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Ten years ago, as Facebook is quick to remind us, we unpacked our suitcases and brought out the photo albums to share with family and friends. We were 17 years old and had just returned to our homes in Serbia from an exchange year in the United States.

We didn't know it then, but taking part in the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program would become an undercurrent of everything we have done in our lives since. A decade after our return, we look back at our exchange experience fondly.

At a time when societies across the world seem to be falling apart and universal values questioned, it is important for us to speak up in defense of cultural exchange. Because they brought us closer in the following ways:

Closer to foreign people and a culture unlike our own.

We are of a generation that does not have happy memories or a good image of the United States. We grew up visiting the museum which houses the remains of a downed American fighter jet that dropped bombs over Serbia just as we were enrolled in primary school. We knew of the difficulties of obtaining a visa for travel abroad. Yet, beyond Hollywood screens, we knew very little about life abroad or in the United States.

A year spent living with American host families and becoming an integral part of our American host communities in Washington state (Bojan) and Arkansas (Kristina) changed this. Our host families took care of us as one of their own. They shared with us their home and food--a lot of food in particular during the annual Thanksgiving celebrations--their ways of life and perspectives of the world.

Our host communities allowed us to unleash our potential and experiment with new identities. We became cheerleaders (Kristina) and history nerds (Bojan) in our haphazard efforts to be high-school "cool." Along the way, we picked up American slang and were introduced to the joys and pitfalls of American adolescence: bonfires, football games and homecoming dances, among others.

America was no longer foreign. To Americans, Serbia too became less distant and strange. In subsequent years, our biggest joy was hosting each of our American host families in Serbia. They got to enjoy our hospitality, and a lot of food as well.

Closer to our homeland.

At an early stage in our lives we were given a solid reference point on how different our lives and that of our peers at home could be. We came to appreciate our tight-knit communities and lifelong friends even more. We became more aware of how lucky we were to have supportive families who were open to sending their teenage kids abroad to live with strangers.

Yet we felt equally exasperated by the lack of opportunities to shape our communities for the better. We quickly experienced reality checks familiar to many who return from abroad. Upon suggesting new ideas, we were met with criticism and quips. "Stop pretending you know better!" In the background, countless stories of loved ones and occasionally a news broadcast (when not censored) would remind us daily of pervasive corruption, ever-growing unemployment and apathy.

The crushing weight of our everyday realities was daunting. The opportunities abroad were too tempting. We left again. And again, and again.

Arrival in each new city and country became less challenging. Striking a friendship and finding common ground with someone who had a vastly different upbringing than ours was achieved with little effort. Charting new territories--in our thinking, work and personal lives--became easier. For all of these journeys paled in comparison to leaving home at 16 to live with an unknown family in a country you were taught to believe was hostile.

Closer to each other.

We remain close friends who regularly keep in touch. Our stories often entail cheering each other on, offering comfort, or sharing stories from the latest adventure. This has been no small feat, especially since our paths cross only occasionally and never longer than for a few weeks at a time.

The educational, inter-cultural and professional opportunities we have enjoyed are a form of privilege others have bestowed on us. We are grateful. The opportunity to transition cultures and borders has historically been reserved for the wealthiest few, the global elite. Not two teenagers, now young adults, from small towns in eastern Europe.

Exchanges are not always easy, and at times are tragic. We were devastated to learn recently that one of our own, Sabika Sheikh, a Pakistan high-school exchange student on a similar government program, was killed recently in a mass shooting in her Texas high school.

But without youth cultural and educational exchanges, what does our common future hold? More fear, echo chambers and pernicious nationalism. We were raised in the Balkans in the 1990s. This behooves us to underscore to all the value of cultural exchanges and continued investment in them by the current U.S. administration. They bring the American people closer to the world and others to America's distant shores.

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Bojan Francuz, originally from Baki Monoštor, Serbia, was a high-school exchange student at Stanwood High School in Stanwood, Wash., in 2007-08. He is currently Public Leadership Fellow at the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation and a visiting researcher at McGill University in Montréal, Canada.

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Kristina Koprivica, originally from Kovin, Serbia, was a high-school exchange student at Lavaca High School in 2007-08. She is currently working as a marketing manager at the Export Council of Australia in Sydney.

Editorial on 07/01/2018

Print Headline: Benefits of cultural exchanges

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