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States' 4-H International Exchange Programs

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The mission of the State 4-H Exchange Program is: Enhancing world understanding and global citizenship through high-quality 4-H international cultural immersion and exchange programs for 4-H aged youth.

More information is available online at:

Illinois -

In 2016, Peoria County 4-H families hosted Japanase youth and adults and one 4-Her traveled to Japan for an 8-week exchange. Below are their stories.

Gwen McDaniel, 17 years old

During the summer of 2015, my 4-H club approached my family about hosting a foreign delegate from Japan. We accepted, and soon welcomed Emi, a 14-year-old Japanese schoolgirl, into our family. For a wonderful month she lived with us, and when she returned home, she invited me to visit her in Japan.

Six months later I nervously sent off my application for an 8-week outbound exchange program to Japan through States 4-H. States 4-H sends American youth between the ages of 12 and 18 on cultural exchanges across the globe, bringing our cultures together through understanding and experience.

In order to apply for the 8-week "Nihongo" program, I had to write several essays and answer perhaps a dozen questions about topics such as 4-H, Global Citizenship, and cultural differences. Though these tasks seemed a little daunting at first, they proved to be incredibly insightful, allowing me to understand both Japan and myself better.

Not long after I submitted my application for the Nihongo program, I received an email with good news. I was in. Over the next few months, information was sent to me regarding my Host Family, the people I would be living with in Japan, details about the Nihongo program, and instruction to attend a nearby orientation. I and the other overseas delegates were provided with a rather hefty "Pre-Departure Manual," which provided a great deal of information on Japan, as well as cultural insights and gift ideas.

Before I knew it, I was off- flying for the first time in my life to Seattle, Washington, where I met up with the other Nihongo students. The other delegates were wonderfully kind and inclusive, and during that first night at a tiny hotel across from the airport, we established a spark of friendship that continued to grow and blossom over the next weeks.

The Nihongo program ran from June 15th, 2016 until August 11th, 2016. Over the course of the first four weeks, delegates would learn and practice Japanese alongside other foreign delegates from Canada. The school was located in the heart of Tokyo, in the bustling Shinjuku district- which is home to the busiest train station in Tokyo, and is a major business center of Japan.

Japanese culture is very different from American culture, putting the benefits of the masses over the benefit of the individual, and relishing in the ability to work together in ways Americans would never imagine. Having been raised learning about and understanding many cultures, culture shock wasn't really a problem for me. That's not saying that I fit right into Japanese culture, because there were times I struggled to understand something- for example the fact that the gesture for "come here" is similar to that for "wait here" in America.

I became very close to my first Host Family in Tokyo. I learned a lot from my host mother, and my 6-year-old host brother Kouki was a great playmate and a very responsible boy. I had an amazing time with them. One of my fondest memories is of spending time at the river by their house, catching fish and frogs with nets and buckets.

After 4 weeks in Tokyo studying Japanese, the first half of the program was over. The Nihongo students were joined by another twenty Americans and Canadians who were staying in Japan for just one month. This was perhaps the saddest moment of the entire exchange- saying farewell to my friends and to my Host Family. After a day at a hotel, I went off to join my second Host Family for the last 4 weeks.

The second month was drastically different. I no longer had daily classes and instead spent my days with my new Host Family. I was fortunate enough to stay with Emi, the girl my family hosted the summer before, and the two of us had many adventures together. My favorite was going to an Onsen- a traditional Japanese communal bath.

Emi's family lived in a small town on rural Shikoku Island, a popular spot for Buddhist and Shinto pilgrims. This quiet city was leaps and bounds from the urban high-tech paradise of Tokyo. I found myself interacting with the community of this city as well as with my family, visiting neighbors to cook traditional Japanese pastries, and attending fun events with Emi's labo friends. Labo is the Japanese equivalent to 4-H and members attend clubs where they practice their English skills and activities.

While staying with Emi's family, I learned a lot about local history. A friend invited the two of us to participate in a Tea Ceremony that she performed, during which participants eat traditional sweets and drink matcha- a thick, strong green tea powder- all the while taking the time to focus on the moment and forget about everything but your current task of drinking tea. I also visited a local castle where I got to wear replica Samurai armor and learn about Shikoku's past.

8 weeks is not a long time. Before I knew it, it was time to return to America. Traveling to Japan has been a life changing experience. I had to push myself physically, like when I climbed a mountain during summer camp, and mentally, like when I had to travel with a small group to a mystery location in Tokyo using the Japanese skills we had learned. I was given the chance to stretch my limits and overcome my fears.

International exchange is an unforgettable experience. I would highly recommend that youth attend a homestay experience in another country and would definitely direct them to States 4-H. Global travel is a way to better understand the cultures of our world. If we can understand others, then and only then can we begin to truly understand ourselves. My experience in Japan has taken me one large step closer to knowing myself. If ever you are given the opportunity for global exchange, take it. You won't regret the decision.

Jen McDaniel, 4-H host family mom

As my teen daughter, Gwen, eagerly walked away from me, through airport security and onto a plane bound for Japan, the world seemed like a very big place. She had prepared for a year to travel through States' 4-H International Exchange to attend a four week Japanese language school in Tokyo, and a subsequent four week homestay with our previous exchange student, Emi, from Shikoku Island. Little prepared me to think of my first born living on the other side of the world for two months!

As far away as my daughter seemed to be, I discovered quickly that the world is not so big. By making connections and relationships with exchange students we reduce this vast globe to a friendly neighborhood where we rely on one another, enjoy the diversity of our cultures, learn new ways of thinking and being, and grow in compassion and connection with each other. When Gwen returned from her exchange, from making new friends, from seeing life in a new perspective, she was not just a well-traveled citizen of the United States, but a citizen of the world.

The year before, Gwen and her brother Ronan and I hosted an exchange student from Japan for four fast, fun, and fantastic weeks in July and August. Miriam Rosenbohm, area coordinator for States' 4-H International Exchange approached us while at Peoria County 4-H Dairy SpIn Club. We were not sure what to expect, but by the end of the exchange. Emi's departure felt like we were losing a member of the family. It's amazing how the heart grows fond so quickly.

This year, with Gwen gone in Japan, I thought it would be neat to host an exchange student again. One of the adult Japanese chaperons who keeps tabs on the forty-some Japanese kids staying in Central Illinois needed a home to call base camp. So we happily welcomed Masako, a Japanese Labo English tutor into our home.

Masako and my family did many things together. We cooked American and Japanese meals, we celebrated birthday parties and mom's nights out, we toured cathedrals and museums, took the garbage to the curb on Tuesday nights, and stretched our abilities in English and Japanese language. And while I learned an immense amount about how things are done in Japan, the true gift for me was to see through fresh eyes my own country and culture. Because of Masako's presence, I fell in love with my own country all over again.

I learned that our marvelously unconventional families are special. Adoptive families, single parents, homeschoolers, and blended families are far from the norm in Japan. Our passion for expressing our faith, whether Baptist or Buddhist, is an American specialty. Our political voices, messy and annoying though they can be, are also a treasure when viewed by someone who did not grow up here. Masako's presence provided me with such valuable insight into my own culture, and at the same time showed me the wonder of her own home's deep and unchanging traditions.
Of course we also became friends... Masako, who insisted she could not cook, whipped up delicious dinners from Japan while we teased one another about our kitchen habits. A mother herself, she indulged my kids with special treats and language lessons. We sang in church together, mourned the loss of each and every dead raccoon we spied by the side of the road (roadkill is rare in metro areas of Japan), and shopped for quirky and interesting gifts for her family. We giggled a lot and sometimes dropped jaws at the surprises we encountered. In Japan there is little wildlife that interacts with people, so every time a squirrel jumped from a fence or electric pole, we had to stop and get a photo.

Food servings at restaurants were shockingly and freakishly huge to Masako. We introduced the doggie bag to her, despite the oddity that such a thing is in Japan. My small, city yard seemed like a vast jungle when compared to the tiny cement and gravel stoops outside Japanese homes. Vast, flowering prairies stunned Masako, as did the perpetual fields of corn and 'edamame' or soy beans. Yet despite these differences, we had more in common than not.

We live in a complex world that, frankly, has many things to be fearful about. War and excruciating poverty, crime and swindling seem to be overabundant realities in our news feeds. But when you actually go to a different country, or bring a country's citizen to your doorstep, the fears melt away. You discover that the world is no scary place, but a wonderful conglomerate of cultural differences celebrated by people who are very much the same at heart. All of us treasure life's milestones such as birthdays and weekly worship. We all eat dinner, get colds, stay up too late chatting with new friends, and spend our days working, learning, or caretaking. No matter what culture you are from, you likely treasure family and friends and look forward to social events.

The United States has a good relationship with Japan, but this was not always so. We can continue meaningful connections between our people. It is easy to do when you host an exchange student or chaperon, or even send your own child overseas, because those one-on-one relationships help us to see past political and cultural differences into the heart of each individual. The flight between Japan and the Midwest is a tedious fourteen hours long, depending on layovers. But the distance between friends is the mere flash of a heartbeat. The world has become smaller, more intimate, and more precious because of international exchange. I encourage you to host a student next summer, or invite a chaperon into your home. Next thing you know, you will be sending your own kids overseas on this adventure that stitches the furthest lands so much closer to home.

Marie Lindahl, 4-H host family mom

Have you ever wondered about hosting a student from another country? The 4-H Student Exchange Program is a great way for families to get to know a student from Japan and learn about a Japanese culture. This was our second year participating in the 4-H Student Exchange Program and my first as a coordinator. The requirements for participating are very simple. First your family needs to have a student between the ages of 11-16. Families don't have to be 4-H members but 4-H members are highly encouraged to participate. Secondly the student has to have their own bed to sleep in. Families wishing to participate do have to go through basic background checks for safety of all and an interview process/home visit with a coordinator.

We first decided to participate in the program because it seemed like a fun way to meet a student from Japan. The exchange is only one month long which was a good fit for our family. With a small home and four daughters, one child did have to "give up" their bed for the month and use other sleeping arrangements (air mattress) . The girls enjoyed making their room ready for our visitor.

This year we hosted Hinata Kiyomoto from Atusgi, Kanagawa, Japan. She is a 12yr. old. She came to use the English she was learning and learn more about our culture. She easily adapted to our daily routine and helped whenever asked. She taught the girls words in Japanese and gave our family gifts from Japan. We all learned about Japan: foods, candies, clothing and more. It helped our family understand similarities and differences between our cultures. They really become part of your family. We miss them so much when they go back to Japan. The best part was all the fun things we did. We went to many of the places our family regularly visits and enjoyed a variety of foods together. The best part about the program is we now have two girls in Japan that have a piece of our heart.

I would highly recommend every family that can to participate in the program. It has been a great joy to share our family with a Japanese student and have them be part of our family. We look forward to participating again next summer.

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