Jennifer Wright: STUDY-ABROAD PROFESSIONAL BURNISHES ASCA’S PROGRAMS

WHEN: 1 February 2014

WHEN: Arlington, Virginia

INTERVIEWER: Chrystia Sonevytsky

 CS: Good Afternoon, Jennifer. I hope you will be able to provide some insights into yourself, into your experiences with Arlington Sister Cities and to also what direction you’d like to see ASCA continue.

Let’s start, if you could tell us when and where you were born and anything you would like to tell us about your early years.

JW: Alright, I was born in Cincinnati, OH in 1961. My whole family lives in Cincinnati. My father is from a large, German family and my mother is from a small family of Swiss heritage. I have two brothers and I’m the youngest. I was the one who was always interested in foreign languages and people of other nationalities. My first exchange took place when I was 14, I participated in a program called the Children’s International Summer Village (CISV), which was a mid-western youth exchange for students aged 14.

CS: Oh really, only 14?

JW: Each year children from all over the world would come for a two week day camp and live with host families. There were probably about 100 students, maybe 2-3 from each country, with about 30 countries participating.  A young lady from Costa Rica stayed with me. We would have national days where they would wear their national dress and food days, when we would eat international meals. It was really a lot of fun. I believe the program had roots in Cincinnati and I believe it still exists.

On our own, my mother arranged for me to visit her in Costa Rica. It was not part of the exchange but my mother felt strongly it should be a true exchange so she arranged for me to visit Lyda’s family in Costa Rica over Christmas when I was 14. It was my first out-of the-country experience for me and my first solo trip.

CS: You were 14 and your mother allowed you to travel by yourself at that time?

JW: Yes. So then I studied Spanish in school and I picked up Russian. My high school was one of the few in Ohio that offered Russian.

When I went to Franklin and Marshall College, I was planning to major in Russian. During my freshman year they decided to cancel the major and they asked me if I wanted to transfer.  But I was having such a good time (laughs) that I wanted to stay.  I asked if I could still take Russian language and literature and they said I could.  I stuck with it and my work-study job was in the Study Abroad Office. This was my passion. I knew from a young age I wanted to get involved in international education and exchange. I learned a lot about the options for going abroad and when it came time for me to go abroad, I wanted to do something with my Russian but I was a little nervous to go to the Soviet Union. My study abroad year was 1981. I found a wonderful program in Vienna that focused on East European Studies. It was really quite wonderful, with only about 18 of us participating.

Because I had several years of Russian under my belt I could take Russian at the University of Vienna with a professor from Russia. We had a private tutorial with him twice a week in his suite with his maid, who offered us coffee and cookies (laughs). What an experience!   He was so alarmed at the way we westernized our handwriting that we had to start at the beginning with Cyrillic writing! (laughing).

The program included German, Russian and field trips to the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia and I went on my own to Hungary.

So, when I came back to Franklin and Marshall I started applying to graduate schools in international affairs. I ended up at the University of Kentucky Patterson School of International Commerce and Diplomacy. It was an interdisciplinary program.

CS: Tell us about this program.

JW: I did this program at the University of Kentucky and I did an internship at World Learning (formerly the Experiment in International Living) in Washington, DC. I got my Master’s degree in a 9 month program and I got my first job at a small college outside Philadelphia called Beaver College (now, Arcadia University). It was a small girls school that was also known for its very large study abroad program. This was 1983. I was given a portfolio of several universities in the U.K. helping to admit U.S. students for short term study there.  It was very interesting. The job required that I visit London and universities throughout the U.K. to help with orientation of students when they first arrived.

I was dating my soon-to-be husband, Warren Wright, and his first job was in Wilkes-Barre, PA.  After I worked at Beaver College for a couple of years we decided to find a city we could both work in and we decided it was Washington. I networked with my previous professor from the University of Kentucky who was dean of the School of International Affairs at George Washington University. I worked in the study abroad office there. After two years I became Director of Study Abroad. I was at GW until 1996 when my husband got transferred to Cleveland, OH, where we lived for 11 years in Shaker Heights. I did consulting for a program called Internships in Europe, kept my hand in international education, eventually working at Cleveland State University and the Cleveland Institute of Art.  That job was interesting because I got to do everything international there since it was so small – study abroad, international students, international faculty, etc.  But I was only able to work there one year because my husband got transferred back to Washington.

We settled in Arlington again in 2007. I have to go back and say in 1994 – when my children were 3 and 4. We lived in Clarendon and we hosted a young man from Aachen.

CS: Even though you had very small children?

JW: Yes, he was a graduate student in urban planning. I must have read somewhere they were looking for a host family for an intern in the summer. We had room and we hosted him.  His name was Andreas Umbach and he was 27 and he was the nicest young man; a wonderful guest. He worked during the day at a public-private partnership somewhere in Arlington. That was my first experience with Arlington Sister Cities.

When we moved back to Arlington, my oldest son, Nick, was a junior at Yorktown High School and we heard about the Aachen program. He had actually been taking German at high school in Ohio, so in the summer of 2008 he went abroad with the Aachen exchange. That year it was a small group, about 6 kids, 2 young men and 4 young women.  When he came back from the program I decided I would help with the program.

At the time Lynette McCracken was in charge of the outbound program so I assisted her to learn it.  I learned about screening the applicants, and advertising the program and arranging for the travel and chaperons and working with the German committee in Aachen.

I think in 2009 we had about 12 students go on the outbound program and in 2010 we had 20 students and it was the largest program we had for quite some time. It had its challenges as well but we did have a really strong cohort.

After that year, Lynette was feeling a little pressure from the schools not to be so involved with the program.  It’s interesting because that is what is happening now, in 2013 and 2104. The school is asking us not to advertise in the schools – she was already feeling that she couldn’t really promote it to an extent and she couldn’t really organize it. That was the message she was getting from her bosses.

CS: When you say her bosses . ..

JW: I mean the principal and the superintendent. And even then it was a different superintendent.

When I took it over from her, I organized both the inbound and the outbound programs at first. I organized with some helpers all the activities for the group that came to Arlington and then I turned around and organized the outbound program.  I was working part time – I had a job downtown at a small foundation. After doing that for a year, even with a part time job, it was just too much. That’s when we asked Reid Goldstein to help. His girls had been involved with the program.

In 2011, after having been working professionally in study abroad, I took a job at the American International Recruitment Council, which works to protect the interests of students who come to the U.S. to study. It’s a small membership body which works toward best practices in international recruitment.

CS: You are still doing that – bringing students from Europe.

JW: From all over the world.

CS: So your job spills over into your work in Sister Cities?

JW: A little bit. It is more concerned with best practices.

CS:  Are you still involved with the outbound Aachen program?

JW: I am but I am hoping to have others take over now. What we have found with this program is it is very challenging to announce the opportunity to students and families if you don’t have students that age yourself, as you no longer have as robust a network of contacts. The best way to let people to know about the opportunity, besides PTA announcements and Sun Gazette announcements, is word of mouth. Young people that participate one year can help with the next group and the young people that are going can help talk it up with their friends.

Many families in Arlington are aware of the program. I tried to figure out about how many people had been touched by just the Aachen program. The Aachen program is 20 years old in 2014. I reckoned at least 1000 family members have been personally involved–and that’s just the minimum because you have all the others that are friends with the host family’s child. You see it when they come on their own, independent of the program.

For example, we hosted Fabian Propers for half the year during an academic year in Arlington and he came back to Arlington with two of his friends to visit after he finished Gymnasium and he stayed with friends from Yorktown HS that weren’t involved in the program. So it’s these effects on people of what we do that is really very wide-ranging, when you think about it.

I think this is the most wonderful thing about the program and I don’t think that people who are maybe trying to limit the program, or how we can announce it, understand the impact the program has on people.

In addition to running the outbound program, since 2010 I was what is called the Local Coordinator for the Sister Cities High School Exchange Program. ASCA gets one place per year in an Arlington high school for a Sister Cities exchange student from one of our Sister cities. Usually it is a student from France or Germany but it is open to any Sister City.

CS: How do you find out about it?

JW: Well, it’s up to the committees overseas to let us know if they have students that are interested in this opportunity. Also, this is a two-way program, but we have not had interest from students in Arlington that want to go. I think there is major concern here about losing time in school.

The local coordinator job is actually a job that you have to train for in order to get approval from the sponsoring agency that provides the visa. You have to know the State Department guidelines, pass a test and then there are real strict guidelines you have to follow regarding finding a host family, choosing a host family.

I did that from 2010 – 2013. Now there is a new woman doing it. I helped place Mathilde Ardoin from Reims. She went to Wakefield HS. I placed Fabian Propers for half the year. He went to Yorktown HS.  Then there was a young man from Aachen named Simon Naas and he went to Washington and Lee HS.  Last year a student came for half the year and went to Yorktown. There is no one here in 2013 – 2014 but there will be a student here in 2014.

CS: You already know who is coming?

Yes, it’s interesting because the last two students who have come are students that were involved in the elementary exchange and they already know the families with whom they will be staying.  It makes it easier for the coordinator to not to have to find a host family and it is nice for the continuation of the hosting of the student back and forth.

The Local Coordinator job was very rewarding. Since you have to check in with the student and family once a month, there is a continuing relationship.

CS: Are you continuing that relationship?

Yes, I am in touch with Mathilde, she is finishing college in Nantes. Fabian’s father,  Michael Propers, is one of the Aachen committee coordinators in Germany, so we are very much in touch with them.   Fabian is now in college in southern Germany. I am in touch with Simon Naas. He sent me a big box of chocolate (laughter).

Returning to the ASCA Arlington-Aachen exchange, I did want to say that we hosted a student the fall prior to my son Nick’s participation in the program in 2008. His counterpart was Stephan Peters.  He liked to be called “Steve.” After Steve we hosted another young man, and then we started to host two young ladies at a time once my children were in college.

CS: You continued to host even though your children were no longer at home?

JW: That’s right. My husband and I enjoyed it so much. When we go back to Aachen we get to see these students. I am Facebook friends with three of them and the first one, Steve, works at BMW on the night shift. When he is bored at work he texts me (laughs). He really loves America and likes our family.

CS: I think you have also served as an outbound chaperon.

JW: Yes. I helped chaperon the outbound program in 2012. That’s the only time I did that. But my son, Jack, went with me. He was a college student but he wanted to go because he had been a host brother for so many years. So we went to visit Stephan Peters and his family. That’s great. I just love it. I just love the connection that you make with these people.

The other things I helped with – I would occasionally help Muriel Farley-Dominguez (president of the ASCA Arlington-Reims Committee) with finding host families and placement for summer interns. I enjoyed helping with the Sister Cities International national conference – the Arlington party.

One of the most fun things I did was in the spring of 2010. I had a fundraiser to help with the Ruth White Scholarship Fund. I put on a rock concert.

CS: Oh yes, I remember.

JW: [Laughing]. Because my son Jackson is a musician and he was in a band that was pretty good. I thought this would be a good way to spread the word about the exchange program, to raise money and to make it fun for the youth. So we put on the concert [Sister Rock] in the Lyon Village Community House. We had, I think, five different teenage bands and we had $10 at the door and we raised $700 that night. It was a lot of fun. It was some work coordinating it. But everyone had a great time.

The Ruth White Scholarship Fund is money that is set aside to assist students who have a desire to participate in one of these exchange programs. The fund needs continual replenishment.

CS: The fund is for the American side?

JW: Yes. It ranges from partial assistance to covering the whole expense of the program. We have been able to award that a few times – the airfare and the program fee. Sometimes we have awarded just the program fee, which is about $400. Sometimes, we’ll just cover the airfare. Oftentimes a student will apply and say “I’m doing this on my own and my parents aren’t in a position to help me and I raised this amount by babysitting, or whatever, and I just need this much more.” It’s really nice to be able to help those students that need it.

CS: And this Ruth White Scholarship is available to all the Arlington Sister Cities?

JW: Yes. You were asking me about, going forward, things I thought were important for the ASCA.  I think that’s one. To somehow annually or bi-annually think about some fundraising activities. And then the other thing is about getting more, and different people involved in the committees. To get people involved that have connections in the schools and children still in secondary school.

CS: You have broad experience with international student exchanges at the college level, Sister City level, and high school level. Arlington Public Schools are posing some problems for ASCA. ,  How important for a student exchange to involve the schools, or is it possible to get away from that, by doing the exchange in the summer months, for example and not involving the schools?

JW: I feel strongly that the schools should be supportive in allowing the students to visit the schools when they do come. I think it is very interesting for the students to see a U.S. high school. The Aachen program does not have to rely on the schools. For example, we don’t use teachers necessarily. It’s helpful, but we don’t need the schools. It requires more work when we are only able to promote the program outside of the school structure. I do think we have to think about how we shift things to a different way. It’s not impossible; it just takes some innovative thinking.

It would be extremely helpful to us if the schools would allow us to announce the programs in the schools. The way the program runs now is that the Arlington students go to Aachen in the summer. They are able to take advantage of the late ending of the German school year so they can be in school for one or two days and the rest of the time is summer vacation.  The German students come to Arlington during their fall break and they are able to go to school one or two days in Arlington and we have been told by the schools that this will continue. I don’t see any problem with the continuation of the Aachen program. It’s the French program that may face some difficulty.

CS: So, in other words, it’s not necessarily concerning to all the Sister cities’ programs?

JW: It is specific to each committee program how the programs run.

One interesting thing you and I had talked about and Mary Beth Zimmerman has brought up again is this idea of – maybe a dual or tri-city program: Arlington, Aachen and Ivano-Frankivsk.  I think this might have to be a separate program because I believe the German committee would still want a 18 – 20 day program for Arlington students in Aachen.

CS: You have a 20 day program?

JW: It ranges from two weeks to three weeks depending on the calendar.

CS: What do you think is the strongest and most desirable thing in ASCA? Are there other things you would like to see ASCA do?

JW: I tried at one point to help facilitate an exchange with Jane Franklin Dance, which is a small modern dance company in Arlington. She was looking to do something internationally. I investigated this with our counterparts in Aachen. There wasn’t really any excitement about this on the Aachen side.

Looking at the things we have done beyond the student exchanges is very interesting. I would like to see more of that—like the women’s arts exchange. The prerequisite is to find interest on both sides. That’s where the women’s artist program was so successful. We have had requests from the Aachen side for a baseball exchange, and American-style football exchange, and in the past we have had music exchanges. But, for these to work you have to find people in Arlington that have the same excitement and desire.  I put out a call for anyone who would be interested in helping to coordinate a baseball exchange but I didn’t get any response.  These things have to be of mutual interest.

In the late 1990s there was an Aachen baseball exchange in October. There is not a lot going on in baseball in October except the World Series but they were able to participate in some fall team practices and inter-league play and the Aachen players stayed with families that had boys who played baseball. That, to me, is very interesting. It might be ad hoc, it might be ongoing. That adds vibrancy to our existing programs. It also attracts people to help with different aspects of our programs.

CS: How large is the Arlington German committee with which you have been involved?

JW: It’s very small; it’s very hard. It’s usually just made up of the committee president, now Carl Lankowski and the in-bound coordinator, and the out-bound coordinator, Heidi Addison, who runs the elementary exchange.  We have had a couple of other people who have been involved on the periphery.

CS: You have a very small committee, but people are very committed.

JW: Yes. Last year I put out a call for assistance and Margie Bell volunteered to help with the outbound program this year.

In Aachen there is a larger group of people and they take turns chaperoning and then running the program in Aachen for the Arlington students.  It seems to be planned in advance on a schedule. Most of their committee are teachers.

CS: I want to say thank you very much for your time and for the wonderful insights you have shared.

JW: Thank you very much. It has been fun.