"You want to do what?” was the phrase that passed through Shayne Crowe’s mind as his daughter Lauren, a high school student who was studying Spanish, told him she wanted to go to Italy for a year-long exchange. This announcement started a long process with the Rotary study abroad program. The family learned that the program encouraged them to take an exchange student into their home as part of their participation. “It’s actually a really good program,” said Shayne. “It gives you a peace of mind to know that the family taking care of your child has also sent their kid halfway around the world.” Operating on on a volunteer basis, the Rotary exchange encourages sending families to also receive a student from abroad. The idea is that host families will welcome the student as part of the family in hopes that someone else is being just as hospitable to their kid on the other side of the world. The local Rotary clubs foster these connections in order to promote global understanding, but I doubt they could have anticipated the cultural exchange that was about to enhance the Crowe family’s life.
On the other side of the world, Tommaso Alboni (called Tommy by his friends) was preparing for an exchange as well. Tommy is a seventeen-year-old high school student from Bologna, Italy, and has been in the United States for approximately two and a half months. During the exchange application process, Tommy did hope he would be placed somewhere in the U.S., but his thirst for new perspectives would have been satisfied on any continent. A dedicated student, he reflected, “Being exposed to different cultures is like studying, but with your eyes.” And Tommy has been “studying” for as long as he can remember. For over a decade, Tommy’s mother has enabled him to think globally and travel independently. For example, at age five, Tommy spent three weeks traveling and learning in England—by himself. This is incredible for me to think about, considering the only universal idea I remember pondering as a five-year-old was, “Why is it such a big deal whether I color inside the lines or not?”
Sharing with us what life back home is like, Tommy expressed, “If you come to my city, it will look similar to Rome with the old buildings. It’s Italy, you know!” He described his home as beautiful for tourists but a traditional place with limited opportunities for the locals. “Also, there are no cars, no bikes, everyone just walks.” Despite the need to drive a car to get most places, Tommy has found an abundance of opportunities in Jackson.
We inquired about what his goals and expectations were before coming to the States. He told us he very much wanted to improve his English; he did not feel like he could speak very well. This greatly surprised us, as we (Kim and Melissa) are both English as a Second Language (ESL) tutors and were singularly impressed with Tommy’s English. Our young friend also continually emphasized that he wanted to take every opportunity available to him to broaden his perspectives and adapt to his surroundings. And he is certainly doing so! An attendee of Sacred Heart of Jesus High School, Tommy has excelled on the track team. He also recently played the role of a hyena in his school’s performance of The Lion King. He shared with us that such opportunities are precious to him because schools in Italy do not have organized sports or plays.
When I (Kimberly) meet people who are in a new context, I always enjoy asking two very simple questions: What is your favorite thing? and What is your least favorite thing, or something you would change? When we asked Tommy what his least favorite thing about America was, he paused, breathed a long sigh, and with a pronounced look said, “I’m Italian . . . so . . .
the food.” At this point Robin Crowe told us that Tommy cooks for them several times a week, a pasta dish being the usual fare. As we continued to talk to Tommy, we came to better understand his values as he shared with us the advice one of his mentors had given him: always be first, always be unique, and always be different. “In America I stand out because I am Italian; I am different [as an exchange student] because I took the ACT . . . and in Italy, I will be different because of this experience here.” He also brought up the saying many people have used to describe a year-long exchange: “It’s not a year in your life; it’s your life in a year.” Tommy has taken this saying as his own.
Over and over, Tommy used language that revealed his deep desire to be a competent global citizen. Patterns of thinking are important to him; he understands that in order to achieve a full immersion experience he must learn to think like an American. When asked what his plans were for the future, he eagerly told us about the watch industry. “I like watches, but I don’t want to be stuck inside the watch [the actual mechanical worker]; I want to be more on the face of the businesses.”
On the other side of the coin, as welcomers, the Crowes have experienced a similar transformation. Mrs. Crowe testified, “Even though we haven’t gone anywhere, our horizons have broadened.” Just as Tommy did not know what kind of family he would end up with, the Crowes had no idea what their exchange student would be like. “But we are so grateful for Tommy,” said Shayne. “He is outgoing and wants to be a part of things—and his English is great!”
It is very unusual for two specific geographical areas to directly swap students. While Lauren is not with Tommy’s family, she is in a nearby city. This has brought some peace of mind to Shayne and Robin as parents because, if anything were to happen, they have a translator with connections in Italy living in their house.
Despite these natural concerns, the Crowes informed us that Lauren is doing really well. They are very grateful for Tommy as he is helping them better understand the world their daughter is in. What a way to foster global understanding! Tommy also let us know that he and Lauren frequently Skype each other. “To Skype with her is amazing, you know, because she is understanding the Italian way to think,” he said. These two truly have a unique relationship as each is being enlightened and shaped by the other’s culture.
While being served chocolate chip cookies by the lovely Mrs. Robin Crowe, I (Kim) noticed that there were Bibles on the counter and inquired if the family attended a church. They informed us that they go to Fellowship Bible Church, whose pastor is from South Africa. Tommy grew up in a Catholic environment, so the world of Protestantism expressed with a South African accent has turned out to be quite a cultural experience for an English learner. Robin Crowe talked about how their faith permeates every aspect of their life. She and her family reminded us of a passage in an ancient text: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (NIV, Hebrews 13:3). Both Melissa and I deeply desire Jackson to be a such a place—one that is welcoming to strangers and foreigners, whether they are from around the world or down the street.
As we watched the Crowe family and their host son Tommy wave goodbye to us from the front step, we were struck by the breadth of the cultural network we had stumbled upon here in West Tennessee. While many of us dream of going to exotic places—of experiencing new sights, sounds, smells and different ways of living—traveling to an unknown place can produce unexpected changes in one’s deep values. Like Tommy pointed out, “You have to change your life; you have to change your mentality,” when you are in a new culture.
In modern times, ideas, concerns, and beliefs from various corners of the world have expanded beyond their natural borders, making words like “globalization” and “global community” part of our everyday language. Tommy and Lauren are two individuals who have willingly opened themselves up to a learning experience—an experience that has the potential to change their identity. They are expanding their horizons, exchanging ideas, and living for enlightenment. They are becoming people who are aware of differences, but are willing to seek understanding. They are people who are for the changing of minds.
Kimberly Chavers is originally from Alabama but has lived all across the Southeast. Currently she is a student at Union University studying Intercultural Studies and Teaching English as a Second Language.
Originally from the Chicago area, Melissa Hardman came to Jackson to study Linguistics at Union University and plans to graduate in spring of 2016. She hopes to teach English or work with humanitarian aid organizations one day.
Photograph by Jameson Winters.