Youth Exchange Program
Sending Children Abroad to Help Them Grow Up
Two educators sent their son abroad under Rotary International's Youth Exchange Program to live with families they did not know. Why were they willing to send him far away, to the point of missing a key year of school at home?
Sending Children Abroad to Help Them Grow UpBy Youth Exchange Program
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 419 )
Yang Chin-yuan never imagined that sending his son Yang Shang-hsuan far away from their Toucheng, Yilan County home would actually make him stronger than he would have been had he remained at home under the care of his parents and grandfather.
Shang-hsuan was the stereotypical Taiwanese child – well-behaved and good in school. His grades at Yilan Senior High School were above average. But it was unclear what his aptitudes were, and he did not have any concrete ambitions for the future, which drove his father to distraction. Yang Chin-yuan often prodded him with questions like, "Why have you studied for only 30 minutes since coming home?" and "Do you want to apply for the advanced language class?"
Yang Chin-yuan is a professor at Cardinal Tien College of Healthcare and Management, while his wife, Chiang Shu-kuan, has been teaching kindergarten for more than 20 years. Yet despite their backgrounds as educators, this couple faced the same anxiety as other parents over how to motivate their son and do what was best for him.
In Shang-hsuan's junior year in high school, his father resolutely decided to send his son to a foreign country to live with host families none of them knew.
Cutting the Umbilical Cord
Yang Chin-yuan encouraged his son to join Rotary International's Youth Exchange Program.
Unlike a short overseas study program or simply traveling independently in a foreign country, the Youth Exchange Program requires exchange students to live with four different host families during their year abroad. There is no guarantee of living in a big city, because the program is intent on exposing students to different cultures. Moreover, students can only call their parents after they have been away for three months, and parents cannot visit their child during the first six months of the program.
The former head of the Chung Hwa Rotary Educational Foundation Lin Wan-te explains that the system is designed to help students get quickly acclimated to their new environment and make them more independent by temporarily cutting the umbilical cord connecting them to their parents.
Shang-hsuan lived in Belgium for a year. During that period, he would sometimes hide under the covers feeling homesick, shedding tears as he looked at pictures of his family. But living in a foreign country also forced him to grow up quickly. Having friends from over 20 countries and living in an environment where Portuguese, Spanish and French were all spoken sparked a passion in Shang-hsuan for international politics and ethnic groups.
After Shang-hsuan returned to Toucheng, the boy who once would bury himself in his room playing video games started to study and learn languages on his own initiative and became closer to his family members. He later successfully got into the university program of his choice: National Chengchi University's Department of Ethnology.
Seeing the change in their oldest son, the parents enrolled their two other children in the program.
While other children of the same age were preparing for their college entrance exams, Yang Chin-yuan courageously allowed his children to take a year off to go abroad. What motivated him to take this gamble?
Yang Chin-yuan noticed that his friends were always anxious about their children's futures, using grades and schoolwork as criteria to monitor their progress. "A lot of people wondered how I could let my children go overseas and waste a year," he says.
But after pondering the matter, he decided to adopt a different viewpoint on life.
"There is no way parents can be at the sides of their children for their entire lives. What I really wanted to give my children was not academic experience or talent, but a conversation with themselves, the chance to go out into the world and find the confidence and ability to solve problems on their own," Yang Chin-yuan explains.
Overseas Stay Tightens Parent-child Bonds
There are still many parents who feel the desire to overprotect and keep a close eye on their children, offering them plenty of material comforts as a sign of their love.
A growing number of parents, however, are following in the footsteps of Yang Shang-hsuan's parents, coming to the realization that they may not be their children's best teachers. Instead of keeping their children close to them, these parents encourage their children to roam and explore the world while they are still young, and to toughen themselves in the process.
The growth in the number of Taiwanese participants in the Rotary Youth Exchange Program reflects the trend. The program has grown from fewer than 50 students three years ago to more than 200 students applying to live in 25 countries this year.
When materially comfortable children from Taiwan live abroad, they are exposed to reality, having to wash their own clothes and seeing 18-year-old Europeans who take out student loans to continue their studies. These new experiences help them appreciate their parents' love and compel them to take ownership of their education.
The exchange program is also a good educational experience for Taiwanese parents, as families who send children abroad must also host exchange students from other countries.
Many Taiwanese host families come to believe that foreign children tend to have their own ideas, while Taiwanese children live to meet the expectations of their parents, even though Taiwanese children have as much character as their foreign counterparts.
As such, the physical distance between parents and their children created by the program actually enables them to discover each other's strengths and blind spots.
Living close together on a daily basis may seem like the perfect recipe for a tight-knit family, but, in fact, it may lead to parents and children simply repeating the same empty conversations. Creating an appropriate physical distance, on the other hand, opens up greater space and possibilities for mutual appreciation.
Yang Shang-hsuan's mother says that after her children return home, she still interacts with them with the same emotions she felt when she missed their presence, carefully listening to their meanderings about their daily lives, and this has created a more intimate emotional bond.
The Youth Exchange Program has made more parents realize that by being open-minded and bringing the power of the world into their homes while sending their children away to explore broader horizons, they can ensure that the new generation will have the courage to take risks and the ability to adapt to life in different places.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier
Chinese Version: 野放外國「轉大人」