Julia Van Dyke
Photo courtesy of Julia Van Dyke

Julia Van Dyke teaches students at Songhor Secondary School in Kenya, as part of her assignment with MCC's Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program. 

For Julia Van Dyke and Emmanuel Mahendra, their assignments with MCC’s exchange programs have taken them across the world and opened doors to new opportunities.

Van Dyke, from Grand Rapids, Mich., is serving with MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program in Kenya. She works as Health Education Coordinator for KEDHAP, an organization based in the small village of Songhor, about an hour from Kisumu.

Mahendra, from Dhmatari, India, works at Elkhart County Clubhouse in Goshen, Ind., as part of the International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP). He helps people living with mental disabilities, an often-underserved population, find community and support to manage their daily lives.

“After learning more about the organization (MCC), I knew that this was something I was interested in being a part of,” said Van Dyke. Mahendra learned about IVEP through his work with the Mennonite Church in India.

These two programs provide a unique, year-long opportunity for cross-cultural interaction. Utilizing skills learned through their studies, young adults between the ages of 18 to 30 serve alongside partner organizations by assisting them in their work with the local communities.

Mahendra draws upon his studies in Sociology and Education in his role. Even though he has only served for a few months, he has settled into his work and even designed a program for the Clubhouse members. After viewing Slumdog Millionaire, Mahendra led a discussion about the movie and his culture with the members.

Van Dyke, who has a degree in Public Health, works with life clubs at local schools teaching health, life skills and peacebuilding tools with her coworkers. She mainly focuses on HIV/AIDS and general hygiene when teaching in the schools, but from time to time also teaches local women’s self-help groups.

Living and serving in a new environment and culture does not come without its challenges. Van Dyke often finds herself with an abundance of free time, which has been an adjustment living in a small village without lots of activity options. Instead she pours her time into building relationships with her family and some of the local children, even teaching them some American card games.

Mahendra often finds difficulty in striking the balance between the Western culture he finds himself in and his home culture. But he says that he recognizes that he will grow in self-awareness by stepping outside of his comfort zone, and he enjoys learning about the people and the culture in Goshen.

Food is also a uniting theme for the young adults as they bring some of their home to their new context. Van Dyke has baked chocolate chip cookies for her family, and she is learning how to cook some traditional Kenyan food. Mahendra lives by a saying in his home village, “If you want to learn anything about another culture, eat their food or cook their food.” He helps his host family in the kitchen most days, and he has also cooked Indian food for his family and coworkers.

Three months into their assignments, Van Dyke and Mahendra both strongly recommend the exchange programs to other young adults. They agree that it is valuable experience broadening one’s mentality and point of view by living in a different part of the world and learning about a new culture.

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