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The Thais that Bond Us

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Life changing is the best way to describe the student exchange experience for both the students travelling abroad and the parents sending them off. Annually, Johnson & Johnson partners with Youth for Understanding (YFU) to provide an opportunity for students to experience other cultures first hand by living abroad with a host family for six weeks. My daughter, Karlee, had the opportunity to travel to Thailand for the summer for an experience neither one of us will ever forget.

The selection process consisted of writing essays, seeking out letters of recommendation, an extensive interview, and then awaiting the decision. During this waiting period, our family had many conversations about what it would be like to live in a foreign country with an unfamiliar family. The day finally came and the letter arrived. With a lot of mixed emotions on mine and my husband’s part and none on Karlee’s part, Karlee opened the letter. She had been awarded the Johnson & Johnson scholarship and she would be off to Thailand! If Karlee was told she was leaving the next day she would have been ready but she needed to wait 2 months until the end of June.

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Ensuring her safety and health were her Dad’s and my number one concern so letting her go at the airport was a bit difficult. She wasn’t exactly a world traveler prior to this experience nor had she flown alone, much less flying in a series of flights lasting 24 hours. This trip to Thailand would be the furthest as well as the longest amount of time that Karlee would be away from home. I am happy to report that it all went well.

During her six weeks in Thailand she was enrolled in the public high school and truly lived the life of a typical Thai high school teenager — albeit one that did not speak Thai.
Although some things were strange at first– no shoes were allowed in school, the Thai school lunches were truly delicious (the US can learn a thing or two), and the bathroom facilities were unusual, at best — Karlee’s host family was gracious beyond expectations and her classmates treated her like an important dignitary. On her first day of school, with her uniform on and a smile on her face, Karlee was brought to the stage during their daily opening face to face ceremony to present herself to the entire student body. At the time, she didn’t realize that most of the students and faculty do not understand English, but nonetheless they welcomed her with open arms and hearts. On two separate occasions they asked her to be one of the dignitaries in their school ceremonies. This involved a school provided make-up artist, beautician, and Thai custom dress ensemble. Who could say no?

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During her six weeks away, we missed Karlee but we felt the tremendous life experience she was having far outweighed the uneasiness we felt of having her be so far away. The six weeks seemed to go by fast because every day we received a wonderful email about her day’s happenings. It was the highlight of my husband’s and my mornings to read the email and to see the new pictures. We were able to experience a bit of Thailand through her words and pictures.

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As she departed Thailand, she said good bye to her classmates and her host family. Hugs, tears, and mementoes were shared and her journey home followed. After six long weeks, we sighed with relief when we saw her plane land safely back in the US. We noticed a difference in Karlee right away. She had gained an extra level of confidence from being able to live on her own and seemed to have matured years in a matter of six weeks. Karlee is filled with cultural experience that will last her a lifetime. Within 24 hours of being home, she missed her host family, her host grandmother’s wonderful Thai cooking, as well as her classmates and teachers. She was very thankful to be selected to be a part of this program and hopes that this is just the first of many cultural experiences in her future. We are grateful to the wonderful Thai family that was willing to open their home to Karlee and for ensuring her safe stay and return. We are also grateful to YFU and Johnson & Johnson for making this all happen.

For those parents considering an exchange program, you can learn more about Youth for Understanding programs at For parents and students interested in applying for the Johnson & Johnson YFU scholarship program you can apply here.

Connie Kuc is a Finance Manager for Ortho Clinical Diagnostics, Johnson & Johnson. She resides in NJ with her husband and three children. In her spare time, she enjoys staying on top of the financial market news, and with her family she enjoys hiking new trails throughout the US and cycling the different NJ bike trails. Her favorite NJ trails are the Delaware and Raritan State Park Path in Somerset County and the Manasquan Reservoir Path in Monmouth County.

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