How my YFU experience has influenced my career
December 17, 2021 23:51

How my YFU experience has influenced my career

I’m a Business English Specialist for the fashion industry. I help passionate professionals and entrepreneurs in fashion improve their communication and presentation skills.

My YFU experience in 1995-1996 has had a tremendous impact on my career today. My command of the English language, my appreciation of intercultural communication, and my sense of identity are only some of the most important takeaways from that year.

Discovering my own English

“Why go to the US when you already speak English?,” I was often asked. I was a petite Filipina with an awkward haircut in my junior year of high school then. I was at an important crossroad (a.k.a. rebellious phase) of my life and my parents had offered me the chance to go on an exchange year. While it meant leaving behind my high school friends and missing the final year, it also meant a fresh start. I said yes.

The minute I was met by my host family in Texas, I realized the English I spoke was rather different from theirs. “You’ll be talking to belt buckles the whole year!” I was told. The infamous Texan twang accent, the pronunciation, and the intonation found me struggling with a language I already knew. This was my first real test in verbal communication. I needed to understand and to be understood. I copied, I adapted, and I experimented with how I communicated in English. I wanted to discover my own voice. I joined theatre to push me out of my comfort zone. I signed up for journalism classes. I even joined (and won) a poetry-writing contest. It was the year I immersed myself in the English language and emerged with my own communication style – one that I was finally comfortable with. I gained confidence in my speaking ability.

This sense of confidence propelled me to join the debating circuit in my university years. Debating then shaped my critical thinking and public speaking skills. Both of these skills have been instrumental in negotiating with suppliers, clients, etc.

Understanding Intercultural communication

Being in a high school with a mixed population of Caucasians, African-Americans, and Hispanics, I was also exposed to different cultural realities. Food fights in the cafeteria, sparked by racist remarks by one group or another, were not uncommon. My own prom experience was in itself a mini crash-course on intercultural communication. My original date, who was of Afghan origin but was raised in Germany, decided it was best not to come. I had asked him too many inappropriate questions about his religion and his upbringing the weeks prior to the big night. In another non-traditional Asian move, I asked a Caucasian boy (one of the few who wasn’t three times my height) if he wanted to be my date, but he politely declined. My last-minute date was a Hispanic boy. His real date was not allowed to attend, as she was already set to marry someone else.

Through these experiences, YFU allowed me to learn and understand other cultures. It also forced me to see my own culture from a different perspective. The founder of YFU Philippines kept reminding us how to deal with culture shock and how to not be judgmental. “It’s not bad, it’s just different,” she would say.

This skill has allowed me to successfully navigate multi-cultural teams in the workplace. Throughout my career in fashion, I have worked with Asians, Americans, and Europeans. I must say that my ability to be open, and my conscious effort to be culturally sensitive and inclusive, has allowed me to foster good working relationships in general.

Comfortable in my own skin

Living away from my family and immersing myself in a completely different culture gave me the chance to decide who I could really be. I had a sheltered upbringing. For the first time, I found myself unbound by my cultural norms. There were no set expectations whatsoever. I was given a blank slate. I had the freedom to hang out with different people, join various interest groups, and even participate in religious rites other than my own. It was a year where I could experiment and decide who I wanted to be – not because of what was expected of me, but because of who I chose to be. I learned to define my own limits and be comfortable with them.

Gaining this stronger sense of identity has undoubtedly helped me in many ways. It has definitely given me the courage to pursue a life abroad. I have been living in Italy for over 15 years now. I have my own family here. In my professional life, I have learned to value myself more and to recognize the unique value I bring to the team and to my clients.

In conclusion, I can honestly say that my YFU year was a defining moment in my life. Finding my own voice, developing an understanding of intercultural communication, and gaining a stronger sense of who I am, are all key in my continuing professional journey. I will always look back to my experience with much gratitude, knowing that it has played a decisive role in the person who I am today.

Alexandra Medrano Ganzon

YFU Philippines