CENET Staff Member Shares Peace Corps Journey

By Leslie Corn

Global Citizen | #CENETJ1 #ExchangesImpact

CENET staff member, Shay Priester, recently returned from 27 months of Peace Corps service across various remote regions of Ecuador. In the interview below, Shay shares her passion for international exchange programs and the positive global impact of exchanges.

You grew up a small, rural town in Missouri. For readers unfamiliar with Jackson, MO, could you describe the community?

Jackson is located west of the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Memphis and is treasured for its rolling hills and vast farmland. For me, Jackson epitomizes “small town America” in the sense of being a civic-minded, hardworking people committed to a strong sense of community.

Who or what inspired you to experience new cultures?

My sense of curiosity, and also getting to know the world through National Geographic magazines and stories from family members. My maternal grandmother is French and emigrated to the U.S. after World War II. My paternal grandmother spent time carrying out medical missions in Bolivia as a nurse. When I was 17 I convinced her to let me tag along and help with triage and translation. I accompanied her through the Andean highlands and Amazon. Shortly after during my senior year of high school I became close friends with a Peruvian exchange student who lived in Bolivia when I had visited the country. It made the world feel like such a small place. I related to her closely when at first she had seemed so foreign. I could speak with her in Spanish and share experiences only known to those who had been where we both had been. I was motivated to study anthropology, continue traveling, and ultimately join the Peace Corps.

Can you describe a few of your exchange experiences?

My travels have seen me primarily through Central and South America, as well as Spain and Canada. I have participated internationally in educational and volunteer exchanges, and have also worked in the U.S. with youth exchange camps, English language programs, as well as for the Cultural Exchange Network helping administer the J-1 programs. Most recently I lived in Ecuador for about two and a half years for Peace Corps.

Please describe your motivations, core beliefs, and personal successes to date?

I’m motivated by the human spirit’s will to overcome the human condition. I’ve been called naive, but within that label find myself in the ranks of those who serve others in a way that allows people to help themselves. I continue to believe that the biggest changes must begin first within ourselves, and in that regard we as individuals can change the world. My biggest personal success is helping others find and accomplish theirs. Professionally speaking to date, it was carrying out that same idea through service in the Peace Corps.

Who or what made the biggest impact on you during your Peace Corps service?

During Peace Corps service I lived with a few different families and made close friendships. These Ecuadorians became my support network and gave me a sense of home. I lived with them, and in two years time lived so much life with them. They saw me through sickness, asked me to be godmother to their children, and welcomed my brother as family when he visited from the states. In the same way that my biological family has an indelible mark on me, so does my Ecuadorian family. Their impact is impossible to quantify and difficult to describe.

Did you experience culture shock?

Uncommonly, I didn’t experience much culture shock upon arrival to Ecuador, but in my return to the U.S. have experienced “reverse culture shock.” I’ve been patient with myself to overcome it, and have listened to advice given to J-1 participants and international exchange visitors to the U.S. I’ve maintained contact with my family in Ecuador, reached out to the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) community in the U.S., and have gotten involved in different social activities since returning home.

Although you were a visitor in another country, were able to share U.S. culture?

Sharing U.S. culture is one of Peace Corps’ three goals of service. As a longer-term resident of Ecuador I was able to share many aspects of U.S. culture including culinary creations, major holidays and customs, and the diversity of U.S. history and values. I broke down stereotypes that Ecuadorians have of U.S. Americans, but managed to uphold some with my love of Michael Jackson, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and baseball.

Did you make lasting connections with the people in your host community in Ecuador?

Absolutely. I still speak weekly with my host family, friends, and coworkers in Ecuador and am guiding a young man through applying for a passport. It’s his dream to visit the United States, and hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to repay the hospitality he showed me. Every week I get messages from friends talking about what we were doing together last year at this time, and how I’m surviving in the U.S. without my favorite Ecuadorian foods. My Ecuadorian friends are just as meaningful to me as the relationships I have in the U.S.

Why is it important for people to experience other cultures?

Experiencing other cultures provides us the opportunity to see our own values and realities through a different lens, and to appreciate the differences that make the world an interesting place. Cultural exchange gives us the gift of understanding things from multiple perspectives, and considering those realities in our decision making.

What are ways a person can become a global citizen in his/her local community?

One doesn’t need to leave the U.S. or likely even their hometown in order to be a global citizen. It’s easy to connect with the international community on many levels. If you live near a university it’s probable that there are international students who would love to share customs from their home country. There are also opportunities for exchange visitors to temporarily live in the U.S. like the J-1 visa program. You could invite them to speak at your school or business. You can become pen pals with someone in another country, or even Skype into a classroom for a live discussion. You might try some international cuisine. The possibilities are endless and simply depend on your curiosity and engagement.

Cultural exchanges have been cited as top catalysts for long-term political change. Why do you think that is?

Catalysts for political changes are often born from the negative: famine, war, violence. On the other hand, cultural exchanges are positive experiences that participants enjoy sharing. Cultural exchange requires people to look beyond themselves and work for a greater good, while at the same time depending on many people and systems (often foreign) to assist in a positive experience. That experience inspires involvement. Leaving one’s own country encourages a heightened commitment to service and participation upon return. With cultural exchange comes an exchange of ideas, a broader understanding of what are commonly seen as differences, and multicultural perspectives on issues that encourage active engagement with those in public service. It often inspires participants to run for office, lobby on behalf of other causes, or provide a voice to those who might otherwise not be heard. All from simply living in another place and understanding a different way of life.

Given your professional experience with the J-1 visa, why is it an important program for U.S. public diplomacy objectives?

Programs like the J-1 visa exchange give participants an opportunity for a deeper understanding of American culture and values while simultaneously providing us an understanding of their culture. They also gain valuable experience in the professional sector. Participants eventually return to their home countries as ambassadors and experts of ours, and hopefully more informed citizens aimed at contributing to the betterment of society. The effects of this type of soft diplomacy can be likened to planting the seed of a tree under whose shade we will likely never sit.

What is the single greatest lesson you learned from your exchange experiences?

I find we’re all more alike than different. There is much more that unites us in the human experience than divides us.

CENET strives to inspire a safer, more prosperous and compassionate world through international education and cultural exploration. For more news and updates about CENET, please visit our Facebook Page.



Blanchard Elementary Students Experience World Cultures

By Leslie Corn

Culture in the Community | #CENETJ1

CAPE GIRARDEAU, MO – Cultural Exchange Network (CENET) recently took its popular local program, Culture in the Community (CITC), to Blanchard Elementary for a 2-week international education program. CITC aims to provide authentic international education for area schools and groups.

Within a 2-week period, CITC provided 38 cultural presentations to Blanchard students, ranging from Pre-K to 4th grade. CITC utilizes Southeast Missouri State University’s exchange students and local residents from other countries to provide interactive education about world cultures. Each CITC program offers tailored curriculum to match the needs of the specific school or group. The following countries were represented in Blanchard’s program: Costa Rica, Bangladesh, India, Germany, Nepal, England, Brazil, Japan, and Saudi Arabia.

Blanchard students, teachers, and administers praised the CITC program; CENET received thank you notes from various students. Blanchard’s Principal, Dr. Barbara Kohlfield, stated “This was a phenomenal opportunity for the Blanchard children to learn about people from other countries. The children enjoyed hearing about other cultures and seeing pictures from their countries. Thank you so much for allowing us this experience!”

CENET is a non-profit organization located in Cape Girardeau. In addition to Culture in the Community, CENET serves as a U.S. State Department authorized J-1 visa sponsor. CENET also provides The Magellan Exchange, a study abroad program for faculty and staff from universities worldwide, including Southeast Missouri State University.

Should your organization or school be interested in booking a CITC program, please contact CENET. 573-335-7111; cenet@cenet.org

CENET strives to inspire a safer, more prosperous and compassionate world through international education and cultural exploration. For more news and updates about CENET, please visit our Facebook Page.




Community Experience: J-1 Program Makes Local Impact

By Leslie Corn

Community Impact | #ExchangesImpact #CENETJ1

This summer, CENET hired a local advocate, Debra Chastain, to assist J-1 Summer Work and Travel participants spending their university breaks in Branson, Missouri. As a local advocate, Debra’s tasks included airport pick-ups and welcome tours, as scheduled by CENET’s Regional Coordinator. However, the position quickly became much more than a part-time job; through it, Debra found a new purpose, created lasting relationships, and encountered a life-changing cultural exchange without ever leaving her small Missouri city. Debra shared her J-1 experience below.

My husband and I retired and moved to Table Rock Lake outside Branson a year ago.  Branson is a small town with a population of 10,000 nestled in the Ozarks surrounded by lakes, rivers, and hills. Branson is a tourist town that millions of people visit each year.  Tourists come for lakes and outdoor recreational activities and for shows and attractions. There are also many who visit Branson from other countries and the community is very receptive to any and all, whether they come as tourists, retirees or to help boost the workforce & experience American culture.  The people of Branson as a whole are welcoming and hospitable.

Before retiring, I worked for the court system for 23 years, I was a mom to four amazing children, I was active in my church and Bible study, and I had many wonderful friends over my lifetime.  After retiring I was happy to slow down a little and leave behind some of the stresses, but I wasn’t completely content. The children had grown up and moved on, and I struggled with feelings of the empty nest.  I was happy for the adults my children had become, but I missed having them in my community, in church, and especially at home. Most of my adult life had been spent serving people, and with retirement came a new set of challenges.  There weren’t many people that needed me or that I could encourage along the way. I was a little sad for my old life and a little bit lonely.

When CENET offered me the community outreach job, I was elated.  Over the years I worked in several ministries at my church, and the one that I loved the most was working with college students.  I hoped that the job with CENET would be much the same as that.  As it turned out, it was and SO much more.

I tried to be a support system for the students that came here over the summer.  I didn’t want to deter them from making friends and settling in, but I wanted to help them if they were confused, homesick, or just in need of a friend.  At first, most of them felt homesick or confused by things.  They could all speak English, but when it came to conversing and understanding what was being said, they often needed me.  As time went on, they became very confident and more self-assured.  If they had a bump in the road, they would sometimes revert to being being homesick, and then I would step in and try and help them.  By the time everyone left to go back to their home countries, most were very sad to go.  They loved the experience, gained independence, and made lifelong friends that were hard to say goodbye to.

The students that I had the pleasure of knowing were so hard-working; many needed to make money while they were here.  Many had families that were depending on them and they came from places where it was much harder to earn money to pay for essentials.  I observed as some shopped on Skype with family members back home.  Others were excited to be able to help buy their siblings school clothes or to get something for their mother that she longed for and couldn’t afford.  For many of them, the cultural experience was possible because their programs included a work component. It was mutually beneficial because the businesses in Branson appreciated their efforts and needed their help during the high tourist season.

When the students first arrived here, I would ask them what they had seen on the internet, and what they hoped to do or see while here.  I then would incorporate that into their tours so they could get an overview. In addition to a tour, I invited all the participants I had contact with to at least one special outing that they perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise experienced.  We had great successes at Silver Dollar City, water skiing, tubing, riding mountain coasters, visiting Springfield, shopping centers, shows and having meals in my home.  Of course, we also made many trips to Verizon, Super Walmart and Best Buy for electronics that they had only dreamed of before.

Most of the students still lived with family members before coming over here, and this was their first taste of total independence.  They grew up over the course of the summer. They valued home and family more since they were so far away and they came to love being here.  Their eyes were opened up to traveling, new friends and experiencing new things.  They had money that would help them to fulfill their educational dreams and to enable them to not have to work quite as much when they returned home to continue their schooling.   I think they left feeling like the world is a place to explore, and not nearly as big nor the people as dissimilar as they originally thought.

Sadly, some students were going back to places they feared.  They loved their countries, families and homes, but they were returning to turmoil and all the fear that encompasses.  The news of faraway bombings had a different meaning for the participants from countries in unrest, because the areas being bombed weren’t a world away; those areas were places they had family and friends.  Their hope is to return home, live in peace, be able to finish their degrees, and to have productive lives.  I also hope and pray for this for them.

While the students were here, I worried for the ones that may appear or speak noticeably different.  I prayed that they would be safe from prejudice that could cause emotional pain.  I worried that the ignorance of the unknown that is often prevalent in society could affect them or harm them.  Day after day I  hoped for the best from my community, and over and over again my faith in mankind was restored. I would have readily defended or protected my new friends, but fortunately that was never necessary.

This past summer gave me so much in the way of experience.  That feeling I had when I retired that I wasn’t useful went away.  The empty nest left behind by my children felt very full again.  The world I always wanted to see had pretty much eluded me, but this summer that world came to my doorstep.  I have at least 25 new friends on Facebook that I keep up with, and I have made promises that if I ever do travel, I will visit!  A day is yet to go by when I don’t have an email or a message from one of my precious new friends.  Some of them told my husband and me that we were their American parents and while that wasn’t the goal, I’ll take it.  I know as time goes on everyone will go on in life and communication will fade.  I also know even when that happens those students will live on in my heart and prayers.


Special thanks to Debra and Rick for their dedication to the J-1 community in Branson. Your local initiatives have a global impact; thank you for making the world a kinder, more peaceful place.

CENET strives to inspire a safer, more prosperous and compassionate world through international education and cultural exploration. For more news and updates about CENET, please visit our Facebook Page.