National Committee Professional Fellows Program alumni Jo Nelson and Li Sai discuss the impact of their exchange experiences on their professional and personal lives and on their broader views of people-to-people exchange.
Jo Nelson is the director of Total Action for Progress’s This Valley Works component. In this role, she is responsible for top-level management of twenty programs with more than forty funding sources. The programs focus primarily on economic stability of individuals and families and encompass the broad areas of homelessness services, education services, employment training services, ex-offenders services, veterans’ services, and two-generational services. Ms. Nelson has more than 37 years of experience in non-profit management having served in leadership positions in both Louisiana and Virginia. She holds a bachelor’s degree in business and a master’s degree in counseling from Louisiana Tech University. Ms. Nelson participated in the Professional Fellows Program working with delegates from Morocco, Mongolia, Peoples Republic of China, and Taiwan; and served as faculty for their Professional Fellows Congress.
Li Sai is an independent consultant with over six years of professional experience in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors in China and overseas. Her thematic expertise ranges from strategic communications to partnership building. Ms. Li works with grassroots organizations in China focusing on community development and youth empowerment. She holds a master’s degree in anthropology and development from the London School of Economics and Political Science Ms. Li is a fellow of the spring 2019 Professional Fellows Program.
Kathy Huang: Hi everyone, my name is Kathy Huang, and today I’m joined by Li Sai and Jo Nelson, alumni of the National Committee’s Professional Fellows Program, to discuss how their exchange experience affects their work, their personal journey, and their views on people-to-people exchange. This interview is part of a series of conversations on people-to-people exchange at the National Committee. So welcome, Li Sai and Jo, thank you so much for joining me today.
Can both of you give us an overview of what kind of work you do, how did you start your work, and what inspired you to do what you do?
Li Sai: Thank you, Kathy, and good evening Jo. it’s my morning time. My name is Li Sai, as you already know. My work is around youth development. So we help teenagers, either they are pupils or they are secondary school students/ high school students, to initiate their social and innovation projects outside of their school. They could do it in their communities, in their families. So we hope that the teenagers in China will have the opportunity to engage in public discussion or engage in social innovation, social issues to help their school and the community to be a better place.
Jo Nelson: Hi I’m Jo Nelson and am from Roanoke, Virginia. I’ve been working in non-profits or non-governmental organizations for many many years, but my work that I’m most proud of is that that I’m doing currently, and they’re really four categories: it’s really about social and economic empowerment of people who feel disenfranchised in our country. They include people returning from incarceration in jail; we work with homeless veterans trying to help them adjust coming out of the military and back into life; we work with at risk youth people who maybe only are a single parent family or having difficulty with law enforcement or school as a teenager and trying to find a way, and then finally with adults who maybe didn’t excel at school or never completed school and who really need to find a better way to support their family, and so doing job training for them.
Huang: Perfect, thank you so much. That was a great overview of your work, and now I would like to dive deeper into your experience participating in the Professional Fellows Program, we will refer to as PFP from now on. So the first question I have on PFP is:
What made you decide to participate in the Professional Fellows Program?
Nelson: PFP was an opportunity that presented itself to me at my agency, and so I was excited about it, but I was raised in a family where we did youth exchange. I think it’s critically important I want to learn. I love studying culture and history, and so I thought it was a good way to share and to learn more not only more about the culture but about ways other people are doing the same kind of work we do.
The other thing is that I was really excited to be able to do an exchange the other direction. So I was one of the Americans who was allowed to go overseas and to look at the projects firsthand in the other country, and that was so inspiring to be able to see them take the learning back. So that is something that I don’t think we necessarily think about immediately when you’re asked to do an exchange, but it truly is great to see a project grow from ground up.
Li: The reason I want to join this program is that I think it is such a unique format. We were able to stay with an organization in the States for a month, and then at the same time we live with a local family. So I think this combination of both professional and casual is the beauty of this program. I also think that being able to see first-hand what our counterparts in the States are doing within the youth development field is very unique, because we learn about their work online by reading their websites and by watching the videos, but we never get a chance to talk to them face to face and see their work in reality. So, I think this opportunity is very special and I benefited so much from that.
Huang: How was your experience different or similar to your expectations? I know you both wrote down goals at the beginning of your exchange, and when you look back at them, how do you feel like you’ve achieved them throughout your exchange experience?
Li: I think by the end of that year it was the beginning of COVID, so everything was not being able to plan as usual. But I keep close contact with my host family and also with my host organizations, so that relationship was there. And I think when the opportunity presents, I could easily go back to what I have planned in the beginning. So the beauty of this program is that even though you don’t really see the plan go well, but still you meet the people and you build the relationships, and they will always be in your life. So, I’m hoping that when everything is back to normal, we will start this exchange between students level with my host organization soon.
Nelson: A lot of my work and a lot of the goals we looked at were the goals of the exchange professional coming over to our office. I had some expectations I had said about wanting to learn more about them and watching them grow, but much more so I was focused on helping them achieve their goals.
So I’ve participated in more than one at this point, and the one that was two or three years ago, we have been very successful, and I’ve been able to keep in contact. We’ve seen growth and they’ve made some progress. Our most recent exchange, COVID, again, did impact it, because we weren’t quite there yet, but I have to say even three years later from the first exchange, we still communicate regularly. I am still hearing from the community that the non-profits are in. I’m still hearing from the exchange professional and from others that we met in that community when I went over. So the knowledge sharing and the hopes and aspirations are still being shared. We’re still working on them, but much slower, and we hope to see some of them totally completed and successful in the near future.
Huang: Great! Both of your answers actually give a perfect segue to my last question, which is even though we know that PFP is a professional exchange program, there’s other aspect to that experience for sure. And both of you already touched upon your relationship with your host families and the personal relationship that you build throughout the experience, so I’m curious to learn:
What are some of your best memories outside of work during your PFP exchange?
Nelson: Truly the outside of work is some of the best times. I live near the Blue Ridge parkway and the Appalachian trail mountain ranges in Virginia, and one of the things we did was we took our last two PFPs out, and we actually hiked on the mountain ranges, and we sat and meditated together and really looked at what is nature like and what surrounds us here versus what nature is like and what they do outside in their community, so it was really exciting to see the likenesses. We spent lots of time eating meals and trying to figure out what things really are American versus were things that came from other countries, which was kind of exciting to get their perspective on it. And I think that the key takeaway to me on our outside of work was the more time we spent together and talked about the differences in our countries, the more we learned as human beings and as people, we’re really the same. We truly value similar things and want the same things for our families, for our lives, and for our communities. So it was that bonding that takes place that makes the person-to-person exchange totally different from anything else and so inspirational. And I think that’s why years later there’s still that connectedness with the people that we did the exchange with.
Li: I totally agree with Jo, that’s beautifully said. And my own experience told me that. I joined different kind of family activities with my host family. The first night I arrived, I went to the soccer game of the daughter of the family. She plays soccer. And then we also saw the soccer game of Minnesota, I forgot the other opponents, but the stadium was brand new, and there are so many people. And whenever there is like a corner shot, everybody will waive their scarves and saying, “scarves up!” So that was a cultural difference I’ve never experienced. I also joined theater show at the host family, so I was able to observe the nuances of their life and constantly comparing the similarities and the differences.
I remember the husband of the host family never took his phone upstairs to his bedroom. He never brought cell phones before going to bed. That’s so different behavior than mine, and I learned so much because that’s very important for a good sleep. And there are just various cases where I got a hot moment where I realized: “oh maybe I should pick up this habit” or “this is very different and it’s very interesting” and I have very good memories.
Huang: So now I want to move on to the more general topic about people-to-people change. So as you know currently between U.S. and China, there’s a lack of people-to-people exchange.
Given your own personal experience, what’s your current view on people-to-people exchanges, and what roles do you see it play in international relations, namely on U.S.-China relations in our case?
Nelson: One of the things that I’ve learned over the years and doing the exchange is, I have a better understanding if I can relate to another human being in a similar life in a similar workplace, something to connect us. And I truly think additional people-to-people exchange would help the relations between the two countries. I think people in general know what they want to know and know how they want to treat others, and a lot of times politics gets in the middle and makes it more difficult. But I truly think people-to-people exchange is one of the best methods to bring the countries and the peoples together.
Li: People-to-people exchange is a beautiful idea because the public easily jump into conclusions or perspectives about you know the other country or the other people, but I think by the end of the day it’s the experience that really matters. So people-to-people exchange is a great idea to experience or to harvest that experience, and then whenever you come into a conclusion or ideas or opinions about other countries, I refer to the experiences I have, but my experience is not complete. So that has motivated me to collect more experiences to see and to experience more, so that my idea about a cultural, about the people can be more realistic. So I think that’s the benefit of people-to-people exchange.
Huang: Perfect! I think we are on the same page about wanting more exchange between U.S. and China, and my last question is built upon that, and I would like to ask:
What kind of people-to-people exchange do you hope to see in the future?
Li: On the job front, of course, I would love to see more exchange between students. Now students are more used to online communication, so maybe there can be programs set up online for student exchanging ideas between China and the States. Personally, I think it’s great to move it offline, of course when situation allows, and being able to live at a host family, that’s a great benefit to me. I think my experience would be totally different if I live in the hotel and then have the similar experience with my host organization, but without the part of my host family. So being able to communicate with the real people, the public, is a great part of the people-to-people exchange I think.
Nelson: It’s interesting when I left the work at the office today, one of the things we were talking about with my colleagues was not only that we would like to see more people-to-people exchange direct contact back, having people back visiting us, but also talked about how wonderful it would be to have reunions, and to figure out a way so that a year, two years down the road. we will be able to reconnect person-to-person with the people that were here in the Fellows program, whether they were to come here, or we were to go there, to really talk about what’s changed in our lives, what’s changed in our communities, and how have we taken the experience and grown. So I think it’s something that really would be helpful. And we’re looking at a way of how we can do that using technology, because right now there’s such a limit on travel. But the idea of not only continuing to meet other new people, spreading the word, working with more people, but then how do we bring that whole group back together and how do we make those connections across the years to people who’ve been at the exchange so that they can share and learn from each other.
Huang: Thank you so much Li Sai and Jo for sharing your personal journey and views on people-to-people exchange with us today. I personally really enjoyed our conversation and learning in depth about your experience and views, and I’m sure our audience did as well. Thank you so much for everyone who tuned into this interview, and if you would like to hear more conversation on this topic, please tune in to other contents and programs produced by the National Community on people-to-people exchange. Thank you and have a great evening!