When I was in college, my family hosted a high school student from Russia for a year.
Dasha lived with my parents and younger sister, enrolled in a local school, practiced her English, learned about American culture and in return taught us about her culture and her hometown, the Siberian city of Irkutsk.
Through her, we became an unofficial host family of sorts to two international students from China and Taiwan that she befriended. Those students enrolled at the University of Northern Iowa and kept coming to family dinners and holidays long after Dasha had returned to Russia.
We formed lifelong relationships with a growing international family that branches out to include not just those students, who can always call me their sister, but their parents, and now, the next generation, as Dasha has a new baby.
I think about that exchange, sometimes, when I see the leaders of our countries, the United States and Russia and China, in the headlines.
I think about how we are so much more than our presidents and the world stages they spar on. When she lived with us, Dasha would talk about how different her experience of the United States was from the image she had in Russia, and I think about how easy it is for propaganda and rhetoric to paint not just the leaders of a place, but their people, as an enemy.
Maybe that experience with our international family is why I’m such a fan of cultural exchange programs, two of which are happening now in Eastern Iowa.
The first is the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. It welcomed 36 students ages 15 to 18 from 11 countries and territories in the Middle East and North Africa, 10 cities in the Russian Federation and 10 U.S. states to Iowa City from July 14 through Saturday for the Between the Lines program, hosted in collaboration with the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, part of the U.S. State Department.
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The second is the Mandela Washington Fellowships for Young African Leaders, which brought 25 young leaders and entrepreneurs from across the African continent for an exchange and learning program hosted by the UI’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center’s Venture School program.
These programs are valuable to both the students enrolled in them and to our wider community. It’s harder to divide the world into “us” and “them” when you get to know the “them.” People are just people, and the things that divide us are mostly superficial. Underneath the surface are people who, universally, want the same thing; safety, health and happiness for themselves and their loved ones.
In a time when members of our government refer to people from Central American countries as animals and others claim diversity makes us weaker, this message is more important than ever.
Diversity in all its forms makes us stronger. When we build friendships and share cultural experiences like food, music and literature, we also share ideas, build wisdom and learn from and lean on each other. That is something we should all celebrate.
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