Caroline Gao's Transformative Cultural Exchange Experience

Carolyn Gao

"My Host Family Helped Define My Core Values"

Caroline Gao participated in NSLI-Y's summer program in South Korea in 2021, as the world was slowly emerging from isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic . Her cohort was one of the first to return to in-person exchanges, though it required an extensive period of quarantining alone in a hotel room before stepping foot outside into Korean society. She spoke about how the program has impacted her life, helped shape her values, and develop important interpersonal skills. She shared how the program has opened doors to new relationships and opportunities that would have been otherwise unattainable, such as connecting with other young people outside her small Oregon town who shared her passion for diplomacy and international relations, having deep and enriching discussions with them, forming lasting friendships, and learning more about Korean culture.

Caroline credits her host family for being the most impactful part of her experience abroad. She said they helped her realize the importance of prioritizing relationships, mutual understanding, and care for each other. She said, "One of the most significant things I learned in Korea was the importance of making space for every type of communication style to have a chance, inviting people who haven't been heard from as much to step forward, and really making space for everyone to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts." This was highlighted by the cultural differences she noticed between Korean and American communication styles and having a collective­ versus-individualist point of view. Also life­changing for her was learning the significance of laying a foundation of friendship, mutual understanding, and care for each other - even in the professional or academic setting - to facilitate productive relationships.

Carolyn Gao 5

Caroline said the program has helped her improve her Korean language skills, taking her from a novice level when she first arrived in Korea, to being proficient enough now to have in-depth conversations. She spoke about how those skills and experiences will serve her well in the future, both academically and interpersonally, and credits the program for helping her realize and define her core values and making life more meaningful to her. She said she was so thankful that NSLI-Y's fully funded program made it possible for those like her to have such a rich and defining experience in another country.

Next fall, Caroline will attend Harvard University, majoring in government and minoring in East Asian studies, economics, or creative literature, focusing on diplomacy and international relations within the political science field. Having autonomy over her academic journey has become very important to her, while still exploring resources to learn about anything she wants to, and being challenged by perspectives that are different from her own in class and by her peers. One of the reasons she chose to attend Harvard is because she believes that they cultivate that kind of learning environment, just like NSLI-Y did for her last year.

Carolyn Gao 3

Finally, Caroline also stressed the importance of challenging yourself to get out of your comfort zone to experience a different environment, immersed with new people, languages, and cultures, because it's in those situations that you learn what makes life meaningful, regardless of where you happen to be.

Caroline's experience with NSLI-Y is a testament to the transformative power of international programs and the importance of being open to new experiences, people, and cultures. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, learning 21st century skills such as cross-cultural communication, adaptability, and empathy is more important than ever. International programs like NSLI-Y provide young people with the opportunity to gain these skills and become better global citizens, contributing to a more peaceful and connected world.

''Just being able to talk to my host parents about how they felt about being parents, how they felt about their kids, and what kind of a future they wanted them to have, it opened my eyes to the feelings that my parents might have that I honestly hadn't ever thought about before. I put so much effort into getting to know my host family in order to bond with them I realized that in my normal life, I oftentimes think that the best way to give back to my parents is to work really hard in school to the point where I'm not putting in that same time and effort towards my relationships with my family and the people around me. That was a really big revelation to me. " - Caroline Gao