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.
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