their home communities. This program as a “Third Space” enables the teenage voice to get through more clearly than those of seasoned diplomats. Through their everyday interactions, students break down the stereotype of “the other,” while learning to embrace similarities and appreciate differences. The opportunity for interpersonal diplomacy that young people hold in their hands can change the perception of classmates, of communities, and, ultimately, of countries.
About the authors: Erin Helland is the Director of Virtual Exchanges at Youth For Understanding USA (YFU). Olga Smolenchuk is an Atlas Corps Fellow from Russia serving at YFU (Washington D.C., USA), PhD Student (Tomsk State University, Russia).