Roughly ten years ago I packed a duffle bag and my minidisc player (remember those?) and set out for an experience that quite literally opened my eyes to an entirely new world. That was the summer I spent in beautiful Guanajuato, México with a family I had never before known.
I lived with this family for six weeks—a six weeks that was extremely important for me for several reasons. Yes, it was great to be able to practice speaking, listening, reading, and writing in Spanish where Spanish is the official language. Yes it was also wonderful to be able to witness the arts, culture, and food firsthand. But, most importantly it was an experience that allowed for me to get to know some of the people and for them to get to know me. That was the moment we stopped knowing of each other and actually began knowing each other.
These personal interactions and exchanges helped me develop a much deeper appreciation for, and understanding of, the possibilities that are created when geographical, emotional, social, and ideological barriers are deconstructed. It affected my outlook on life and made me realize how the world can be both a large and small place simultaneously. My curiosity in various cultures and places grew as did my ability to hold in reverence both the differences and similarities among people. This has played a major role in the way I approach issues and opportunities today and has truly helped me become a better global citizen.
In my opinion, the ability to study abroad, learn within diversity, and explore one's curiosity are essential opportunities that should not be denied to individuals based on a any person's ability to pay. It's not only about visiting new places—it's about the chance to develop as a human being, follower, leader, and more informed, compassionate, aware, and empathetic member of society. OneWorld Now! is doing their part to make this a reality—at least in the Seattle area.
The first time I saw Kristin Hayden, I was photographing the 2012 Women in Innovation Summit in Seattle, WA. When she stepped out on stage to present, I was immediately taken by her impeccable sense of style and beautiful shoes, and thought, "I must meet this person." Equally, if not more, impressive is what she and her team at OneWorld Now! are doing with young people in the Seattle Area. Imagine a program that not only provides study abroad programs, but also provides an opportunity to learn language, cultural, and leadership skills in order to prepare them to fully participate and thrive in an experience that can change their lives forever.
Spending time with the folks over at OneWorld Now! has been very rewarding. Several things really stood out to me about this organization. The first is that they have a strong sense of mission. Secondly, all of these opportunities are focused on low-income and minority youth who have historically had the least access to study abroad and leadership development.
They are very welcoming
The offices of OneWorld Now! might be among the warmest and most inviting of any I've ever visited. Everyone is always greeted with a smile, the doors are never locked, and the staff take a genuine interest in their visitors. Kristin Hayden says, "We always keep our doors open. We want our students to feel like they are welcome when they arrive early. We never want them to feel like they're in the way." Over the week I spent with them, students often arrived up to an hour and a half early to their language classes (either offered at their school or at Impact HUB Seattle) and spent their time talking amongst each other, doing homework, or practicing their foreign language skills.
They teach Arabic and Chinese
These two languages are becoming increasingly significant within business, social, environmental, and ecological movements. Now a student at the University of Washington, Philmon Haile has parlayed his training into some really tremendous opportunities such as studying abroad and working in the US Embassy in China. Haile is the type of young man who has a strong yet humble presence. He's very easy to be around and his natural ability to recognize the gifts inherent in each individual. He was recently mentioned by First Lady Michelle Obama when talking about the positive things that happen when, as a nation, we invest in our youth. In this speech Ms. Obama states, "So studying abroad isn't just a fun way to spend a semester. It is quickly becoming the key to success in today's global economy…it's about having real experiences with cultures beyond your borders."
The students understand the value
The youth who take part in this program are both very excited about and very committed to making their experiences learning about various cultures, languages, and leadership. When asked what their favorite part of the program was, most said that traveling was the single-most fun part. But when asked to explain what they really enjoyed the most about the travel, terms like friendships, understanding, growth, leadership, potential, life-changing, making a difference, and respect came up repeatedly