Since it began in 1948, the IFYE (formerly known as the International 4-H Youth Exchange) Program has provided roughly 5,000 U.S. delegates the chance to live abroad, and an additional 5,000 international students to live in the U.S. through exchanges with over 70 countries on six continents.
According to South Dakota IFYE Coordinator Alan Lambert, in South Dakota, international delegates get a firsthand look at western agriculture and family life through the multiple families that host them for a few weeks during their three to six month stay.
“This program is designed for young adults age 19 and over. The program is an agricultural based exchange, and we strive to find those families that can provide an accurate experience for an international delegate, ideally with family members near the delegate in age. However, families of any age and makeup can be great hosts. All that is needed is a willingness to open your hearts and homes to a visitor. Treat them as a part of the family, not as a tourist,” noted Alan.
Among delegates enjoying South Dakota hospitality and learning the ropes of farming and ranching this summer is 21-year-old Germany native Florian Otte, who has already experienced both west and east river operations with his first two host families.
“He was with us for the Fourth of July and we went to Belle Fourche for the parade and rodeo. He has also gotten in on doing embryo transfer work, baling hay and riding a horse for the first time,” explained Gennie Lee of what she and her family exposed Florian to while he was staying with them near Reva, S.D.
Gennie noted that this is her family’s third time hosting a foreign student, the first time being a Norwegian teenage girl in 2011, and a second teenage girl from Norway immediately following Florian’s departure this summer.
“It was really fun comparing the differences between both Norway and the United States, and Germany and the United States. We have a lot more freedom here — for instance we can vaccinate our own cattle while in Germany a vet has to do that. I also know Florian was just blown away by the driving distance between everything and lack of people in our area,” noted Lee.
From the Lee’s, Florian traveled to other host families near Miller and Redfield, and has also stayed on David and Teresa Abrahamson’s farm near Howard, S.D. He ended his stay in South Dakota and the U.S. with his final host family, Jared and Katie Knock of rural Willow Lake on Sept. 1.
“It has been such a positive experience,” noted Teresa Abrahamson of what is also her family’s second time hosting an international student. “Alan does a very good job placing kids with families that have children the same age, which makes for the creation of life-long friendships.”
While with the Abrahamsons, Florian learned about spraying soybeans, baling hay and working cattle with motorcycles instead of horses.
“We took him to our 4-H Achievement Days and watched a cattle show. The guy’s trip from Howard west to Cabelas, Scheels and motorcycling was another highlight for him,” noted Teresa of additional experiences Florian was exposed to while with her family.
The opportunity to not only educate youth about American agriculture, but simultaneously expose their own children to a world outside America is something both the Lees and Abrahamsons say is a highlight of being a host family.
“Our first boy we hosted for one month in the summer of 2008 through the 4-H/LABO exchange program, Kazu (Kazuhiro Watanabe), was a 12-year-old from Japan who didn’t speak much English. But, while we had that language barrier, we had no problems communicating – people don’t need to be afraid of that. We loved having him and he taught all of us Japanese words and about their traditions,” explained Teresa.
Gennie agreed, adding that in some instances being a host first can also open the door for a child to experience another country.
“After our first host experience, my oldest daughter had the opportunity to go to Norway in 2012, and decided against it due to her other commitments. But, our middle child is gung ho about going somewhere and experiencing the other end now that we’ve hosted,” she noted.
Both ladies enthusiastically agreed that if given the opportunity to host an international student, they would encourage anyone to try it.
“Just be open-minded and don’t worry about if your house is clean enough or how you will entertain them during their entire stay. They’re just as entertained by the day-to-day stuff as they are by the more touristy type things. For example, we took our first exchange student to a wedding that happened to be outdoors. She had never been to an outdoor wedding and was just fascinated,” explained Gennie of the way a delegate just fits into the daily routine.
Teresa agreed, adding that the only downside is saying goodbye. However, she noted that with modern technology it is much easier to stay in touch, even from across oceans.
Of his reasons for choosing to try the IFYE program, Florian explained that a girl in his school went to Nebraska through the program last year for three months, and kept a blog of her experiences.
“I was very interested in agriculture in America so I decided to apply for the exchange program for this year,” he explained.
While his future plans are aimed more toward architecture and landscaping, Florian still enjoyed learning about farming and ranching in South Dakota.
“I have had a lot of different experiences. First in west river at a cattle ranch with more than 200 cows. West River was very different from Germany because of the space and fewer people. Then in East River I did some baling work with hay bales and saw a farm with corn, wheat and soybeans and also went to another farm that was a feedlot with 4,000 cattle,” he explained of some of the trip’s highlights.
For young people interested in participating in the LABO or IFYE programs, either as a host family or through traveling to other countries, Alan explained there is an application process, including a written application and an interview. The South Dakota IFYE Association also currently offers four $1,500 scholarships annually to help offset the estimated $3,500-$4,000 cost, most of which is airfare.
Countries that currently participate in the 4-H aged (18 and under) exchanges, which last one month, include Argentina, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan, Norway and Tanzania. The South Dakota State 4-H office in Brookings, S.D., supports these exchange programs, and it is not required that an individual or family be involved in 4-H to participate.
Exchanges for those young adults over 19 are available with a wider array of countries and are typically 3 to 6 months in length, giving a more in-depth cultural immersion.
“If you’re interested in becoming a host family or outbound delegate, the best way to begin is by contacting me. Then I will start the process of sending you an application, and you will also go through an interview process to ensure the household is safe. A criminal background check is also done for everyone’s safety,” explained Alan of the process potential host families are required to go through.
“I would encourage anyone to open themselves and their family to this opportunity because it really helps your own kids and family in addition to the person you host. It’s just a great experience for everyone involved,” concluded Teresa. ❖