By: Andrea Dennis, CCI Greenheart Coordinator

You know how mom always told you to practice the piano… and now you kinda wish you did? Well my mother and father were both right when they invited exchange students into our home. My parents were always adventurers–dad spent a few years in Gabon for the Peace Corps and mom traveled as much as she could, and has always been a lover of people and their stories. It’s no wonder we had three exchange students in our years at St. Bernadette grade school in Amelia, OH. My brother and sister both hosted when they were 11, but I must say, I was the lucky one with the best exchange student of all, Simran Soni. A school delegation of around 6 kids and their teacher came from Blue Bell School in New Delhi for a month visit to the USA. Looking back, I cannot believe how my little school got matched with a school from New Delhi, but I am sure glad we had committed administrators and teachers who made these sort of exchanges happen.

Simran stayed with us as a new “Dennis sister” for one month. We kept her busy touring the state of Ohio, visiting all of our family members, and entertaining her with backyard bbq’s. Unfortunately, she also went through the death of our beloved puppy Ivory Jr., and together we cried! Now 15 years later, we still feel the same emotion, love and innocence we had 15 earlier. My sister, Katie, and I knew we wanted to visit Simran and India. I had told Katie, “save your college graduation money… we are going to India”. I don’t quite think my sister believed me until Simran said she was getting married and we must come! So we booked the dates and made dreams come true in February 2012.

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When I tell people our story, they are shocked to learn Simran had only stayed at our house for one month, and that we had stayed in touch after all these years. It just goes to show, that even the people you meet for a second, a minute or a month can change your life forever. Not only do I have a lifelong Indian sister, making the reciprocal exchange after 15 years brought me a community of Indian friends, family and my Soni mom and dad. I have never felt more connected traveling than I did in India, because family is where the heart is…

Sometime when working for Center for Cultural Interchange, is it a challenge to get out of the administrative bubble and feel the joys that cultural exchange bring into the lives of the 10,000 participants that CCI helps each year. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to visit Simran and live cultural exchange in my own life.  After my visit to India I feel more connected to my job, my Ohio family and my new Indian family. It has invigorated me to be more open and to accept new adventures in my life… and also eat spicier food. My sister and I wrote a little blog if you wanna read it.

In closing, I would like to raise a toast to Simran, her new husband Manish, all the teachers and administrators who make the extra effort to bring cultural exchange into their classrooms,  global families worldwide, Katie Dennis-my sister and travel mate-and of course, mom and dad. Thanks for building bridges.

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