A happy annual rite for me is to participate in a session of HI USA’s summer intercultural exchange program, IOU Respect. This year in Paris, my time with the multinational group was inspiring and even eye-opening. And now with the 2015 post-program evaluation complete, I’m glad to share impressions of my own experience plus some revealing insights from the American participants.
The 2015 IOU Respect program was hosted by our very able colleagues at the French youth hostel association, and included 18-23 year old participants from Egypt, France, Germany, Lebanon, Tunisia and the USA for a two week hostel-based exchange experience. This year’s theme, “Be Free and Responsible”, led to conversations around a range of engaging, sometimes provocative topics, and took full advantage of the lessons of history in the Paris region.
I along with other national association officials joined the group for one day early in their two week journey; the participants had met for the first time just three days before. Our time together began with a morning field trip to nearby Compiegne and the site of the armistice by France, Germany and Great Britain ending World War I. The IOU Respect group seemed to universally view the war’s history as something to learn from, not poke at. That proved to be wise, as after lunch we gathered for a group conversation a few miles away on the lawn of a chateau owned by French emperor Napoleon III, who in a reversal of roles attacked Germany a half century earlier.
History can be complicated, and of course so can cross-cultural relationships.
Yet this group was decidedly focused on the present and the future. With the advantages of an experienced facilitator, they displayed extraordinary collegiality and warmth towards each other. In the safe intercultural space of IOU Respect, they showed a desire to open up and share opinions and ideas. A collective sense of humor was already evident. The random call for a song quickly yielded a guitar and a multinational chorus. My own experience left a feeling of togetherness far better than any holiday Coke commercial.
Two weeks later, the program ended and afterwards the four American participants shared their written reflections. The final sentence of each tells a compelling story:
- “Thanks IOU for everything; I am just reluctant that it’s all over and separated from these people who have planted hope and peace” – Maryam Z, California
- “I have a better understanding of myself, my community, and my world because of IOU Respect” – Joshua A, Pennsylvania
- “Our time together may have come to a close, but IOU Respect 2015 has not ended, merely transformed into a tight knit family flung across the world” – Christopher K, New Jersey
- “There is hope in peace, after all” – Arlinda F, Illinois
IOU Respect is one of several national signature programs offered by HI USA, including Sleep for Peace and the Great Hostel Give Back, with our hostels offering hundreds of others tailored to local interests. Our goal is to create fun, engaging experiences that inspire learning and friendship. If you know someone who belongs, encourage their interest in the 2016 IOU Respect program.