Cultural Vistas Blog

Why Learning About International Cultures is Important

This November 14– 18, Cultural Vistas participated in International Education Week (IEW) by bringing international exchange visitors to elementary, middle and high schools in both New York and Washington, D.C to give presentations on their home countries. This year we had 19 J-1 international interns and exchange alumni participate.  The hope is, by sharing their cultures with young American students, participants help to increase global understanding.

Through feedback collected from teachers, students, our international participants, and Cultural Vistas staff, we learned that these presentations are influential and can make a lasting impact on everyone’s life. 

Here’s our Top 3 IEW Takeaways from Participants:

It’s fun!

By listening to IEW presentations, students got to “visit” new countries, and consistently said afterwards that it was a lot of fun!

Presenters are encouraged to create entertaining and interactive activities for the students to participate in. So Nadezhda Smakhtina, an Edmund S. Muskie Internship Program alumna, made a short, Jeopardy-style game for the students after giving her presentation on Russia. One student commented that he “liked how the presenter was very engaging” and enjoyed learning about foreign countries because it gave him “a greater outlook on life.”

Russian Jeopardy game
Students are quizzed on the information they learned during Nadezhda presentation on her home country Russia.

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This #GivingTuesday, We’re Inspired By These Muskie Alumni Volunteers

#GivingTuesday is a global movement that connects individuals, communities, and organizations around the world to celebrate and encourage giving back. Celebrated on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, it represents a global day focused on promoting sustainable change in one’s community.

Even before #GivingTuesday, volunteering and investing in one’s community has been an important facet of American culture. Dating back to the founding of our country, Americans have banded together to help serve the collective good. In 1736, Benjamin Franklin founded the first volunteer firehouse, a concept that continues today with more than 70 percent of firefighters in the United States being volunteers.

Nowadays, the idea of giving encompasses donating one’s time, money, or knowledge to better the health and well-being of the community. In 2015 alone, more than 62 million Americans volunteered more than 7.8 billion hours.

At Cultural Vistas, we honor this American tradition by encouraging our international participants to give back to their adopted communities.

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To Moscow, to Moscow!

To Moscow, to Moscow! – this has always been the yearning phrase proclaimed by characters in novels by Anton Chekhov. “To Moscow!“, they say full of longing because life is supposedly better in Moscow, where they anticipated work and opportunity. But in the end, they never go to Moscow. In June 2016 I, too, told myself: “To Moscow!” but with one difference – I actually went!

What made the difference? The Alfa Fellowship Program.

When I began my undergraduate studies in 2006, I chose Russian as a foreign language. At that time, I could never have imagined that I would develop such a close relationship to Russia and its culture, build such kind friendships with its people, and take several trips resulting from this choice. Since then, I have always been pulled back to Russia.

Ten years later, in the summer of 2016, I now find myself back in Moscow through the Alfa Fellowship Program, a young professionals program for emerging leaders from the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany.

The last opportunity I had to spend time in Russia was in 2010, when I studied at MGIMO in Moscow. Much has changed since then, but specifically the annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the mixed media coverage in Western Europe has made it more and more difficult for me as a foreign observer to truly understand Russia.

As “Promoting Understanding of Russia” is the motto of the program., I thought, “If not now, when – in times of sanctions, Cold War rhetoric and upcoming Duma elections – returning to Russia and better understanding the country?”, I was adventurous and curious.

My experience at the Alfa Fellowship Program orientation made me ready for my year in Moscow. Here’s what I learned about my upcoming fellowship.

Alfa Fellowship 2016 group
Anett (middle in white) visits the Moscow Kremlin with her fellow Alfa fellows

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So You’ve Reached Your Goal Level in a Language. Now What?

Some say that learning a new language after you have reached adulthood is impossible, or too hard, or you just don’t have enough time for it.

Granted, learning a language is difficult. In addition to suddenly having to relearn the grammar of your native language, you are now confronted with memorizing vocabulary lists . You sign up for a class, go through the standard levels of basic, intermediate, advanced intermediate. Maybe you even travel to the country of the language you are learning, or find some friends to practice with.

Finally, you reach your goal level. Now what?

My background as a global exchange educator exposed me to several languages, sometimes simultaneously, and all at different personal comfort levels. Thus, I spend a great deal of time trying to maintain my language levels.

How? I use it, no shame.

Here are 11 ways to take your language learning to the next level:

1. Put “language practice” in your calendar 📅

Setting aside time each week to have a chat in a foreign language can help!

Maintaining a language level requires as much commitment (if not more) as learning a new one. It is easy to be distracted and to get bored quickly because you “know” it all. But really, while any exposure is good, there is no better way than to mindfully sit down without distractions and study.

If you have a longer commute (like I do!), think of the few minutes you have set aside as time to study, read, or use any of the methods outlined below. It also helps to have an accountability partner!

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International Education: What Does It Mean to You?

At the root of our work is the belief that global understanding and the opportunities to learn about other’s cultures and perspectives,
not only broadens our own, but enables us to explore more effective approaches to a range of societal issues.

When we understand how people experience the world, we become more aware of our own experiences. We are better informed. Ideas and solutions that never would have occurred to us are suddenly possible.

This is why every year we look forward to celebrating International Education Week (IEW). Next week, for the eighth-straight year, Cultural Vistas will celebrate IEW by organizing classroom visits that allow our international exchange participants to share their home cultures and traditions with U.S. youth.

We will bring 19 J-1 international interns and exchange alumni representing nine different countries to present at six public elementary, middle and high schools across New York and Washington D.C. As we prepped our volunteers for the week’s activities, we asked them to choose a word or phrase they associate with international education.

Here’s a look at what they had to say:

International Education Week Desiree Cultural Vistas

Desiree Schwindenhammer
Program: Train USA
Home Country: Germany
Word/Phrase: Understanding
“Meeting people from other countries gives you a chance to not only learn about your differences, but also discover how much you might have in common.”

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Successful Refugee Integration Begins at the Local Level

Applications are now being accepted from U.S. and German communities for the 2017 Welcoming Communities Transatlantic Exchange. The deadline to apply is December 2.


The civil war in Syria and the continued turmoil in the Middle East has resulted in millions of people – families, men, women and children – fleeing their homes. With communities torn apart by war and violence, refugees hope to find a better future in places where they can lead their lives in peace, security and stability.

At the recent Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, hosted by President Obama in partnership with six countries, including Germany, there was a shared understanding that the refugee response must be as global in nature as the crisis itself is. This will support policies, resources and funding for millions of displaced people worldwide.

Many refugees will resettle in both Germany and the United States. Though our national response is important, the ultimate success of the refugee crisis will depend on the integration that takes places in hundreds, if not thousands of local communities throughout the two countries. Once again, we must think globally and act locally to properly address this challenge.

Display boards at Symposium on refugee intergraion
Nine U.S. and German communities took part in the inaugural year of the Welcoming Communities Transatlantic Exchange, which culminated at a September symposium in Berlin. 📷: Constanze Flamme

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Cachai? (Did You Catch That?): A Primer on Chilean Slang

You’ve taken years of Spanish. Maybe you even studied in a Spanish-speaking country. You feel prepared to take on the challenge of interning in a second language. And then you arrive in Chile and suddenly you’re not so sure that what you’re hearing can be described as español – especially since they seem to be calling it castellano!

With its slang and strongly accented speakers, Chilean Spanish can be difficult to understand at first. Once you get used to it though, you’ll realize how fun it is to say things the Chilean way.

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile, Patagonia.
Photo Credit: Douglas Scorteganga

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Making New Friends in Unexpected Places

The people you meet and the relationships you form are often the most lasting and rewarding parts of traveling.

And sometimes, those special bonds and friendships can come from the most unexpected of places.

That’s exactly the takeaway that Ben, one of our Train USA J-1 alumni and a winner of our 2015 contest, learned during his U.S. exchange experience.

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New York City Slow Down, Merit Winner of the 2015 Transformed by Travel Photo Contest

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How to Adjust to a New Semester After Going Abroad

After spending an incredible summer in Beijing, nothing seemed as daunting as a 7,000-mile journey, 40 hours of traveling, 2 flight delays, and a 1:30 AM arrival time.

Except starting a new semester the very next day.

More than a bit frazzled, a million questions buzzed through my head. How could I make sense of my time abroad and express it to my friends and family? How could I cope with this “reverse culture shock” they told me about? And how could I leverage my international experience to become a stronger student, now that I was back on campus?

If, like me, you’re starting to feel anxious about returning to reality, fret not! I’m here to share some tips on how not to feel out of place after going back to school.

University Library and Study Hall
Time to hit the books. Photo Credit: Thomas Rousing

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Exploring the Outdoors with Your Camera

At the end of his internship in Texas, Valentin, a Train USA J-1 alumnus and current Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies, decided to explore the canyons and the southwestern United States. He planned a 14-day road trip through southern Utah and northern Arizona, including five national parks.

Most nights were spent camping, often in the back country. On one night, in particular, he set up camp in the back country of Arches National Park and was fortunate enough to witness our very bright galaxy from within. He used his headlamp to light up the inside of his tent as he captured the Milky Way and other stars in the night sky.

Capturing this moment allowed Valentin to net the top prize in our 2015 Transformed by Travel Photo Contest. We recently caught up with him to learn about his U.S. experience and see what advice he could offer this year’s crop of budding photographers.

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Desert Milky Way, First Place Winner of the 2015 Transformed by Travel Photo Contest

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