This post is being published on behalf of Ms. Sandi Duverneuil, Founder of AllThingsRelax.com and former home hospitality host for Meridian’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). In the text below, Ms. Duverneuil speaks about her experiences hosting participants from Armenia, Germany, Indonesia, and the Philippines. If you are interested in hosting future visitors, you can find more information here.
From an early age, I have been a strong proponent of international exchange. I was an American Field Service student in high school in French-speaking Quebec and completed my undergraduate studies at a francophone university in Montreal. Later in life, I was a Japan Exchange Teacher (JET) program participant for two years in Fukuoka, Japan, where I gave birth to our first son. In both instances, I took my role as a grassroots ambassador seriously.
Last year, I learned about Meridian International Center’s home hospitality program, which is an integral component of the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). Through this opportunity, my family and I have hosted international participants from Armenia, Germany, Indonesia, and the Philippines for dinner as volunteers. The home hospitality program has allowed my family to meet people from around the world and share not only American culture but also learn about our guests’ respective home cultures.
We always engage our IVLP guests in meaningful conversations, many of which lead to interesting questions about U.S. social policy and discussion of how our guests’ home countries approach important social issues. Topics of conversation often include, but are not limited to the following:
- Gender equality. Particularly the gender pay gap, but also evolving gender roles where increasingly men assist with raising children and doing their share of housework;
- Healthcare access. International visitors are baffled by the fact that a country as significant as the U.S. does not offer universal healthcare, an inalienable right in other countries;
- The limited scope of the Family and Medical Leave Act. In the event a worker needs time off for a health issue (or to care for a family member experiencing health issues);
- Affordable daycare (generally speaking, the lack thereof in the U.S.). I enjoy sharing and comparing my experiences with daycare in the U.S. to what I experienced in both the private and public daycare systems in Japan;
- Notably, the pressures of the ‘sandwich’ generation caring for children and juggling care for ageing parents; and
- The U.S. education system. For example, inconsistencies depending on locality, how education is managed at the state and local government levels; the implications of the No Child Left Behind Act; and the fact that critical thinking is generally encouraged in the U.S. whereas rote memorization is not a common teaching method.
In addition to exchanging ideas on these and other topics, our IVLP participants have the opportunity to see that not all Americans are monolingual. One of our guests, a judge from Armenia, had trouble expressing herself in English but was able to connect with my son who speaks French. It turns out she was a grandmother and loved talking with children. She whipped out her iPhone and started showing my son photos of her home country, described life in Armenia to him in French, and invited him to visit some day!
What surprised me the most from conversations with our Armenian guests? I would say learning how much farther ahead their country is with respect to equal pay for women. Most likely our guests were surprised to learn that I am the main breadwinner of the family. My spouse works part-time from home and thus is able to take on a greater share of household chores.
Our guests understand that their respective IVLP visits are not just about learning about the substantive topic or theme at hand, but also an exercise in grassroots diplomacy. With respect to commonality, we observe a shared belief that mutual respect and understanding in the global context are vital to world peace.
Logistical Support: Meridian International Center
Meridian’s outstanding logistical support for the Home Hospitality program starts with email notification when there is a potential hosting opportunity. This includes a brief summary with the visitors’ home country/countries and the program’s topic. Once a host has been identified, Meridian staff forward participant biographies along with dietary restrictions and contact information for the DoS-assigned interpreters, when they are needed. Meridian staff are always available to provide extra guidance to make the evening a success.
My family and I have truly enjoyed hearing what other countries’ citizens think about the U.S. and about Americans. In opening our home to international guests, I hope we have contributed to eroding negative stereotypes and misconceptions about Americans and life in the U.S. We certainly have learned a lot from our guests about their respective home countries!
Explore Home Hospitality Volunteer Opportunities
It has become increasingly important for Americans to engage in citizen diplomacy. If you live in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, I highly recommend joining IVLP’s Home Hospitality program coordinated by Meridian International. It’s an unforgettable experience!
Written by: Ms. Sandi Duverneuil
If you are interested in hosting future visitors, you can find more information here.