International Exchange Unplugged

“There was a trend a few years ago for music groups to perform “unplugged”.  These groups would perform their songs using acoustic instruments … No longer did the human voice have to struggle to be heard through the screams, thumps, whines and crashes that emanated from electronically amplified instruments … Every element (of an unplugged performance) must be top-notch – the music, the lyrics, and the performers, including the vocalist.   And when all of these elements come together, it is heaven on earth.” – Music Unplugged by Matt Bynum at

At one time or another, we all have been part of groups that uncover an unexpected chemistry.  Perhaps at work, on the sports field or while on travel: personalities click, conversations soar, and the fog clears.  For that moment in time, you feel part of something amazing.

Imagine finding that rhythm in the conversation and activity of nearly two dozen young people from five different countries; one American, two European and two Arabic. 

International exchange unplugged.

The magic was present last Friday at the HI-Chicago hostel, when I attended the final day of the 2012 IOU Respect program, hosted this year by HI-USAThe exchange helps build understanding among Western and Arabic young people, and is hosted in turn by the hostelling associations of Egypt, France, Germany, Morocco, Tunisia and the United States. 

The 19 participants, ages 18-25, had all met for the first time just 13 days earlier.  By the time I joined up with them, they seemed filled with mutual appreciation, prone to shared laughter, and poised to tackle topics that polite circles avoid, like religion and politics.  One participant declared firmly that cultural differences were simply no longer an obstacle.  They were conversing unplugged.

I was prepared to be impressed.  HI-USA’s Megan Johnson, the program facilitator, earlier described the participants as among the most thoughtful and self-aware she had ever met.  One of the national “teamers” (counselors who accompanied the participants from each country) offered she had learned more from the group than they from her.

I joined the participants in a break-out room at the HI-Chicago hostel.  Other national hostelling association visitors included HI-USA board chair Mark Skender and board member Eric Oetjen, and German president Angela Braasch-Eggert.  After a few introductory remarks, we listened raptly:  

*  About the IOU Respect program — the daily dialogue sessions set a positive tone for meaningful exchange, and the group outings an engaging tempo.  (A visit to Willis Tower, break-dancing at a local community center, and attending the “Million Dollar Quartet” play at a Chicago theatre seemed most popular.)  A three day visit to a rural Indiana retreat was a welcome pause for reflection.

*  Among IOU Respect participants –– all voices could be heard.  Considerate listening modulated misunderstandings and disagreements.  Cultural barriers seemingly vanished.

And as the stage for unplugged dialogue, the HI-Chicago hostel lifted the program with its community design and accessible location.

A German participant likened his feeling to when astronauts view earth from space and see no national boundaries.  We are one people.

Then the obvious question: How?  How did they reach this unusually high level of group harmony?

“Open minded” was the response that seemed to resonate best among the offered answers.  For whatever reason, individuals in this group felt each other to be open minded.  Absent the noise of preconceptions and stereotypes, participants could share opinions and ideas safely, without fear of rejection.  Acceptance of diverse personalities was part of the package.

A farewell dinner later Friday evening officially ended the exchange (although the group opted for an encore: an unplanned, post-dinner visit to the HI-USA board chair’s house nearby.)   The next day, they began their flights home. 

Yet my hunch is – for these young people of clear voices, uncommon minds and a world beat – it is just the beginning.  Let’s hope so.


A Friday Night Encore: 2012 IOU Respect Participants with National Hostelling Association Representatives




By | 2018-04-19T18:29:30+00:00 July 23rd, 2012|Our Community|0 Comments

About the Author:

Since 2000, Russ has been the CEO of Hostelling International USA (HI USA), a nonprofit, member organization founded on an enduring belief in the power of travel to foster a deeper understanding of people, places, and the world around. The HI USA hostel network is consistently recognized as one of the best in world by the International Youth Hostel Federation and by independent rating agencies. Russ has been a featured speaker at national and international conferences on topics ranging from experiential education to nonprofit management. Russ serves on the Boards of the UNWTO, US Travel Association, and WYSTC.

Leave A Comment