[Editor’s Note] While the Department of State’s in-person exchange programs remain on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re taking steps to safely facilitate people-to-people exchanges alongside our implementing partners. Today, we reflect on one of the most memorable experiences of these exchanges and discuss how we are adapting to the pandemic’s challenges.
From time to time, the La Jeunesse family of Cincinnati, Ohio, revisits an event that happened 17 years ago when they opened their home to a group of Afghan visitors and their interpreters for dinner. The “home hospitality” was part of the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and implemented by the . Home hospitality is often one of the most memorable activities for both the international visitors and the Americans who volunteer to host.
In 2003, the Afghan delegation spent several weeks in the United States to study the diversity of religious faiths. The La Jeunesse family invited four of the participants over for dinner so they could share a meal in a typical American home for home hospitality. The Afghans relished sharing such a unique experience with the family. The chicken couscous and the poppy seed bread were crowd pleasers – so much so that the visitors asked to take some back to their hotel.
Over dinner, the family, visitors, and their interpreters discovered that, despite their differences in languages and customs, they shared a sense of commonality. The Afghan visitors highlighted familiar themes of security, food, and education when talking about important issues in their country. Mr. La Jeunesse recalled, “It was unusual to have contact with anyone from Afghanistan, let alone have them come to our home for dinner.”
Mr. La Jeunesse’s first exposure to international exchange was in the 1960s in Detroit, Michigan, when his parents hosted a group of visitors from China, Iran, and Jordan. The impact of his early childhood memories with international visitors, combined with his own study abroad experience, inspired Mr. La Jeunesse to volunteer with the World Affairs Council of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky and Rotary International for over twenty years. Mr. La Jeunesse has met with numerous IVLP participants over the years – including journalists from Pakistan and India, and the Supreme Court Justice of the Republic of Guinea-Bissau. He remains involved in public diplomacy as a co-chair of the World Affairs Committee at Rotary Club of Cincinnati.
The impact of home hospitality has continued with the next generation of the La Jeunesse family as each of the children regularly connects with international visitors. Mr. La Jeunesse credits the dinner with the Afghan group as a seminal moment for his daughters, adding to their motivation to learn languages. The Afghan visitors in 2003 experienced true Midwestern hospitality, met with many different professionals across the country, and left with a more nuanced understanding of the United States. Likewise, the American family gained much in return.
Edward R. Murrow, former director of the U.S. Information Agency, once said, “The real crucial link in the international exchange is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact, one person talking to another.” During the current pause in in-person exchanges, IVLP programs continue virtually. The La Jeunesse family is considering how they can continue their international engagement during the pandemic. They are, “getting used to the world of virtual connections and are open to the virtual home hospitality concept.”
Recently, implementing partner held a “bring your own dinner” virtual hospitality featuring five IVLP alumni from Australia, Barbados, Brazil, and Romania. Attendees were “seated” with one of their international guests in Zoom breakout rooms based on their interests and discussed their work in areas including TV production, business innovation, and environmentalism. During this time of self-isolation, people-to-people connections shown through with this creative virtual exchange.
The World Affairs Council of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky and Citizen Diplomacy International of Philadelphia are members of Global Ties U.S., a national network of nonprofits that focus on exchange programs.
About the Author: Ingrid Liu was an intern in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Office of International Visitors at the U.S. Department of State and is currently preparing for graduate school.