It was bitterly cold while walking to school that morning and even the snow seemed to protest as it made a nasty, crunchy noise with each step I took. I was a junior in high school and, while sitting in my French class that morning, I day dreamed of being in France and speaking French instead of freezing in northern Michigan and conjugating French verbs.
Later that day I saw a magazine ad for Youth for Understanding offering an application form for a live and study abroad and exchange program. Even though my family was of very lower middle class and modest means and no one had been further than 100 miles from home; I responded, not knowing how my life was about to be changed forever.
I completed the application, got accepted for placement in France and had to tell my parents, gain their support and figure out how to pay for the program. With the months before my departure quickly ticking away, I finally approached them and explained I’d been accepted into a study and exchange program in France. They were dumbfounded. “Why do you always have to do things nobody else in this town has done,” my father wanted to know, adding, “You’ll miss the football season.” Slowly, I wore them down (as all strong willed children should do) and got my way. I emptied my savings, relatives gave me small gifts of money and my parents finally agreed to open our home to my French brother who would be returning with me. Before I knew what had happened, I was stepping off an airplane in France and being greeted by my host family’s father and son.
Although the entire experience was great, it was also filled with loads of challenges that made it perfect. My French mother wasn’t a fan of America and let me know it every day. I learned to smile nicely and nod in understanding. My French father made me read the newspaper to him each night, explain what I’d just read but using words different than those in the newspaper and, each time I made a mistake, he’d tap my knuckles with a ruler, just like the Catholic nuns must have done to him. I responded by working harder, getting better and got tapped less. The first weekend I was there, the family took me for a ride to Villefranche and, while walking through a shop, the camera which I’d had carelessly slung over my shoulder, knocked over a display of expensive glassware, which I had to pay for and which used up every penny of spending money I had to my name. I started doing small odd jobs for neighbors for cash. Food in the home was also a challenge. For breakfast, my host family ate a very small Petite Dejeuner consisting of a small croissant and a quick cup of very strong coffee. Their favorite lunch (served beautifully and frequently) was a mound of raw ground horsemeat with a couple of raw eggs resting atop it and a salad of crisp greens. No matter how much Worcestershire Sauce I drowned my serving of Cheval in, forcing it down my throat was never easy. I learned how to hide what was left on my plate under a few lettuce leaves, offered to clear the table and scrape the plates and quickly figured out where I could buy really good French street food inexpensively.
The exchange program, back when I was Junior in high school, was the single most formative experience in my life? After losing almost all my spending money I really learned how to stretch a franc. I began to understand that the US makes up less than 5% of the world’s population and that 95% of the world sees many things differently than we do and that one side/my side isn’t always right. I’d had two years of high school French and could hardly speak the language but, upon my arrival, I had no choice but to start cobbling nouns and verbs together in order to be understood.
My exchange program provided me a foundation of thrift, resourcefulness and resilience, the start of an inclusive world view, the ability to communicate with others, a fierce sense of self-reliance when confronted with challenging circumstances and aroused in me a curious mind that has taken me to more than 100 countries and cultures. The gift of experiencing and living in another culture and language proved to be priceless for me and that’s why giving other students the opportunity to live and study internationally is an integral part of our family’s estate plan. Being an exchange student was a lifelong gift that should be repaid. For the record: I still don’t like raw horsemeat.