By Lauren Coffaro, Career Advancement Program Associate

Culture Connections is a series of articles which explore the unique opportunities, interests, challenges, and questions of international participants living in the U.S. on J-1 Intern/Trainee and J-1 Work & Travel programs.

Anyone who has traveled and lived abroad will attest to the fact that international experience is formative and can have a resounding impact on personal identity and beliefs.  As the United States counts down the days to the 2012 Presidential Election, many citizens reflect on the place of the U.S. in the world.  The outcome of the election will alter the future of the United States’ relations with other cultures, peoples, and governments.

Both major party candidates for the 2012 Presidential Election, President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, lived abroad in their youth.  Their early exposure to cultural exchange undoubtedly shaped their world view.

Governor Mitt Romney. (Photo licensed under Creative Commons.)

When Mitt Romney was 12 years old, his family hosted a high school exchange student from Italy at their home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.  Living with an Italian student piqued his interest in the differences between Europe and the U.S.  Years later, while an undergraduate student at Stanford University, Romney had the opportunity to experience life in Europe himself.  He put his education on hold and packed his bags for a mission in France.

Mitt Romney spent 2 ½ years living in France as a missionary for the Mormon religion.  While he lived in La Havre, which at that time was an economically-depressed region, he had the chance to travel to Paris to see the great works of art in the Louvre, the charms of the Latin Quarter, and visitors from around the world.  Romney left France a leader, and he carried his love of French culture and people throughout his life.

After Romney graduated from Stanford University and, later, Harvard Business School, he began to work in the consulting field, which lead him to travel across both Europe and Central America.  In 2002, over 40 years after welcoming an Italian student to his childhood home, Romney hosted the Winter Olympics in Park City, Utah, bringing together 2,400 athletes from 77 nations around the globe.

President Barack Obama (Photo licensed under Creative Commons.)

President Barack Obama was also exposed to diverse cultures from a very young age.  He was born in Hawai’i to an American mother and a Kenyan father.  His parents separated after 3 years, and soon after his mother married an Indonesian man.  Young Obama, lovingly called Barry by his peers, moved across the Pacific with his mother and stepfather to Indonesia.

Obama lived in Indonesia from ages 6-10, attending school in the Indonesian language.  Obama developed a fondness for the South Asian nation in his youth that would continue to adulthood.  At age 10, he moved back to Hawai’i to finish his schooling.  That would not, however, be his last visit to Indonesia.  During his undergraduate years at Occidental College, Obama spent a summer traveling in Indonesia, India, and Pakistan, visiting family and friends.

A statue of young Barack “Barry” Obama in Indonesia. (Photo licensed under Creative Commons.)

After graduating from Occidental University, Obama began working as a community organizer.  It was then that he traveled to Europe for the very first time.  He followed his trip to Europe with a personal pilgrimage to Kenya,  where he spend 5 weeks getting to know the culture of his father’s homeland,  meeting many of his relatives for the first time.  Shortly thereafter, he brought his fiancée, Michelle, back to visit the East African nation.  After Obama was elected President of the United States, Kenyans created a wealth of Obama memorabilia, from shirts to bags, and even pillows.  The Indonesian government erected a statue of young Obama in his previous elementary school to inspire children to work hard and dream big.

A woman in Kenya sells blankets featuring President Barack Obama. (Photo licensed under Creative Commons.)

Though Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama have distinct world views, they can agree that the international exchange experience of their youth influenced their understanding of issues both international and domestic, from international trade to diplomacy efforts to immigration. Going abroad at a young age fosters appreciation the diversity of cultures and peoples in the world. Cultural exchange develops individual confidence, empathy, and leadership skills, to which millions of intercultural explorers, including Governor Romney and President Obama, can attest.