Jesse – Japan Exchange Student – Summer Program Alumnus

An eight-week exchange program in Fukuoka, Japan was the realization of Jesse’s childhood dream. After a warm welcome from his host family, he began learning how to be part of a culture with unfamiliar customs, foods, and a new language! Here is what Jesse wrote about his experience:

Winner of the 2007 National Japanese Language Speech Contest

“The Events of my Shining First Day Studying Abroad in Japan”

Greetings. My name is Jesse Bias. Last summer, through a generous scholarship from the Japanese Business Society of Detroit and Youth for Understanding International Exchange. I was able to study abroad for 8 weeks in Fukuoka, Japan. My exchange in Japan was a very fresh new opportunity, and I was able to experience many new things. Now I would like to take moment and tell you about the events of my first day studying abroad in Japan.

June 18th 2006 was quite possibly the greatest day of my life; why, you might ask? It was the day I arrived in Japan. Since the 3rd grade I have dreamed of someday traveling to Japan, but I never imagined I would have the opportunity to live there for 3 months during high school as an exchange student. The house in which I spent my home stay was a Temple and my host father was a Buddhist priest. When I first arrived in Japan my host family welcomed me warmly into their home, and treated me just as if I was a member of the family. Then they gave me a tour of the house. Afterwards, while my host mother began to prepare dinner my host grandmother and I went and sat by the kotatsu (table). My host grandmother kept talking to me about various topics, but her talking was too fast and difficult to understand. I didn’t want to be rude so I nodded my head and did my best to pretend to understand.

At last my host mother finished preparing dinner. During dinner I was surprised to find that unlike America, Japanese families always eat dinner as a family. During dinner my host family also taught me some of the local dialect, among other things. However, as we were all enjoying the conversation, something bad happened. A cockroach suddenly approached my chair. Until that moment I had never seen a cockroach, especially the size of the ones in Japan, so I immediately jumped up onto my chair in fright. My host mom hurried over with a fly swatter and killed the cockroach, and with that my eye-opening first day in Japan came to a close.

Japanese Language and Culture have made a major impact on my life, and through this exchange I was able to increase my knowledge of Japanese language and culture. Furthermore, because of this experience I intend to attend a Japanese university in the fall, and if possible work in Japan someday. I truly believe that if I hadn’t gotten this opportunity to study abroad in Japan, my life would not be the same.

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Danielle – Australia Exchange Student – Summer Program Alumnus

In six weeks, Danielle would experience all Australia has to offer, including its people, culture, landscapes, history, and wildlife, but most importantly, her host family. Most importantly, 16-year-old Danielle learned a lot about herself. Here is what Danielle wrote about her experience:

I never imagined when I completed the Bard/YFU scholarship application that I would have the opportunity to experience a trip most people only dream about. A six-week trip to experience all Australia has to offer, including the people, the culture, the landscapes, the history, the wildlife but most importantly, the family I was placed with. Who would have thought that I would travel to Australia, on my own, and live with a family that I have never met, especially at the age of 16? I experienced so many different things during my six-week stay. I was also able to learn a lot about myself and grow as a person. For one, I never would have thought that I would be so comfortable meeting new people and living with them without members of my family around to support me. It was definitely an experience of a lifetime. I hope many young people will be able to experience it for themselves.

Looking back on my trip to Australia, I realized that I became more independent. I also realized as a result of this trip that I could get along with others regardless of differences and could deal with any situation. For example, I went through a tough situation with the other exchange student staying with my host family. After a few days of being away from each other, we settled our differences and made the rest of the trip awesome. I realize now that I can handle myself in any situation. For example, I had no problem negotiating the public transportation systems in Australia or dealing with flight changes while in route to both Australia and home again. I can fly by myself and feel confident in doing so. Although, I was pretty independent before this experience, I now realize that there is so much I can do and will do.

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Eric – Japan Exchange Student – Summer Program Alumnus

After a journey across the Pacific, Eric quickly discovered the differences between Japanese and American cultures.  He quickly realized that the key to success there was to be “open to everything and constantly flexible.” Here is what Eric wrote about his experience:

Before my YFU exchange trip, Japan was but a place on the wrong side of the map. It existed only on plastic globes and textbook atlases; it was always there, but never real. When I arrived in Japan, I entered the land I had always known of but never known. Reality did not overcome me—I overcame it. I had come because I’d heard the fairytale too often; I was ready to live it.

“Culture shock” didn’t do the feeling justice. It was like the world had gotten cosmetic surgery while I was sleeping up in the clouds somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Suddenly it was rude not to slurp and putting soy sauce on your rice was like setting the house afire. I was warned of the stark difference between the Japanese and American cultures before departing. I was informed my limits would be bent. So I set upon a goal: not to be snapped. The first thing I realized I must do if I wished to have a successful trip was to be open to everything and constantly flexible. In a week I was rubber.

There were hurdles nonetheless. The most challenging aspect of Japanese life to accustom to was the hidden language, the ritual of saying one thing and meaning another. Speech was a mere formality; physical actions and expressions were the truest form of communication. I could not only listen, but had to watch.

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Chris – Finland Exchange Student – Summer Program Alumnus

Ready for a challenge, Chris traveled to Finland on exchange and learned one of the world’s most difficult languages, made new friends and experienced teenage life in a nation known for being shy and “silent in more than three languages.” Here is what Chris wrote about his experience:

Looking back now, it is amazing to think about how my entire summer in Finland evolved and only then be able to see the beginnings of the countless things I have experienced and learned along the journey. Just months ago, I filled out the application for the FUSYE scholarship with an inclination that I wanted to go somewhere that I never thought I would go. When I found the opportunities for Finland I thought exactly what my friends and family would later say when I applied – “Finland!?? What is there?” That is how I knew that I had to learn about the country.

I had done some background research and that inspired me to truly understand what this nation has to offer. I was impressed with the staggering superlatives of the nation and intrigued by the idea of a lone nation with only 5.5 million people that could affect our world so much – yet also be so humble to go along with its hard work under the radar of the world’s superpowers. I felt the drive to find out how the nation worked and what made it achieve its exemplary statistics and high standard of living. I knew that living there was the only way I could satisfy my desire and curiosity to learn about the nation.

At my YFU interview, filled with questioning about my lifestyle in America and what I looked for in travelling overseas, I was confident in my idea that I wanted a challenge. That is why I wanted to go to Finland. I wanted to learn about this nation that I never knew much about and submerge myself in this foreign culture that I had little preparation for prior to departure.

I wanted to be actively learning amongst a people with a language I have never heard—despite warnings that it was one of the world’s most difficult languages due to its lack of linguistic relatives anywhere in the world. I wanted to prove it to myself that I could make many friends and experience and learn about teenage life in a nation that is stereotypically known for being extremely shy and “silent in more than three languages”. I had my lists and I had mentally prepared myself to step out of this “comfort” zone and really put myself in a situation more foreign than I had ever imagined yet. My expectations for myself were high, and I was ready for the experience of a lifetime.

Check out Chris’s blog to read more about his stay in Finland. And while you are at his blog, don’t forget to read about Chris’s summer in Japan.

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Gretchen – German Exchange Student – Year Program Alumna

In 1959, newly-graduated Gretchen Holstein (17) of Manchester, Michigan boarded a sixteen-hour Flying Tiger Airlines flight bound for Amsterdam. The plane was packed with lively, eager YFU teenagers from across Michigan on their way to an exciting summer program in Europe.

By the busFrom Amsterdam, Gretchen took a long train ride to Balingen, Germany where she was greeted by her new ‘sister’ Renate at the train station.  “I remember talking a mile a minute to Renate, the only one in her family to speak English.”

YFU ‘Sisters’ Celebrate Fifty Years of Friendship

Gretchen continues…

Around a Table“At the time I thought that I was the first American the people in Balingen had ever met!  I felt like ‘Miss America’ in the school classes that I attended with Renate at our local Gymnasium. School was interesting even though I didn’t understand any German.  Dances and parties were frequent as well as walks through the town and weekend trips to castles.  Longer trips took usto Schaffhausen am Rhein, Koblenz and the Black Forest.

WundebarEverything was wunderbar in Balingen. Food, fun and friends made the summer full of many memories.  I remember the Kartoffelpuffer, Koenigsberger Klopse and Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte mit Schlag just like it was yesterday.

German became more familiar with daily doses from Tante Hannchen and Renate’s Oma who lived with her family while helping with lunch dishes. I heard stories about their early life in Koenigsberg, now Kaliningrad and their flight to southern Germany during the war. Rubble was still evident in Koblenz; clean-up and rebuilding from the war took many years.

Returning to GermanyThe YFU experience impressed me so much, that I chose to return the next two summers as well as for nine months in 1963-64. Meanwhile, Renate braved an eight day trip by ship, the Groote Beer from Rotterdam to New York, to come to Michigan to live with my family for almost a year.  Being an only child, she loved the big family of five kids and our dog named Heidi. There was always something happening.  She kept busy with classes in American history, literature and French as well as volunteering at the International Institute of Detroit where she met many interesting people from all over the world. Living in the U.S. sparked her interest in international travel and learning about other cultures.

Strong FriendshipThe bond between us remains strong; we have visited each other about nineteen times over the years- both in the US and Germany.  My parents also visited her parents several times and were present for the groundbreaking of Renate’s house in Vaterstetten in 1976.

Recent PhotoMy love for YFU led me to volunteer as an AO Representative, a Flight Leader, an Alumni Coordinator, and a host parent for a student from the Netherlands. Renate and I recently celebrated our fifty years of friendship with a two week trip in New York City, Maine, and Boston. I can’t believe it’s been fifty years!  Wunderbar!  Vielen Dank YFU!

Gretchen Holstein Hull
Renate Sauerbaum Bruessow


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Andrew – Germany Exchange Student – Year Program Alumnus

Andrew TownAs 2009 came to a close, Andrew Towne donned his tuxedo and welcomed hundreds of guests to the opulent Carnegie Institute for Science in Washington, DC. A crowd of nearly 400 turned out for the New Year’s Gala which benefited YFU USA. Along with his co-organizers Joehn Favors and Tony Cotto, Andrew arranged for an evening of dancing, party games, and music. Ticket sale proceeds were donated to YFU and will help support a high school outreach campaign. Interested in organizing an event such as this one?

Read Andrew’s responses to seven questions about how to best host an event of this caliber.

1) You ended up donating thousands of dollars that you could have kept as your own. Why was it so important that the NYE Gala help support a nonprofit organization such as YFU USA?
Knowing how much the recession was hurting non-profit organizations made me wonder what I might be able to do to help YFU weather the storm.  I considered multiple fundraising options, and a New Year’s Eve Gala was the option that seemed most fun and practical.

NYE Gala2)What were the primary challenges in hosting the Gala? How did you overcome them?
Luckily, the Gala kind of threw itself.  I mean, people are generally looking for something fun to do on New Year’s Eve, and when you offer them an option that is cheaper than most alternatives and benefits international academic youth exchange, how can they say no?  The YFU staff also assisted, particularly on legal and insurance issues.  And of course my two co-hosts, Joehn Favors and Tony Cotto made the event go well; what really inspired me about them was the way that they seemed to get more and more excited about the event and about YFU as time went on.  We really did this as a team.

3) What were the unexpected hurdles on the night of the Gala?  

The DJ’s system was much larger than we expected, so it took a bit longer to set up than we had budgeted.  But everything worked out fine, because we were able to close off the dance floor for the first hour to allow people to mingle while he finished setting up.  In the end, most people said they had no idea the delay was unplanned.

4) What was the most rewarding aspect of planning the Gala? 
That’s easy! The most rewarding aspect was definitely the knowledge that we were helping YFU reach out to more schools and open more doors to more exchange students.

5) What advice would you share with the 1700+ YFU USA volunteers who wish to organize similar events?
Just do it!  Find two to four people willing to go in with you, rent a venue that you think you can fill, and start looking for caterers, music, etc.  If you build it, they will come!  And it doesn’t have to be a gala-style event.  It could be a 5K footrace, a team athletic event (like a mountain climb) that a group does to raise money, or any number of other things.  I am happy to speak to anyone who is interested in raising money for YFU about possible ideas and first steps toward making them a reality.  My email address is

Andrew Town6) How did you utilize social media to generate such a strong turnout?

We didn’t want the party to be a “public” party, i.e. we felt it would be safer for us if every attendee were a friend or a friend of a friend, and so on.  So our webpage was not discoverable via Google or any other search engines; you had to have been given the link to get there.  And we didn’t advertise in the local papers.  Instead, we cultivated the notion of “patrons” who brought ten of his/her friends (who had not been invited by us directly) and gave them VIP status for doing so.  We ultimately had twelve patrons, so that concept alone resulted in approximately 120 guests.  We also hit up our personal networks like crazy and asked many people if they would be willing to send our promotional email to their college’s local “DC-based-alumni” email list, if such a list existed.  We figure we sent the invitation to over 10,000 people that way.

7) As an alumnus and active volunteer, what drives you to continue to give back to the organization?
My 1998-99 YFU exchange year in Germany changed my life, as I suspect YFU exchange experiences change the lives of many alumni.  My year abroad made me confident, responsible, tolerant and independent, and it gave me friends and a language that I will never lose.  How could I NOT give back to an organization that gave me so much? I volunteer now because I enjoy the regular interaction with an internationally-oriented community of students and volunteers, and I want YFU to succeed as an organization, because I believe that academic youth exchange is one of the most effective ways of breaking down the cultural misunderstandings that can be at the core of so many difficulties in international negotiations.  A world in which more young people are able to benefit from an academic exchange experience is a bright world, indeed, in my opinion.

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Andy – Japan Exchange Student – Summer Program Alumnus

Hemeiji Castle JapanBeing accepted into the YFU program in 1978 was a great opportunity for me.  I had a strong passion for everything Japanese and I was thrilled to be accepted into the Japan program.  There was not much information about Japan in rural Maine in the late 1970’s.  Not much on the news, and the Internet was just a dream.  The local and school libraries only had a few books about Japan, and I had them checked out most of the time.

When my trip was finally a reality I was placed with a wonderful family with whom I remain in close contact even today.  The experience changed my life and made such an impression that, after so many years, it has been documented in my short book, Back to Japan: The Chronicles of an American Teenager in Japan.  Here is an excerpt…

We drove for what seemed like hours and all I wanted to do was sleep.  I read it was bad manners to fall asleep while riding in someone’s car in Japan, and I was very conscious of not wanting to offend anyone.  If I had them, I would have used toothpicks to prop my eyelids open.  Jetlag had me.  Mr. Sugiyama kept telling me to go ahead and sleep, but oh no, not me, I wasn’t about to offend anybody on my first day in Japan.  It got darker and darker and I had captured a second wind as we finally turned into a driveway.  We got out of the car.  I collected my bag and moved toward the house.  A warm glow from the front light cast shadows along the walkway.  I could not see too much and even if I could, I was so overwhelmed it wouldn’t have mattered.

JapanThe whole family greeted us at the door and it was a bit over powering, but they were as curious as I was.  Mrs. Sugiyama was waiting as we walked into the entryway and I think she was a little surprised when I automatically slipped off my shoes, (and boy did that feel good.) before I stepped up from the tile onto the polished wooden floor.  She seemed to pause as if she was going to tell me to take of my shoes, and then decided I didn’t need the coaching.  She was able to educate me on the in-house slippers everyone wears however.  This means that when I step up onto the wooden floor of the house I am to put on a pair of slippers meant for inside use.  I slid my feet into the slippers, but my heels hang over the end because my feet are larger than the slippers.  I set my bag down just at the edge of the wooden area and it disappeared into the house in a matter of seconds.

While I am biased and think my story is special and in many ways unique, I can’t help but wonder if what I have experienced might help a new generation see the Japanese culture for a little more than just Sushi and Anime.  When you look at Japan from the outside you see the bright lights, the plastic food and the packed cities.  Being an exchange student gives you a truly exceptional opportunity to see a country from the inside.  Not as a tourist, but as part of a family.  Imbedded, you might say.  You will gain a unique perspective that will be something you can carry with you for the rest of your life.  It can be a fond memory from your teenage years, or it can be a launching pad for bigger things, like a career that involves your host country.  What you do with your YFU experience is your decision to make, just make one.

I tried for years to score a job in Japan.  When I finally did get a job there with the U.S. Government, I was excited beyond belief.  Someone was going to pay me to go to Japan.  When my wife and I told our friends we were moving to Japan they would ask, “Ja-pan?  Why do you want to go to Ja-pan?” or “Wow, you’re gonna see a lot of Ty-odas and Geeshas”, and of course my favorite, “Hope you like Chinese food!”  One of my friends did say, “Well, if that’s what you want.”  That moment was defining.  It essentially made me see how stagnant my life might become if I did not do this.  If I’ve learned anything in my life it is this – You have to weigh the risk with the pros and the cons but sometimes you just have to go for it.  If you get a chance to do something, especially if it is something you are really passionate about, and even if you are ridiculed for the idea, do it.  I think that 9 times out of 10 you will not be sorry.  So in 1997 I packed up my house, my wife and our 10-year-old son, and took them all to Japan to live.

We spent three wonderful years in Sasebo, about 45 minutes drive North of Nagasaki on the Southern island of Kyushu.  My family and I were able to be fully involved with the local community with things like recycle drives and fire prevention education, disaster drills and festivals.  It was an adventure for all of us but like my visit as an exchange student, the time passed too quickly.  My three-year contract was expiring and we had to leave.  My wife and son took from the time in Japan a greater understanding of the Japanese culture and a better appreciation of my passion.  I look forward to many more trips to Japan and hope to work there once again.

J. Andy Bailes – Japan 1978

YFU recently interviewed Andy about his exchange and upcoming book. To read the interview click here. To purchase the book, click here.

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