“We turned and sailed away … feeling that whatever the future might have in store, the treasures we had gained would enrich our lives forever.”
— John Muir
One recent Friday, when I normally would have been getting ready for high school final exams, I was getting a different kind of education. I was hiking through the woods in Nässjö in southern Sweden with an Australian, a Swiss and two other Americans. We had decided to spend a break from school to go exploring. During the weekend, we were joined by other students from Australia, Sweden, Thailand, Brazil, New Zealand, Mexico and Canada and spent our time sharing stories of our experiences abroad.
We are all exchange students through the Rotary Youth Exchange, a program that offers students between the ages of 15 to 18½ a chance to spend up to a year abroad, going to school and experiencing life in a foreign land. Seventy percent of American high school students who study abroad do so through Rotary Youth Exchange. I wish that every student could have these opportunities, but experiences like this may now be in danger.
Under the president’s proposed budget, the U.S. State Department is facing deep cuts. For example, the department’s educational and cultural exchange programs, which include the well-known Fulbright program, are facing a reduction of more than 50 percent. In addition, the high school exchange visitor program (J-1 visa), which is overseen and managed by the State Department, is at risk of being dramatically reduced or eliminated. While students like me benefit from the hospitality of host families in foreign countries, the program, which is funded by Rotary clubs, districts and students, works because parents in the United States agree to host students from other countries in return. Students from overseas come to the United States under the J-1 visa authorization, and if that goes away, the whole program could be in jeopardy.
This is part of my greater concern that President Donald Trump’s “America first” policies and talk are having a negative impact on America’s relations around the world. I know I have been experiencing this here in Sweden where I have been peppered with questions about our new president. Recent stories also suggest that his anti-immigrant policies are discouraging international students from coming to the United States for college.
We are essentially building a wall around our country that will not only block out other people and cultures but keep the knowledge curve of other cultures stagnant within our own. The ideas and opinions that circulate within that wall won’t have the opportunity to be challenged or changed. The less people know about other cultures, the more problems our world will have. The job of any student who decides to study abroad is that of an ambassador who tries to improve relations. This is needed now more than ever.
Granted, this particular program is not for everyone, and it was not an easy decision for me. I decided to postpone my senior year at Maria Carrillo High School to spend a year in a country where I did not know the language, the customs and, most of all, the people. I’ve since learned all of those things — and learned much about myself in the process.