I have been living in the United States for over 13 years, however, my journey to America started 20 years ago, at age 20, in the summer of 1997 with my first cultural exchange experience. I had been studying English for over a year in the hopes to make it into the Work & Travel Program that my sister participated in the year before that allowed students to come to the US to work for the summer. I still remember my excitement as I walked the streets of New York City for the first time, not knowing that one day I would call the Big Apple my home.
Traveling is something that a lot of people love to do and I am not the exception, but at that point in my life I had only been to Aruba to visit my mother and getting to go to New York was a huge deal. Besides the immediate benefit from traveling, I had no idea how my vision of the world would be shaped in the coming months, and the next two years that I would come back to the US for the summer, but I was able to sense my life was about to change in so many ways through this experience.
There are two types of reactions common to people who visit New York City, the immediately hate it or immediately love it. For me, it was the ladder. During the few days I stayed in the city, I fell in love with its landmarks, my favorite being the Empire State building, maybe due in part to the fact that I loved the movie Sleepless in Seattle that came out four years before my trip, or just because it seemed to me like the most emblematic building there. I also enjoyed visiting the Statue of Liberty and seeing the Twin Towers, the ladder captured in the picture above and just a handful of pictures I took that day.
The journey of my cultural exchange experience had begun but I was just too excited and impressed by the beauty of the city to realize it. In my mind, the cultural exchange experience was the one I was going to have after leaving New York to go to New England where I was to spend the summer working for a fudge shop. Knowing what I know today, I understand that the cultural exchange started when I landed at JFK Airport and interacted with the airport customs officer and he suggested I might have different ids with different names. I was so happy to be visiting that I laughed about it, not knowing many Americans of color go through these types of incidents on a regular basis.
My Cultural Exchange Experience: Window To America
The things I valued from my cultural exchange experience at age 20 weren’t nearly as important as the preview I got of America. I began to understand race relations being at the exclusive island of Martha’s Vineyard and noticing more white people lived and stayed in Edgartown, while more black people preferred Oak Bluffs. I knew nothing of the history of segregation and how the dynamics between these two groups of Americans played out; I was just an observer learning history and trying to understand the way things worked.
I simply didn’t know how important understanding those dynamics was going to be for my life in the future. However, this cultural exchange experience was creating the necessary foundation for what was going to be my own assimilation story into the American fabric. It also helped me form a global mentality as I met students from Spain and labor workers from Jamaica who also came to the island that summer to work, each with different backgrounds, stories and reasons to come here.
Many people don’t believe in the power of exchange programs, but I know first hand how important they are in changing one’s perspective, in giving us to connect with others in a different environment, getting us out of our comfort zones and preparing us for living in a global society. At 20, I became more mature, responsible and broaden my perspective not only about Americans, but about different people from other countries.
I came back to the US the following two years and worked for the summer, and each year I had the fortune to meet students and workers from all over. From Poland to France, from Spain to England and from Jamaica to Korea. It was a beautiful experience that taught me that people, at our best, can connect, share and live in peace.
I’m not sure how my life would be today without that life-changing trip 20 years ago; I’m grateful that it led me here, to this moment, and for the amazing experiences it provided during the months I spent in Martha’s Vineyard and the time value it added to the time in between.
Today, as we remember the horror of 911, I’m grateful I was fortunate enough to see New York City with the Twin Towers, 5 years before that tragic day in 2001. That’s just one of the many wonderful gifts I received during my cultural exchange experience.
Were you in a cultural exchange program? Where did you go and how was your experience?