Dresser: A little nudge goes a long way | Columns

When people talk about life changing decisions or moments, they usually refer to things such as getting married, having children, or where they decide to study/work. As winter approaches and the winter exchange program looks to return to pre-pandemic form, I look back on a decision that I made years ago that led to the creation of the exchange program and what it is today.

About seven years ago I was invited to a meeting with Costa Rican parents to share information about a potential high school exchange trip. My colleague had been asking me to offer something to inspire the students and motivate them to keep studying English and knowing how I struggled with Spanish I felt a duty to help. I saw the meeting as an opportunity to brainstorm, goal define, and get feedback to research more options and continue with subsequent meetings.

It was to my surprise though a few days later when my colleague called me to say that the students/parents were interested in my proposal and wanted to go in three months. I had essentially spouted ideas anticipating a much longer timeline not knowing I’d be challenged to walk the walk so soon.

As much as I wanted to slow/delay things there was little I could do. Parents and students were off and running and before I knew it forms had been filled out, deposits had been collected and flights were being booked. Oh boy, here we go and away we went.

Fast forward to this January and it will mark seven years since that inaugural exchange, which VAHS hosted (and this paper reported on). I learned a lot from that experience, but probably the biggest thing was overcoming the unknown and just going for it. Without being nudged by my colleague and the parents I don’t think I would have ever had the courage to launch the initiative.

As I write this now we are in the host family recruitment process, which is the biggest activity in terms of preparing for the exchange and probably the most stressful. It is the one wildcard of the whole program as we can’t tell host students and families exactly what the homestay experience will be like.

Each exchange student is unique just like the host families. Many families are interested in hosting, but the uncertainty can and does cause hesitancy when pondering participation.

To overcome this, I’ve experimented with different pre-exchange activities and recently I had the chance to visit VAHS to speak about the exchange program. I didn’t want to just regurgitate information from the website, I wanted to bring culture into the classroom and provide a nudge.

Something that is well accepted worldwide and especially known for in Costa Rica is coffee. It travels well and is simple to prepare so this was my in to awaken sleepy high school students. A few students said they consumed coffee regularly so they weren’t my concern. I wanted the non-coffee drinkers to get a “taste” of the coffee drinking experience.

Coffee is not just about keeping you warm on a cold day or giving you an energy burst, it’s a culture, a lifestyle, all the way from preparation to consumption. It’s not so much about the coffee, but what it facilitates.

The conversations, the experiences, the enlightenment can all be accompanied by coffee. In less than 30 mins, students have perked up and seen another take on something they’ve heard about or even do regularly.

When participating in an exchange program, everything that happens is like the coffee experience. You think you know what your daily life and experiences are like, but just wait till the exchange student gives their take. Things such as “What’s the cold and snow like?” or “How do you survive winter?” all the way to “How does the dishwasher work?” or “Is it ok to flush the toilet paper?”

An exchange student may ask more questions than a 5-year-old, but it’s not that they’re learning from zero, they are comparing and contrasting what they are used to, which in turn allows hosts to see a different perspective as well. Like coffee, the exchange is not the end goal, but rather facilitates everything else.

While participating in an exchange program has its unknowns, it’s not a blind leap of faith. It’s a well calculated opportunity that everyone benefits from and all it takes is a little nudge.

Of all the times I’ve been nudged by someone or something, that moment seven years ago started me out on a path where nearly everything I’ve done since then can be traced back to that moment and the exchange experience, while maybe not the main goal, is a facilitator in every project I participate in.

This January VAHS and Verona area families have the chance to host a Costa Rican student for two weeks and it was my hope that the coffee visit would be a nudge to motivate students to host.

For those of you who missed that visit, this nudge is for you.

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