Name: Sarah Blumenstock Girrell, Kris Girrell + their son, Jesse Girrell
Occupation: Business owner
Location: North of Boston in Andover, MA
Relationship to Cultural Vistas: Sarah, Kris and Jesse have been a full-time Host Family since 2014, having hosted 8 on the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals program for a full year.
Within the Cultural Vistas international community of participants, alumni, host companies and families, cross-cultural connections abound. Our programs facilitate professional experiences across the globe and allow participants to meet people from all backgrounds whether at school, at work, or at home. The experience of hosting an exchange student is one that Sarah and her family weren’t so sure about at first.
Eleven years ago, Sarah received a call from her friend who is an alumna of the CBYX for Young Professionals exchange program. When Cultural Vistas was looking for people to host participants on short term stays of 2-3 day visits, she suggested Sarah give it a try. Sarah was excited, but the idea of taking someone into their home made her husband a bit nervous. But that’s where the power of positive exchange comes into play. This could be a good experience for their 12 year old son, Jesse, an only child. So, in 2010, they welcomed the first of many exchange students to their home.
By 2012, they became a full-time host family, welcoming German CBYX participants for a full year and have added to their transatlantic family every year since. They will become even more a part of our exchange world this summer when Jesse, who is now 23, will head to Germany as an American participant of the CBYX for Young Professionals program.
We interviewed Sarah about her experience as a host-mom and what she’s learned along the way:
Why do you think it is important for people to live with a family while experiencing a new culture? The international aspect is so interesting. People do things differently, but people are actually the same. You really see this by experiencing it together, having cultural experiences like Christmas in a different home, eating meals with new ingredients, navigating relationships–it enriches your life.
“I love the world we show them and I love the world they introduce us to.” – Sarah Blumenstock Girrell
What are some things that have surprised you about your exchange “children”?
German kids don’t know how to write a check! They are amazed when filling up gas and marvel at how big the cars are. Also – every one of the kids who has come to stay with us has been told that Americans just eat fast food and an unhealthy diet and are surprised by how healthy we eat. I always take them to the grocery store the first week they arrive so they can show me what they like to eat and I can help them find what they are looking for. Mostly, I notice that having come from multi-generational homes and being older than the average American when finishing high school, they are eager to learn, grow, give and be part of the family.
What advice would you give to those interested in hosting international participants? Each kid has brought so much to our life, there’s a lot of love there. You help raise them. It’s a relationship for the long-term. We hosted the parents of one of our children while on vacation in the U.S., went to the wedding of one host son in Germany, and kept in touch with them all. My advice to potential host families is to be flexible. We were supposed to have a participant stay with us in 2020, but the arrangement was canceled due to the pandemic. Luckily, we are expecting to find out this June who we are hosting next at the same time seeing our son off to Germany where he already has a family waiting to welcome him.
To learn more about opportunities to host a CBYX for Young Professionals exchange participant, contact Max Flescher: firstname.lastname@example.org
A year ago, this month during the height of the pandemic, our organization started having internal conversations about the need to be more agile. Our business like many others came to a complete standstill. We were in the middle of implementing layoffs, figuring out how to deliver exchange programs virtually and pursuing government stimulus funding. The terms “agile,” “pivot” and “reimagine” became a major part of our vernacular.
ag·ile /ˈajəl/ adjective
able to move quickly and easily.
relating to or denoting a method of project management, used especially for software development, that is characterized by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans.
These conversations were far reaching, theoretical and very confusing. The discussions ranged from how to foster an agile mindset to how to become a “flatter” organization to how we were going to start acting and talking like a software development company – the prominent users of agile product development.
We had a hard time agreeing on what we were actually talking about and spent time developing alternative vocabularies that made even less sense than the terms we were trying to understand. Ultimately a lot of team members walked away from those conversations frustrated.
That seemed like a first strike.
Though frustrated, we weren’t ready to give up. We decided to proceed with “doing” agile versus “talking” about agile. Given our need to find the “magic pivot” we pursued a 3-month effort to identify new program and revenue models.
We quickly stood up four cross-departmental teams whose mandate was to pursue design thinking and agile product development to come up with viable program/revenue models we could launch at the end of three months. The teams worked hard, built a lot of camaraderie, and for the most part had fun.
The outcomes were mixed. We jumped so quickly into “doing” and didn’t really develop the technical knowledge and skills of design thinking and agile product development. The limited preparation and training led to limited results. We didn’t find the big pivot, but we did accomplish a robust experience of agile that helped those involve better understand the concepts and how to apply them.
That seemed like strike two.
In August as the teams were winding down their agile product development work, we decided to pursue a more comprehensive strategic planning effort. We needed some intensive thinking about our future, the future of exchanges and what role we should play in a new world order.
In our strategic discussion with our key stakeholders the same theme of the needing to be agile, adaptable, and innovative resurfaced and became one of our strategic pillars, summarized as the following:
Build a learning culture that fosters innovation, resilience and adaptability and build the capacity of staff for innovation and agile program development.
With two strikes already on the books, we decided to double-down on agile and take it to the next level by investing in staff training and development on both agile program management and design thinking across the organization.
We turned to our cross-departmental team structure (as that was successful) and provided them a mandate to advance the goals in the strategic plan, giving them autonomy to prioritize what steps should come first. We then brought in an outside trainer and coach to work with them on agile project management. We started with a series of trainings, then let them work through the methodology with the coach. The teams worked using agile for three months, presenting to a steering committee on a weekly basis.
Last week, I asked the product owners to present their deliverables to our board of directors during our annual spring meeting. They did a great job and I was so proud of the learning and growth we’ve experienced by failing AND succeeding together.
Overall, we learned from the first series of strikes and ultimately hit a homerun with this process. We have built a deep camaraderie among staff who don’t normally work together. I believe this spirit is invaluable to rebuilding our organization. As I look back at this journey – I think it is important to highlight a few key lessons and I welcome any learnings or questions you may have too!
One of the core tenets of agile project management is to fail fast. That is a necessary part of the process. Our first two attempts I referred to as strikes, were critical in getting to the homerun. Without those lessons, we would not have been able to get to the place we are today.
Bringing in outside training and coaching was a game changer. The skills required for agile project management are very technical. Having this critical guidance made a huge difference in the successes we eventually realized.
Developing champions and early adopters of a new strategy is so important. Once you have a core set of staff that sit in various places throughout the organization who know, understand and have executed agile project management – it begins to seep into the organizational and soon, everyone starts time blocking meetings and having retrospectives.
Knowing when to deploy it is key. You need to make a distinction between agile mindset and agile methodology. The two are interconnected. It’s hard to deploy agile methodology without an agile mindset, but you can have an agile mindset without deploying agile methodology.
We just completed a set of trainings on design thinking to help us ideate new program, service and revenue models that align to our mission and new strategic direction. It’s exciting to bring new learnings to life and we are looking forward to co-creating opportunities with our partners, alumni and supporters!
Nancy Mancilla exemplifies how international exchanges develop active and engaged global citizens both in their local communities and in their alumni communities, as well as the impact their work can have on a global scale. Nancy’s journey to being the CEO and Founder of ISOS Group is full of experience working with refugees and a desire to understand her place in the world to leading the future of sustainability. Read on to hear why Nancy gives her time, talent and financial contributions to the Cultural Vistas community.
Name: Nancy Mancilla
Relationship: Cultural Vistas Alumni Council + Alumna of the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals (CBYX) 1999-2000
Current location: San Diego, California
Occupation: CEO + Founder of ISOS Group
Nancy, you are a founding member of the Cultural Vistas Alumni Council – how did this come about?
In my work travels, I always make a point to connect with fellow exchange alumni and back in 2015, I stopped into the Cultural Vistas office in Washington D.C. while in town for a conference to ask how I could get involved. I’ve been part of a number of start-up advisory roles and when the opportunity to join the inaugural Alumni Council came out of that, I said yes. I wanted to learn more about other exchanges and feel that alumni have a lot of shared passions and experiences that could be brought together. I love planting seeds and cross-pollinating ideas – it’s in my nature!
I was the first Alumni Council Co-Chair when the advisory board kicked off in 2016 and I’m proud to say that we have come a long way in terms of creating an engaged group of alumni ambassadors. I’ve stayed on for an additional term to support the council as they look to expand their activities alongside Cultural Vistas new strategic plan.
Nancy – thanks for all you do, we are so glad you could stay on and help guide this important work. What is personally rewarding for you in terms of giving back to the international exchange community?
Growing up I didn’t have role models for going to college outside of my teachers. Being Mexican-American, however, I was able to travel to Mexico City to visit family and grew an interest in politics which I wanted to study in college. Once there, I was attracted to study international relations because I understood that as a Mexican-American, I was also a part of the world and should view politics through this lens.
Studying international relations during undergrad led me to meet likeminded people from around the world but it was my first German boyfriend that inspired my interest in German culture (and punctuality) which was the impetus for applying to CBYX. Now, 20 years later I want everyone to have this experience which has shaped the way I work and live. I enjoy hosting international interns, my company benefits so much by having them and we never pass up an opportunity to host. I also stay connected to my fellow CBYX alumni – my cohort just celebrated our 20th anniversary virtually this past year. It is truly rewarding to be part of this community.
You studied international relations and during your year on CBYX worked with refugees of the Balkan War through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees – how did this experience lead you to a career in sustainability?
As an intern at Raphaels-Werk, a refugee assistance and resettlement organization implementing a UNHCR mandate in Hamburg, it was my responsibility to record the stories of refugees of the war in the former Yugoslavia. This work required a lot of mental stamina and I learned to listen and take careful notes. It was also my first experience living in another country so I was simultaneously adjusting to being in a new culture. Ultimately, I worked to help settle refugees in the U.S., Canada and Australia. This experience led me to do a Master’s program in the Netherlands so that I could be close to the Hague and attend the War Crimes Tribunals. As part of my field work, I visited the towns torn apart by this conflict which gave me a perspective on the environmental impact of war. I also worked with a bank that looked at the economic impact of sustainable development. I began to make the connection between sustainable development and rebuilding war-torn communities.
When I returned to the U.S. I started a second Master’s in Public Service where I expanded my work in sustainable development. Today, I run ISOS Group – a sustainability standards consultancy – working with companies to ensure standards and empowering professionals in sustainable development around the world. It has been incredible to work with so many companies investing in this work and to be part of this movement for many years. A lot of the passion and resilience stems from my time on CBYX and learning to adjust to news ways and customs, it was invaluable.
What excites you about the future of work and the future of international exchange?
This past year, while challenging in so many ways especially as a mother and a business owner, was also inspiring for sustainability. We really saw companies double down on their commitment to move sustainability standards forward with the best of intentions. That can only be something to be excited about. Furthermore, the virtual space gives us the opportunity to connect our work and gain insight from around the world – it’s really activating my global network in new ways. This is the future of work and I’m glad that this overlaps with my exchange experience and the global mindset I’ve gained through that – we are able to be more nimble and adaptable with our growth.
For international exchange, I’m excited to see more opportunity for access because this is such a vital experience. When we work with people we see the difference in those who have had these experiences – it makes a big difference. What Cultural Vistas is doing to expand access, invest in alumni, grow global networks, and create more global leaders in their communities is such an important tool for building authentic change and lasting peace around the world. I’m excited to be a part of it and am at a point in life where it’s hard to consider “what’s next?” The only thing that comes to mind is a vacation; preferably with a hammock involved.
Thank you Nancy, for all that you do and all that you give back – you are an inspiration and we are honored to have your leadership! Join Nancy and help us grow alumni giving as we invest in the future of international exchange. Donate to join our giving community today.
The Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals (CBYX) is a fellowship funded by the German Bundestag and U.S. Department of State that annually provides 75 American and 75 German young professionals between the ages of 18½–24 the opportunity to spend one year in each other’s countries, studying, interning, and living with hosts on a cultural immersion program. Separate CBYX programs not administered by Cultural Vistas include similar programming for high school and vocational students.
CBYX has weathered many challenges in its 37 years, but nothing like the one on March 12, 2020. Ironically, the same day Cultural Vistas held an organization-wide remote work trial, the U.S. State Department and German Parliament made the difficult decision to curtail the 2019-20 CBYX program due to the emerging pandemic. Each of our 150 participants on both sides of the Atlantic had to return home immediately. As the global pandemic worsened, the 2020-21 CBYX program would pivot to a fully virtual format.
Cultural Vistas Senior Director Dr. Daniel Villanueva and member of the CBYX for Young Professionals College Coordinators Council and merit scholarships advisor, Dr. Lori A. Felton (American University, Washington DC), here take stock and share key lessons learned a year on.