A Redistribution of Services in International Youth Exchange Programs

A Literature Review (2007)

December 10, 2008

Wittenberg [Ohio] International Student Party. Photo by Matt Cline, (CC)

International youth exchange programs have historically provided young people from various parts of the world with opportunities for cultural enrichment through academic study in a foreign country as an extension of their standard curriculum and education. Traditionally, exchange programs have provided students with avenues for experiencing the mainstream elements of the host country, but without a specific set of objectives aimed toward increasing cultural knowledge. Such programs reflect a nation's ability to effectively engage in the international community, similar to the development of exchange initiatives in the Arts and Sciences where art exhibits and performances tour internationally and where there is sharing of scientific technology and advancements between nations.

But with the attacks of September 11, 2001, the scope and purpose of youth education programs, in the United States at least, changed dramatically. As exploratory investigations were initiated to try and identify the underlying causes of these tragedies, the inquiries moved beyond merely piecing together the order of events to look at broader social interplays. Congress forwarded mandates to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs within the Department of State for the procurement of international exchange programs between youth in the U.S. and youth in specified regions of the world with federal funding attached. Under this new scheme, applications were typically granted to non-governmental organizations that facilitated the implementation of programs with clearly defined goals geared towards cultural growth.1

Though there has been an increase in the number of youth exchange programs in the last eight years, with many more programs seeking to include youth from developing states, it appears that there has been insufficient attention given to effective means of delivery of these programs to young people outside the higher socio-economic tiers of societies in the developing world.

Key Elements of International Youth Exchange Programs

The 4-H club organization has been a traditional facilitator of international youth exchange programs. Surveying recent participants, Barry Boyd and his colleagues found that, "International 4-H Youth Exchange participants believed that their participation in the . . . program made a positive impact on their lives. They perceived that they were more sensitive to other cultures, more aware of global events, and more involved in community activities than prior to their participation. Participants described their experience as 'life changing' and 'a growth experience.' Persons close to the International 4-H Youth Exchange participants also believed that the participant was changed by their participation in the foreign exchange program."2

One 4-H study indicated significant growth and increase in cultural awareness among the exchange participants. The youth participants were asked to rank their responses to specific questions in regards to their feelings before and after their exchange experience based on the following scale:

1 = strongly disagree
2 = disagree
3 = don't know
4 = agree
5 = strongly agree

  Before After
Sensitive to Other Cultures 3.24 4.80
Interest in Global Events 3.12 4.56
Involved in Community 4.00 4.28
Exchanged Influenced My Career   3.20
Worthwhile Program   4.96
Continuing Impact   4.80
Enduring Effects   4.20

Though most research seems to demonstrate positive results for participants in exchange programs, the literature primarily indicates difficulty with the reliability and validity of outcome studies conducted regarding the ability of youth exchange programs to effectively develop cultural knowledge. In an article published in Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, the authors note that there is limited empirical evidence about the impact of exchange experiences on the learning process and that we cannot speak with much certainty or scientific rigor about the academic value that such experiences bring to a student's overall education.3

While exchange opportunities prove to provide positive experiences for participants, Arlen Etling and her colleagues note six specific obstacles that can impede the effective delivery of exchange program services:4

  • expense for trips abroad;
  • a lack of a clearly defined project;
  • limited opportunities for adults who might otherwise provide support;
  • program management, including scheduling, evaluation, and complicated procedures;
  • agent's resistance to international activities;
  • problems with state program leadership, such as inadequate communication and impossible deadlines.

Among these, the agent's resistance to change and problems with complicated procedures within state leadership often pose the greatest obstacles, especially for non-government programs working with developing nations. It is often difficult for youth in these countries to obtain a visa from the U.S. State Department because they do not meet all of the necessary criteria, or do not have access to the necessary services. For example, young people are required to apply for their visa designation online, while many populations living in developing states do not have access to the internet. The State Department's alternative is a paper application form which cannot be mailed, and must instead be picked up at the 'local' U.S. consulate. Since a majority of developing nations are not staffed with U.S. consulates outside the embassy in the capital cities, young people in outlying regions would not be able to obtain the application.5 So there seems to surface a hidden population within developing nations that is disenfranchised when it comes to participation and eligibility in international exchange programs.

The Importance of an All Inclusive Youth Exchange Format

In an exchange program between Purdue University students and students from Togo, the U.S. Information Service through the Department of Educational Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Lomé, worked with the Dean of the School of Agronomy at the University du Benin, to select eight Togolese students from the fifth year agricultural class. All of the chosen students had studied English in secondary school.6 This example is typical of exchange programs even within developing states. Students are often selected for exchange programs from the top socio-economic tier of the population; exchange program participants are those who attend schools where western selectivity policies towards educational expansion greatly influence and determine which students have traditionally had opportunities to participate in such programs.

Since the majority of young people in developing states fall below the international poverty line and have substandard access to effective education, these youth are disenfranchised of any opportunity to engage in long-term, academic cultural exchange programs, not least compared to youth in their own countries who fall within the top socio-economic tier. While advancements are made in the development of youth exchange programs in underdeveloped states, these efforts can mislead the world community to believe that equitable progress is being made in the area of youth exchange. In reality however, confusing the increase in the quantity of these programs with qualitative delivery of services to all demographic sectors serves to obscure the fact that a significant majority of the population within underdeveloped countries will not have access to such services.

An article published by the Social Programs and Sustainable Development Department notes the following:

"Equity is an imperative. . . [Education] services are considered essential to human life. Societies have, as a result, appropriately declared that everyone should have access to them regardless of income. This has led most countries to provide public funding and delivery of such services. However . . ., traditional approaches to public financing in the social sectors have frequently led to inefficient, and often inequitable, solutions . . . [Universal access to education] applies, in principle, to all citizens of a country independent of population density, proximity to existing supply of services, or needed level of investment to achieve a desired result.

"When we look at the political structures and the broad organization of society, resource allocation and subsequent delivery of services tends to be skewed in favor of those who have more 'voice.' In many cases, powerful groups, which are able to effectively demonstrate their interest in receiving social services manage to get the lion's share of the funds. In other instances, service providers are able to shape the systems to serve their own personal and professional goals at the expense of equitable delivery."7

Moreover, as Albert Hirschman notes, "Problems created by limited voice of politically weak or disenfranchised clients are exacerbated when combined with direct provision of services in virtual public monopolies."8 "Difficulties due to these characteristics—unobservability of output, importance of equity objectives, and relatively disenfranchised clienteles—can be mutually reinforcing," write the authors of an Inter-American Development Bank report. "For example, efforts to improve the efficiency of public financing can exacerbate inequities if resource allocation formulas fail to adjust for differing needs by region, ethnic group, or income class."9

It appears that the failure to reach youth in the poorest regions of developing countries with effective exchange program opportunities is not related to a funding shortfall but rather to the lack of the effective distribution of available funds and resources:

"The effectiveness of social service delivery systems . . . [bear] a surprisingly small relationship to the level of public expenditures. In education, studies have shown that variations in spending are not the primary determinants of differences in educational performance. A recent study . . . demonstrated that differences in the efficiency of the systems have a much more significant effect on educational outcomes than the level of spending. . . . The focus on improving delivery of . . . social services is justified on several grounds. . . . [A] better educated population is itself a widely accepted goal of our societies. . . . The unequal distribution of educational attainment is a key exacerbating factor in the . . . highly skewed distribution of income. . . . The skills and capacities of healthy and educated citizens can increase and improve their full and active participation in modern dynamic [. . . societies]. Finally, governments already route significant resources into social services, so that improving the effectiveness of these large expenditures should yield significant gains in both equity and growth."10

There is a perception that poorer students and schools in the outlying regions of developing states could not support exchange programs due to inferior infrastructures. Yet whereas traditionally in African nations, as William Morgan and Michael Armer note, education was available primarily to the children of elites and others connected to the colonial rulers, there is also now a vast resource of youth in outlying areas where traditional non-western educational values are the normative model. Moreover, many Third World societies with strong local authority structures have well developed, Eastern-oriented educational systems such as those derived from Qur'anic texts.11

Utilizing the Dynamics of Group, Experiential Learning in Youth Exchange

Without long-term initiatives to bring about equitable global educational standards, specific segments of the world's youth will remain ineligible to participate in academically advanced study abroad programs. But how in the meantime might we include such students in cultural exchange programs? A plausible approach is to offer short-term exchange opportunities, with the focus on increasing cultural knowledge rather than traditional academic aims. Still, the problem remains of how to provide students with equitable levels of cultural enrichment, even over a shorter period of time.

A significant body of research indicates the benefits of group experience as a learning strategy to dramatically increase students' internalization of new information, with comparatively little investment of time. Marilee Miller and her colleagues, for instance, note that, "Research on the effects of group discussion strategies upon social and academic outcomes provides empirical evidence of their efficacy in a number of areas . . . [The] common drive toward a goal has obvious salutary effects upon group motivation to support all students . . . increasing the capacity of the group to move forward with the strengths of the students rather than focusing upon [individual] deficits. Several other areas of research have been shown to be associated with social problem solving and discussion activities."12 Likewise Albert Bandura notes that, "The observation of others engaging in positive social dialogue has an important vicarious effect upon students learning to negotiate conflict (and) social uncertainty."13

Group activity enables youth to explore controversial issues and to interact with people of different backgrounds.14 Thomas Sweeney supports this, observing that, "Classroom meetings allow students to discover unique talents and strengths within themselves and others, enabling an appreciation of diversity."15 Through reciprocal observation of positive behaviors, students learn strategies for effective communication and expression, increasing interpersonal skills.16 In his research examining the effectiveness of group learning versus individual instruction, Rudolf Dreikurs notes that, "A salutary effect of group discussion lies in the area of helping children develop better interpersonal relationships and social reciprocity . . . during group discussions students learn to explore controversial matters and deal with people of different backgrounds."17

"Group study," writes Ken Petress, "has benefits that fall into the cognitive and affective domains. Such study enhances students' social skills, helps bolster student confidence, and helps students practice assertiveness . . . [Group learning] prepares students to enter expanding work arenas where teamwork is demanded."18 Edwin Bridges, meanwhile, notes a further benefit of such interactions, suggesting that collaboration encourages students to adopt a meaning-based approach to learning. Students thereby develop a vested interest in the subject matter rather than simply reproducing factual information.19 And in his theoretical approach to collaborative learning, B. S. Bloom suggests that "group learning can develop higher level skills of analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating, and conceptualizing."20 Group study requires students to articulate what they know to fellow group members. It also requires students to listen to fellow members' ideas. Group activities sharpen participants' communication skills as well as enhancing their cognitive skills. Collaborative learning promotes diversity awareness, tolerance, and acceptance of other cultures and sub-cultures. Being aware of, understanding, and applying diverse learning styles and learning outcomes implicitly prepares students for vocational and community realities. Further, by presenting opportunities of or students to articulate what they have learned to others, group study validates that which students really know.21

In a study conducted at Texas A&M University to assess the effectiveness of exchange programs, the authors state that "lack of understanding [among youth] may stem from a disconnection between 'real world' events and . . . curricula. More effort needs to take place in teaching students how global events may impact . . . practices worldwide. One recommendation for increasing students' knowledge about international . . . [politics] and culture is through increased experiential learning via out-of-the country learning situations."22

The literature seems to support the claim that group learning experiences, even over a short period of time, encourage young people to internalize information, and moreover promote their cognitive and social growth; meanwhile individual learning experiences cannot, within the same time period, be so effective. The effective educational strategy of short-term group learning, applied to youth exchange programs, could solve the problem of how to deliver of youth exchange services to disenfranchised youth, losing none of the effectiveness associated with costly, long-term, and individuated programs.


International youth exchange programs offer young people the experience of enjoying the amenities of a foreign culture, and provide a significant avenue for promoting change and global peace through cross-cultural education. If exchange programs are to be so utilized, consideration needs to be given to those young people who are excluded from these programs due to a lack of effective distribution of resources.

Long-term goals should aim at achieving equitable standards of education, reaching into all regions of a country, along with more even resource distribution. An immediate solution towards overcoming the current inequality of access to youth exchange services would be through short-term cultural exchange programs, designed using the theoretical models and concepts of group learning.

Such an approach would have the added advantage of opening an area for research that would qualitatively and quantitatively measure the ability of short-term, cross-cultural group learning programs to inculcate the kinds of increases in cultural knowledge associated with long-term, individual study abroad.


1 Independent non-profit organizations also continue play a key role in the implementation of exchange programs and typically receive their funding from corporate sponsorship, fundraising or foundational grants.
2 Barry L. Boyd et al., "Does Study Abroad Make a Difference? An Impact Assessment of the International 4-H Youth Exchange Program," Journal of Extension 39, no. 5 (October 2001).
3 Michael J. van de Berg, Al Balkcum, Mark Scheid, and Brian J. Whalen, "The Georgetown University Consortium Project: A Report from the Halfway Mark," Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad X (2004), pp. 65–82.
4 Arlen Etling, Kimberly K. Reaman, K., and Gwen El Sawi, "Overcoming Barriers to a Global Outlook in 4-H," Journal of Extension 31, no. 2 (1993).
5 Alvin Serrano, Country Profiles for Population and Reproductive Health: Policy Developments and Industries (2005); available at web.unfpa.org/upload/lib_pub_file/524_filename_country_profiles_2005.pdf (accessed December 29, 2007).
6 Michael H. Stitsworth, Addressing Third World Development through Youth Exchange, paper presented at the Annual Third World Conference (Chicago, April 9–11 1987).
7 "Supporting Reforms in the Delivery of Social Services: A Strategy Paper" (Washington, D.C.: Inter-American Development Bank, 1996); available at www.iadb.org/sds/doc/SOC-101e.rtf.
8 Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970).
9 "Supporting Reforms in the Delivery of Social Services."
10 Ibid.
11 William R. Morgan and Michael J. Armer, "Islamic and Western Educational Accommodation in a West African Society: A Cohort-Comparison Analysis," American Sociological Review 53, no. 4 (1988), pp. 634–39.
12 Marilee Miller and Gerald D. Nunn, Using Group Discussions to Improve Social Problem-Solving and Learning (Chula Vista, Calif: Education, 2001), pp. 121, 470–5
13 Albert Bandura, Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control (New York: W. H. Freeman, 1997).
14 Rudolf Dreikurs, Bernice Bronia Grunwald, and Floy C. Pepper, Maintaining Sanity in the Classroom: Classroom Management Techniques, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: Taylor & Francis, 1998).
15 Thomas J. Sweeney, Adlerian Counseling: A Practitioner's Approach, 4th ed. (New York: Taylor & Francis, 1998).
16 Henry Clay Lindgren, Educational Psychology in the Classroom (New York: Wiley, 1967).
17 Dreikers, Grunwald, and Pepper 1998.
18 Ken Petress, "The Benefits of Group Study," Education 124, no. 4 (2004), pp. 587–9.
19 Edwin M. Bridges, Program-Based Learning for Administrators (Eugene, Ore.: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management, 1992), p. 16
20 B. S. Bloom, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (New York: McKay, 1956).
21 Petress 2004.
22 Gary J. Wingenbach, Barry L. Boyd, James Lindner et al, "Students' Knowledge and Attitudes about International Agricultural Issues," Journal of International Agricultural and Extension Education 10, no. 3 (2003), p. 25.

blog comments powered by Disqus