Vail Daily column: Rotary Youth Exchange helps to appreciate other cultures
“Peace cannot be achieved through violence, it can only be attained through understanding,” — Albert Einstein.
As a young boy, I witnessed scenes of incredible violence as ethnic and religious strife erupted following the independence of India and its partition into two separate states: India and Pakistan. My family left for England shortly afterwards, but the memories of the riots and bloodshed remained with us and led to a family commitment to peace through understanding of different cultures and religious backgrounds.
World War II had recently ended, much of Europe was still in ruins and travel was very difficult. But every summer, we visited different countries, and when I was 9 we hosted our first exchange student, a boy from France. During the next 12 years, we had a constant stream of guests from France, Sweden, Germany, Italy, Spain, Finland and Norway. My brother, sister and I spent many enjoyable summers living with families all over Europe.
What we learned from this experience is that exposure to different cultures is a very powerful force in the promotion of international understanding and peace. We found out that all people have the same basic desires: freedom from hunger and violence; and a safe environment that allows for a rich and satisfying life for our children and ourselves.
But we also learned that there are cultural differences that can get in the way of understanding. Despite many similarities, people of differing cultures may perceive things differently or play by different rules. It does not always work to assume that other people in other cultures are like us. When they are not, it is only too easy to have a negative response, which often leads to looking down on the other culture and sometimes results in conflict. By being brought into contact with other cultures, young people can learn a lot from one another and are able to discover and explore similarities and differences between their cultures. Such an experience can help combat negative prejudices and stereotypes.
I took my early experiences with me into an international career spanning 40 years, the last 13 of which I worked with the United Nations. And now that I have moved to the Vail Valley, I am happy to see many locals sharing my views as to the importance of a greater understanding of others with whom we share this planet.
I am especially pleased to see an active Youth Exchange Program run by the local Rotary clubs. Last year, Battle Mountain hosted exchange students Christine Hsueh from Taiwan; Gui Fernandes from Brazil; and Betta Novak from Hungary.
This month, three outgoing exchange students will leave the valley: Andrea Arroyo to Vienna, Austria; Emily Duncan to Bangkok, Thailand; and Sierra Trygg to Chile.
Not only the exchange students benefit. At Battle Mountain, the classmates of the incoming student, Scooter Pinkerton, from Sicily, Italy, who arrived Aug. 12, can learn about a very different way of life.
He will live with three separate host families, each of which will get to know him and appreciate his culture. Just as I learned so much from the foreign children who lived with my family in England, so do the host families of the Vail Valley learn from their guests.
Vail/Edwards Rotary clubs would like to hear from families interested in hosting our incoming exchange student. Please contact Sally Corcoran at 970-376-2376.
As Harry Truman said, “It is understanding that gives us the ability to have peace. When we understand the other fellow’s viewpoint, and he understands ours, then we can sit down and work out our differences.”
Rotarian Peter Leslie is a former United Nations director, now retired and living in Vail.