Culture in the Classroom Provides Presentations for 200 Local High School Students

By Leslie Corn

Local Impact | #CITC #CENETJ1

SIKESTON, MO– On Wednesday, March 29, Culture in the Classroom visited the Spanish classrooms at Sikeston High School.

Approximately 200 students were provided authentic, international education, with a focus on Costa Rican culture. CENET staff member and native of Costa Rica, Brayan Rueda, shared about the geography, language, and customs of his home culture. A highlight of the visit included a sampling of gallo pinto, a Costa Rican cuisine, paired with fresh limeade; the culinary addition fit into the classroom’s recent unit on foods.

The students were attentive and energetic, and the hosting teachers expressed gratitude to CENET. One teacher shared, “My students loved it…thank you so much! I definitely hope we can continue to do more presentations in the future.”

Culture in the Classroom is part of CENET’s local program, Culture in the Community. The programs utilize Southeast Missouri State University’s exchange students, local residents from other countries, and CENET staff to provide authentic, interactive education about world cultures. Each Culture in the Classroom program offers tailored curriculum to match the needs of the specific school or group. If you are interested in booking a session or learning more about the program, please email or call 573-335-7111 during regular business hours.

CENET will also be hosting an upcoming culinary and wine event, “Taste of Sweden,” an authentic Swedish experience. All proceeds will benefit Culture in Community. For more details or to purchase tickets, please visit:

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.

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.



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.


J-1 Journey | Future Leaders Experience U.S. Culture

By Leslie Corn

#CENETJ1 | Participant Experience | J-1 Trainee

CENET recently interviewed Joel Lundblad, a trainee from Sweden, to gain insight into his J-1 training program.  During his time in the U.S., Joel has gained professional experience that will advance his future career, while also cultivating a nuanced understanding of American culture.

How has your J-1 cultural exchange program changed you?

I’ve reached a new high in my career. I’ve held workshops for major global clients, won advertising awards. I’ve been mentioned in the biggest industry press, including Advertising Age’s Creativity Online where I received Editor’s pick for a campaign I did for MasterCard at NYC Pride. With the recognition I have received from peers in the industry, I am confident that I have a bright future ahead. 

What have been the highlights of your time in the United States?

Training in the creative industry at an Ad Age’s Agency A-List and Creativity Innovator Standout company is a highlight in itself. I have spearheaded film projects, digital campaigns and innovation projects for Fortune 500 companies, which is something only a selected few will get the opportunity to do. I feel honored to have been able to use my international experience to create impactful marketing and advertising for U.S companies.

What is different about the U.S. and your home country? How is the U.S. similar to your home country?

The biggest difference that I experience with the industry in Europe compared to the U.S is probably the way to provide feedback when working with partners, co-workers and vendors. The rhetoric is less straight-forward and far more friendly in the U.S. “Awesome! I have some notes” rather than “I don’t like it, can we change xyz”

In Sweden there is a phenomena called “The Jante Law”,  which can be described as a pattern of group behaviour towards individuals within Scandinavian communities, which negatively portrays and criticizes individual success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate.

“The Jante Law” is the complete opposite of “The American Dream” which I feel is a very inspiring mindset shared amongst New Yorkers. Everyday in New York, I encounter someone who truly believes they can and will achieve greatness. 

There are good and bad things about both phenomenas, but having the understanding and knowledge of both gives me an incredibly useful perspective in my continued career in the creative industry.

Has your perception of the United States changed? If so, how?

2016 has been an interesting year on many levels. Not least due to the fact that it’s election year. I’ve followed the developments closely and it is very interesting to me how diverse this country is, on every level. The diverse nature of the U.S didn’t come as news to me, but during 2016 I have experienced it closely which has given me a deeper understanding of the U.S.

What has been the most surprising aspect of U.S. Culture?

Living in Brooklyn has been an amazing experience. Go a couple of subway stops in any direction and you’re in a completely different culture and atmosphere. It’s almost like traveling to another country, each area with a strong and inviting community. It’s easy to understand why New York is often called “The Melting pot of the world.”

Do you think people in the world have misconceptions about U.S. culture?

Like anywhere in the world and with any culture, people make generalizations.

The U.S has 319 million people, there’s bound to be a whole lot of different people. The perception that the people have is driven in large by what the media conveys, and for the U.S, Hollywood and TV Series also largely influence the perception.

Rather than misconceptions, I believe that it’s generalization that’s the issue. And the only way to defeat generalizations is to come here, meet people from different places and different socioeconomic situations. Like anywhere, Americans are not all the same.

Why is it important for young people to experience new cultures? 

It’s simple really. The world is bigger than what you know and what you’ve seen. It can’t be explained, it has to be experienced. Immerse yourself and don’t hold yourself back from experiencing what other countries/cultures have to offer. You don’t have to like everything, but you’ll come out richer from having had the experience.

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Joel Lundblad, J-1 Trainee in New York City

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.


I-LEAD Seattle Engages 61 Changemakers from J-1 Visa Program

By Leslie Corn

#CENETJ1 | #ILEAD | #ExchangesImpact

The second I-LEAD session took place in Seattle, Washington from August 21-26. The program attracted 61 delegates, representing 27 countries and 18 sponsors. I-LEAD, a U.S. Department of State program, is facilitated by the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE).

The first I-LEAD was at the American University in Washington, D.C.; the second took place at the University of Washington in Seattle. The I-LEAD experience is a 6-day, all-expenses paid program; this includes travel to and from the I-LEAD host city.

Per the CIEE selection process, applicants to I-LEAD were selected based on their interests in – and commitment to – making a professional and societal impact in their home countries following their internships.

The I-LEAD curriculum focuses on leadership, entrepreneurship, and community development. Delegates participated in workshops, attended meetings with entrepreneurs, and enjoyed cultural tours and other learning opportunities during their week-long I-LEAD session.

CENET participant, Heejae Yang, served as an I-LEAD delegate in Seattle. Heejae, a Business Administration intern in New Jersey, was able to travel across the United States in order to participate in I-LEAD. Comments about his experience may be found below:

When it comes to my thoughts or experiences, I cannot explain every single thing because every single happening was so impressive to me. Simply, I can say this experience in the United States, including I-LEAD, changed my whole life. It changed my thoughts, especially about my life. I was so impressed by every person I met. I got to know about U.S. culture and life, and I may get a Master’s degree in the U.S. one day. When I first came to the USA, I thought I would always prefer England, but by the end of the period, I was wanting to spend my winter in New York one more time! From A to Z, my attitude and thoughts were changed to the American way– whether it was acting free, struggling but enjoying life,  or meeting new people in the melting pot. Thanks a lot– I cannot say it enough.

Heejae Yang, I-LEAD Delegate

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.


Scholarship Winners Return to Southeast Missouri After Cultural Immersion Program

By Leslie Corn

Culture in the Community | #CITC #CENETJ1

This summer, CENET selected four area students to receive full scholarships to attend Concordia Language Villages (CLV) in Bemidji, Minnesota. The scholarships were provided in partnership between CENET & CLV.

CLV is one of the world’s premier immersion language learning programs.The area scholarship winners included:

•Maggie Shelton, 17, of Jackson, MO, who will study Arabic for four weeks.

•Jake Shelton, 12, of Jackson, MO, who will study Portuguese for two weeks.

•Chance Earles, 11, of Carbondale, IL, who will study Portuguese for two weeks.

•Mariena Collins, 11, of Jackson, MO, who will study Chinese for one week.

The local students have returned home and shared their experiences with CENET:

Mariena Collins, age 11

Mariena attended CLV’s Chinese Village, Sēn Lín Hú. She was immersed into a world full of rich, Chinese culture where she was “excited to try new things.” Mariena enjoyed sharing her unique American culture with friends that she met from Africa, England, Italy, and all over the United States. They played a variety of games, including one about Harry Potter and a Chinese game called Jianzi, which is similar to Hacky Sack. On her experience at CLV, Mariena added, “everything is a challenge and a new obstacle and everyone tries to help you. That’s why I think everyone should be immersed at least once in an experience like this.  I learned so much about the culture and language.”

Photo of the Jianzi shuttlecock Mariene brought home with her.

Jake Shelton, age 12

Jake Shelton attended CLV’s Portuguese camp, Mar e Floresta. During camp, Jake went by his chosen Portuguese name, Leonardo. He shared that the counselors and fellow campers made him “feel safe and like we were one big family.” A few of the activities that took place in his Village were Portuguese art, Disco-Techa, and futbol. Jake made great friends at camp. He stated, “My best friend was Christiano, he was a lot like my best friend here in Jackson.”


Jake Shelton smiles with friends at CLV.

Maggie Shelton, age 17

Maggie Shelton attended the CLV Arabic Village for high school credit. She spent an entire month immersed in the Arabic Village, Al-Wāḥa. Maggie went by her chosen Arabic name, لو لو , which spells “LuLu.” Maggie’s assignments included: a poem, a presentation, a portfolio, a family tree, an interview, and a mid-term and final exam– all in Arabic!

Maggie enjoyed her time at CLV. Her favorite activities were learning the songs and dances of her Village. At the camp’s International Day, Maggie became involved with the Global Summit where they discussed issues in relation to the Paris Agreement pertaining to climate change. This event was very inspiring for Maggie, as she was able to see how treaty meetings are conducted. She was also involved in certain camp counselor duties for an evening shift of “manning the camp’s well.” Maggie is excited to continue her studies in Arabic and use the skills she obtained at CLV throughout her academic and professional endeavors.

All of the Villagers were invited to participate in an activity in which they were to speak only the language of their Village for an entire day. Jake, Maggie, and Mariena participated in the challenge. They reported they enjoyed the activity, even though it was very intensive and difficult at times. The scholarship winners have shared that they are hopeful to return to CLV in the future.

To learn more about the experiences of the scholarship winners, check out the feature published by the Southeast Missourian. 

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.



J-1 Interns & Trainees Tour the United Nations

By Leslie Corn

Cultural Component | #CENETJ1 | NYC

In late August, four CENET staff members visited New York City to meet with J-1 host employers and participants. During the visit, J-1 interns and trainees took part in a special cultural component activity that included a tour of the United Nations headquarters, followed by a networking reception.

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.