The Importance of Gratitude in Cultural Exchange Programs

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Pablo Edronkin

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In life we all become either good examples or good warnings for others to see; thus, if we make mistakes we must amend them, always.

My family has been dedicated to the participation in cultural exchange programs for high school and college students in one way or another for what is now a quarter of a century; we have gained some insight into the matter and I believe that we are entitled both technically and morally to speak about the issue because we have seen everything from the very good to the very bad and we feel the obligation to warn about not-so-good deeds in order to preclude them from happening again in the future. Cultural exchange is - I believe - a very positive idea that helps people from different nations and extractions to get to know each other, see the differences, understand them and thus become better persons. It is, all in all, a way to avoid negative feelings and prejudices that usually lead to chauvinism, racism, intolerance and other attitudes that both at the individual level as well as the social one are extremely negative.

Becoming an exchange student is not embarking in a long and funny holiday abroad; it is of course a wonderful thing to do and can be very, very exciting, but implies some serious responsibilities as well because exchange students are not tourists but people that should adapt to a new culture in order to assimilate differences, give something and receive something too. It implies becoming a new - if temporary - citizen of a different nation as well as an unofficial ambassador of his or her own land. In other words, becoming an exchange student is a way to learn to value positively all differences instead of turning them into a reason for quarrel and bickering.

Cultural exchange programs rose to existence or at least gained enough relevance soon after WWII when some organizations both in the USA and Germany decided to help a new and terrible conflict from arising by showing youths that the former enemies were in reality just people, perhaps trapped in a tragedy but humans like everybody else nevertheless. And the very fact that we have avoided WWIII so far from taking place is a testament to the effectiveness of many of the measures taken after 1945, including the promotion of cultural exchange programs.

However, such power to change things implies some serious vulnerabilities that must be addressed: What happens when - for some reason - the exchange fails? For if the inconveniences that appear develop into a serious problem, the effect that is obtained differs diametrically from what has been intended. So, if after the stay of an exchange student into a host or foster home, because students don't go into hotels or lodges but family houses, the least that could be said is that the experience becomes a bitter one, and if the attitude of one of the involved parties becomes even worse that just a misunderstanding, the sequels could become very damaging to the rest of the people involved as well as to the whole concept of cultural exchange.

In my personal view, the two most important issues that need to be addressed in this regard are the lack of student adaptation to the new environment and the lack of gratitude, or rather, the expression of it. It is of course the case that sometimes compatibility problems may arise between the host family and the student because nobody is perfect, but I firmly believe that it is the duty of the exchange student more than anyone else's to succeed in adapting and not the host family simply because the member of the latter are doing far more efforts and acquiring a much larger compromise and responsibility despite the fact that these aspects may not become immediately apparent. Lack of gratitude often is manifested by the "disappearance" of the students after their stay of a few months and once they return to their home lands. In some cases, students never get in touch with their former host families again, or very scarcely or ineffectively. This problem also entails a far large responsibility from the part of the student than from the host family because it implies by itself the morally necessary expression of gratitude. It is not enough to say "thanks" while leaving or resorting to formal "thank you" letters by the student's parents once they arrive back home, never to communicate with the hosts again. Host families cannot and must not be treated like cheap lodges. It is morally disgusting and also very unpractical for various reasons.

Hosting a student is not acting like a hotel and involves the investment of much more than money that alone means a significant expenditure. But in order to appreciate what kind of commitment receiving an exchange student implies for the volunteer family we can ask ourselves: How much does it cost nowadays to live alone? In a city like Madrid, a typical European capital, Spartan living means spending about eight hundred euros per month, per person, only to get a small room and little else. In other words, usually far less that the kind of accommodations enjoyed at the kind of foster homes to where exchange students are sent. So, without exaggeration we can say that host families invest about a thousand euros per month to have someone who begins as a stranger at home.

So, how many people in the world are able and willing to invest such a significant amount of money in order to give a teen or young person an invaluable experience in life that probably the father or mother of the family never got themselves? Why not spend that money buying a new car or appliances, in a luxury holiday or in the education of their own children? Why do so with somebody else's son or daughter? Reasons may be plenty, but they all invariable entail a huge generosity: Just add up a thousand twelve times, and you can easily see that foster homes spend about twelve thousand euros to have somebody else at home from whom they are totally entitled to expect at least a minimum degree of gratitude. So it is of paramount importance not to let down such people, because they are simply very hard to find; this is the responsibility of the organisations behind cultural exchange programs but more than anybody else's, it is the duty of the former exchange student as well as his or her family because they have received from very different people from probably a "lower" culture, perhaps poorer or richer, a gift that seldom comes by.

Most people around the world wouldn't even give a few coins per year to the Salvation Army or UNICEF so, in my opinion, foster families involved in cultural exchange programs deserve all the respect and gratitude that can be possibly given back because they make possible a better understanding among humans and provide youngsters with a life-changing experience.

Thus, good or bad deeds in this regard should never be forgotten because time never erases tracks left in this path. Cultural exchange students and their "real" families should ponder these ideas because if they let down those strangers from across the world or treat them with indifference, sarcasm or bad manners, for that would not only be a scam to the pocket, but to the souls of everyone involved.

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