By Cristina Ammon, ALC 2018 Coordinator & DSI 2018 Participant
Nestled in a corner of the Twain East lounge at Stanford University, my attention diverts away from my laptop screen to the scene before me. I can’t help it. In this one room alone, groups of students from all around the world are working together, laughing together, learning together. Different languages, cultures, and histories are swirling in this space, and the life paths of these individuals are merging at this very moment. It’s a sight that holds so much more than the eye can see, so I try to capture the emotion. Above all, I feel thankful.
While over 70 international students had the opportunity to study at Stanford this summer through VIA’s American Language and Culture (ALC) program, I hope the participants know that the coordinators and staff have learned so much from them as well. They taught us their favorite foods, how to say “thank you” in their native tongues, their different perspectives on love, politics, and life. They reminded us to stay curious, be brave, and show respect, especially in times of discomfort or unfamiliarity. Each and every person here became a better leader in this month with VIA.
During training week, before the participants arrived, we listened to stories about the role VIA played in its alumni finding their dream careers, forming lifelong relationships, from friendship to, yes, even marriage, and navigating leadership, service, and life in their home countries. Recently I was reminiscing on VIA’s impact on my own life and how, only six months ago, the Design-thinking for Social Innovation (DSI) program sparked a personal journey I wouldn’t trade for the world. I wondered, then, how the others were feeling about their experience here, so I sat down with fellow coordinator Sarah Goulart to reflect.
I returned to VIA as a coordinator for ALC because participating in DSI helped me achieve professionals goals, introduced me to new hobbies, and most importantly, welcomed me into a loving community of brilliant, talented, absolutely genuine people I am beyond grateful to know. However, coordinators were drawn to ALC for various reasons, and many of them – including Sarah – had recently graduated from university and were searching for a meaningful way to spend their summer.
Even though she had been involved with several other programs before, Sarah felt that the flexible and welcoming nature of ALC set it apart from all the others. As coordinators, we choose an aspect of American culture that matters to us and plan activities for the duration of the program to engage participants in that topic. Some program themes included access to higher education for minority students, art for social change, and media literacy. Coordinators took their students to a farm, a civil war reenactment, tech companies, a food bank, and on many more adventures. Along the way, connections formed. The discussion panels, site visits, and everyday spontaneous outings incited curiosity in the participants, and their willingness to learn and think deeply about new information pleasantly surprised Sarah and the rest of us coordinators. Even while treading unfamiliar territory, both mental and physical, the participants bravely and respectfully immersed themselves in exploration of new ideas and new places. A single question would turn into a thought-provoking, late night conversation and gradually diffuse into a couple rounds of board games, dance sessions, or impromptu roleplaying. Perhaps without realizing, we were forming the memories we’d never forget.
Once VIA, always VIA. For many of us, this organization has already opened doors to future opportunities. Sarah, for example, has never traveled to another country, but after ALC, she and I will be headed to Japan for our first time for a community revitalization project. We are lucky to have explored the worlds of design-thinking and international education through VIA, to have met people who will remain lifelong friends, to know that more happiness lies ahead because of this community. Every goodbye said here is a promise to remember that we are now part of something larger than ourselves, a global network of leaders, innovators, travelers, storytellers, and, of course, companions. When it’s time to bid farewell, I will pocket these memories with individuals from around the world, and they will become a part of what I call home.