Exchange Day: The Journey of Cultural Exchange through Community
What connects us to one another; brings us together?
The question of ‘how communities come together,’ and more importantly, ‘how communities stay together’ has always been a relevant facet of the human experience. However, with growing tensions between communities of all forms and types, colors and religions, I find the question is more pressing now than it has been in a long time. So, what brings us together?
In the context of exploring new cultures and broadening horizons, many countries offer reciprocal exchange programs in order to accomplish the end goals of togetherness and solidarity; for the United States, this looks like J-1 Visa Exchange Programs, along with a variety of similar opportunities, where individuals can journey to discover their deepest aspirations and exchange the values and ideals of their respective cultures. To add to the mixture, exchange programs offer everyone involved the opportunity to effect change and foster growth within communities across the globe. Needless to say, the smallest of actions create worldwide change; it only takes one step. However the question still stands: how do communities that are brought together stay together? Let’s start here –
Ralph Waldo Emmerson said it best when he noted, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” One of the main points to take away from Emmerson’s prose is, in my opinion, this: As unique individuals, we acknowledge the fact that living can either separate us or bring us together; this is the choice we are provided, and when we choose the option to be compassionate, honorable, and useful, we see how much more meaning we derive as well as implant into the people around us, our communities.
In fact, the sheer act of giving back creates a communal form of happiness that spreads abundantly across generations; this kind of service encourages and facilitates progress. – as a note, I’d like to acknowledge the term community, meaning, “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” We will approach this concept shortly, however I’d like all who read this to keep the concept in mind.
Annually, the United States takes a day to acknowledge, support, and celebrate the positive influence of international exchange, also known as Exchange Day. On August 5th, 2019, international exchange visitors, employees and community members joined together with Alliance Abroad to not only acknowledge this positive influence, but to spend a day giving back to our communities.
For Alliance Abroad this year, we hosted a variety of service events ranging from school supply drives for local education institutions to working with local Food Banks to conducting city-wide cleanups within local communities. In cities all over the United States, individuals from all walks of life came together to be compassionate, honorable, and useful … and have some fun, which may be the one thing Emmerson threatens to leave out. Nonetheless, as the Alliance Exchange so cleverly put it, this was a day to come together to Eat, Play, and Give.
To continue on the pillar of Service, I believe it is important to acknowledge education as another influential component in regards to how communities come together and stay together. One of the main purposes of Exchange Programs, outside of providing individuals with new opportunities to explore, is to educate one another on the differences we all possess as well as the cultural values and norms that may seem foreign and out of reach to someone who has only known one form of home their entire life. Exchange Programs stand to open our eyes about the ways in which all humans value life, and more importantly, how we as humans value the presence of life itself.
In fact, current program participant, Audia Williams, had this to say about the growth that comes with participating in an Exchange Program: “This program makes you more tolerant of others and it opens your mind. Your mind becomes more open to each and every person.”
With this in mind, it only seemed fitting that for Exchange Day 2019, Alliance Abroad extended our efforts to educational institutions through hosting school supply drives, in recognition that schools, along with the education system itself, are integral pieces of our community that serve to encourage growth, communication, and open minds as well as hearts.
For our Austin, TX community, we partnered with Kealing Middle School, which included collecting over $1,000 in supplies for use in the classroom; our Galveston, TX family also partook in giving back to our schools – specifically the Galveston Independence School District – by donating school supplies and backpacks as well as writing personalized note cards for the students of the Galveston Independence School District. Over 200 AAG participants were present; talk about a celebration! In many ways, education is what ties all of our communities together. Whether it be individuals looking to travel to the U.S. to further their English Language skills or better their knowledge in a specific field or career, having the opportunity to give back to the institutions that connect us all is truly a gift.
This is what I like to call a full circle; when all the pieces of the puzzle come together and fit. As mentioned above, community is defined as [the] feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals. It is important to understand the idea of sharing common interests, attitudes and/or goals.
For many, this sounds more like, to have a community that stays together, everyone must be more or less the same: we must want the same things, seek out similar lives, and operate as such. The truth is, the importance is in both sharing common interests as well as those that differ. Believe it or not, difference is what brings us together. To revisit Audia’s words, tolerance and open mindedness are two phrases of importance.
If we allowed ourselves to stay in the same place forever, we would never move forward, never strive for something more, never #taketheleap to see what happens when we jump. The thing that brings communities together is the desire to learn something new, and to explore. However, what keeps communities together, is our innate ability – along with what I believe to be an innate desire as human beings – to foster growth through difference. To understand a new aspect of the way in which our worlds intersect. To be better than we were the day before.
The opportunity to share and exchange values, ideas, and experiences with another individual is priceless. That is the beauty and importance of international exchanges, and even more so, that is the importance of community. To experience growth in solidarity, we must ourselves be willing to pick each other up from the ground, rather than only picking up ourselves. Simply put, togetherness is key.
Alliance Abroad is passionate about international exchange programs, and strives to offer individuals the opportunity to share values and exchange ideas. For more information about the programs we offer, visit our website and learn about the transformational experience that awaits!
Author and Photography: Austin Johnson