Youth Exchange and Peacebuilding Post 9/11: Experiences of Muslim High School Exchange Students
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In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. government initiated a youth exchange program to bring Muslim students to the U.S. for a school year. The Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program was created to help reduce tensions, and foster mutual understanding and respect between people in the U.S. and the Muslim world. It is commonly assumed that exchange programs promote cross-cultural understanding and goodwill, leading to a more peaceful world. Drawing on literature in the fields of peace education, intergroup relations, and international educational exchange, this study explores the connections between youth exchange and peacebuilding in our post 9/11 world. This qualitative, interview-based study examines the experiences of twenty-one Muslim high school exchange students participating in the YES program in the 2007-2008 school year. The study participants were between 16 and 19 years old and came from eight countries in the Middle East and Asia. The study highlights the exchange students' experiences living with American host families and attending American high schools. The study also explores how the exchange students carried out their role as young ambassadors, helping Americans understand their countries, cultures, and religion, as well as how they dealt with sometimes being labeled as terrorists. The experiences of the exchange students in this study provide evidence that youth exchange can foster changes in attitudes, affects, skills, and behaviors that are likely to contribute to a more peaceful world. The program structure and duration facilitate the formation of close personal relationships, as well as tremendous personal growth. The program goals and expectations also contribute to the students' success as young ambassadors. The students were able to correct inaccurate stereotypes and develop skills in cultural mediation. This study also demonstrates that youth exchange incorporates many of the key components of peace education programs. Recommendations for program changes include focusing more directly on peace and peace education, addressing conflict issues, building skills in conflict mediation, developing leaders for peace, and training local coordinators in peace education.