020 | Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia | Why every child should spend a year abroad

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

Exchange students aren’t just the butt of jokes in American teen comedies. They’re young people going through one of the most transformative experiences life has to offer. Expanding it to more children – dare we say, to all children? – could change not just them, but the world.

Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia was dropped in Iowa from the newly broken-up Soviet Union in 1993. Borderline host Isabelle Roughol landed in New Jersey two weeks before 9/11. They reminisce and reflect on the impact of those formative years and share guidance for young people leaving home now – or returning, changed.

Show notes

00:00 Intro
01:23 Pandemic and cancer
04:01 Vulnerability and what it means to be there for one another
07:13 From Moscow to Africa to Iowa
12:10 Being a young stranger in a foreign land
15:14 How technology ruined it
18:39 Dreaming of a borderless world
22:37 Imagining an universal youth exchange
24:32 How to become a Borderline member
25:36 Learning empathy through lots of cringe
32:19 The returnee’s blues & fitting in nowhere and everywhere
38:33 Outro

💪 Help out: Kate’s daughter, Masha Shishkina, is raising funds to help rare cancer patients like herself fund their treatment. Donate here.

Music by Ofshane via Youtube’s audio library.


Transcripts are published for your convenience, but they are automated and not always cleaned up. Please excuses typos and occasional nonsense, and always check the audio before quoting.

Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:00:00] If there was a year abroad whilst you were still in high school – not even university, high school – that was compulsory, I think that would be huge. I think people would change beyond any recognition.

[00:00:22]Isabelle Roughol: [00:00:22] Hi, I'm Isabelle Roughol and this is Borderline.

[00:00:26] Some years change you. For many of us the past year was that. For me there was another: 2001- 2002, my first year in America, the one I spent as an exchange student.

[00:00:38] Exchange students are much more than the butt of jokes in American teen comedies. It's hard to explain until you've lived through it, but I don't know a single person who's been through the experience – and I've met hundreds – who hasn't been fundamentally altered and moved by it.

[00:00:53] So it goes with my guest today, Katherine Alexander Dobrovolskaya, an executive recruiter and coach in London. We set out to talk about her incredibly nomadic childhood as a third culture kid, but we quickly settled on the echoes between the two standout years of her life.

[00:01:07] And because Kate is a talented interviewer in her own right, she turned the tables on me and so you get to hear quite a bit from me as well on this one.

[00:01:15] Kate has had possibly the toughest pandemic year of anyone I know. And so that's where we started.

[00:01:23] Pandemic & cancer

[00:01:23]Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:01:23]

Last December, just before Christmas, my at the time 19 year old daughter was diagnosed with cancer, it was stage four. We were told she was not going to make it. As you can imagine, it was an unbelievably, I mean, the wind was knocked out. I literally could not stand on my feet. We were at the time renovating. And so I had about 20 builders in the house. We had no hot water. No washing machine, nothing. And so in the middle of that mess, we had the breakout of the news, which we couldn't process. We didn't know what to do with it. We didn't know how to get our heads around it.

[00:01:54] It was just three months before the pandemic hit and our friends, our family, our neighbors, people came together. People I'd never expected to even see or hear from came together in ways which were unprecedented and unbelievable. And it's taught me so much in terms of being a better human being for when others need me.

[00:02:15] My neighbors, both of them work and they'd come home after work and they'd cook for us. I've got another friend, she would drive for an hour and a half with food for both my daughter and I to eat in the hospital for a few days. She's got three kids, mind you, and no husband.

[00:02:33] Do you know? I have to say, I am genuinely grateful for the experience. I wouldn't trade it for anything. I wouldn't cancel it out. I wouldn't not have it. I wouldn't not live through it. I would still do it. And my daughter will tell you the exact same thing.

[00:02:47] You just suddenly see people at their vulnerable and you learn to be vulnerable. And also you learn the cycle of give and take. I think most people find it so much easier and so much nicer to be in the position of when you can give. Taking is hard and taking for us was hugely difficult as a concept and in practical terms. I was cringing all the time and the friend I've mentioned from Beaconsfield when she said that "I will drive and I'll bring you food." And I said, "absolutely not. Forget it. There's no way. You've got kids, I cannot accept it." And then she kind of pinned me down and she said "are you telling me that you wouldn't do the same for me?" And then I realized yes, I would. Absolutely, of course I would.

[00:03:28] It took me a long time, really genuinely to understand that just as much as I enjoy giving and looking after people, I have to be able to humble myself enough to let others look after me. And I have to humble myself enough to accept that help and the gifts and the love and the care, and the fact that people will go and cook for me extra after they've been at work all day.

[00:03:55] It's very, very, very difficult. but again, like I said, I wouldn't trade that experience for anything.

[00:04:01]Vulnerability and what it means to be there for one another

[00:04:01] Isabelle Roughol: [00:04:01] It's been an interesting year, doubly for you, but I think for everyone there's been a re-evaluation of the importance of relationships and a reconsidering of what it means to be there for others and to let others be there for you. And in a way that has really transcended distance and borders and all of this. And it' s an experience that pretty much the entire planet is having at the same time.

[00:04:31] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:04:31] Exactly. It's a shared experience.

[00:04:33] I think we've all learned about vulnerability. And I'm sure it's something you can relate to: normally in our professional lives, we're just so busy running from one meeting to another, from one appointment to another, and you always have this....

[00:04:51] Do you know? I think at first it's a facade of "Everything is fine. Everything is well," and then ultimately it becomes kind of your second skin. And I think I grew into my skin so much so that I didn't really realize when things weren't fine. I always felt like I could take on the world. I was always fine at any given moment and whatever happens I could always cycle it. I could always fix it. There was no such concept as a no, there was no such thing as something I couldn't do. I felt like this: whatever life throws at me, I've got this. I am fine. I'm on top of it. And I always felt like I didn't really need any help because I could always get things done myself.

[00:05:33] You do know what I'm talking about, right?

[00:05:35] Isabelle Roughol: [00:05:35] Oh yeah.

[00:05:36] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:05:36] So there you go. And then suddenly, um a year ago with this whole cancer thing, I... I remember, the first few months I felt like, "Oh my God, it's a huge shock," but for a while I was still clinging on to that feeling of "I can do anything. I will get this done as well. It's all fine. It's all fine." But...

[00:05:56] And I think my breaking point was in July when my daughter had surgery and it was a 13-hour affair. And just before she went into theater, the consultation with the surgeon was horrendous. It was just, the things we were promised... I really hope I never have to relive that conversation ever again. And then we spent three, three weeks in hospital, which were touch-and-go, this whole thing. And I came out, I really didn't... I went in one person. I came out another, I felt like I was... I was at war, returning from war.

[00:06:28] Since then... I don't really see the need to hide my true feelings from anyone, including myself. I don't, I just say things as they are. When I'm scared I say it. When I'm unhappy, I say it. And when I don't know how to get things done or whether I will get things done.

[00:06:48] Also, another thing I do know is I've always loved helping people and that was the driving force behind my business and I suppose the main motivation behind it. But now it's multiplied, I don't know, tenfold, a hundredfold, and it's going to make me dig deeper and help more and not just do what's convenient, but also really go out of my way.

[00:07:13]From Moscow to Africa to Iowa

[00:07:13]Isabelle Roughol: [00:07:13] I want to talk about how you became that person that you are and that you were before this experience. And I think you have the most complex and global journey of anyone I've talked to so far.

[00:07:27] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:07:27] I born in Moscow in 1977, which means that was still well into a very Soviet life I guess. I went to several Soviet schools and as I look back, it just, it almost feels like I was born in, you know, 200 years ago. Life couldn't have changed more than it has.

[00:07:45] My father was a journalist and he was head of Bureau for Africa, for Russia's biggest media agency called APN at the time, which is now called RIA. And he started off in Ethiopia. So we moved to Ethiopia in 79, I think. My brother was born there, in Addis Ababa in 1980. And we stayed there for roughly about four years, went back to Moscow for a bit, and then he was transferred to Ghana and he was head of bureau responsible for Ghana, Togo and Benin. So we were there for another five years. And then Namibia followed with South Africa and Zimbabwe.

[00:08:23] I went to my first English school when I was 13 and that was an experience. And then we came back to Moscow when I was 16. And my parents sent me off to the States as an exchange student, uh to a host family in Desmoines, Iowa.

[00:08:40] And I remember they initially said "would you like to go to the States for your final year of high school?" And I was like, "We just got home. I mean, seriously, do I have to go somewhere else again?" And I just, I couldn't really say no. So I said, "fine, I'll go." And I was, of course, naturally I was thinking beaches, California, young people surfing. Instead, I ended up on a farm in Iowa and with a family, the host mother was 68 at the time and the father was 70 and I thought, "are you kidding me? Are you seriously kidding me? This is not even happening." And so they had six kids, all of them were way older. The youngest was 10 years older than me, so they've all moved out. They all had kids, they were married. So it was basically old people and me and I was devastated when it was just all happening. And I thought "this is just my bloody luck. How is that even possible?"

[00:09:33] And then you know, that year – not dissimilar to this year – has changed me and you know, again: I came in one person in August 1993, I left in July 1994, a completely different individual. And it feels like there was so many seeds which are still coming up now.

[00:09:55] I had the most incredible privilege and the most incredible luck to end up with a family of people who had six kids of their own, they had 12 grandkids, but also I was their 18th exchange student. And would you believe it, every time they had an exchange student, they would always follow up with a visit to their home country and they would stay with a family. They would learn about traditions. They would learn about customs. They've been everywhere from Japan to Venezuela, to Uruguay, to Finland, Russia. They've been all over the world. They've hosted people from all over the world.

[00:10:32] And the reason this has happened was my host father, Gary. He was a pilot during the second world war and the things he's seen, he said, I want to come home and I want to make sure it never happens again. I want to educate people that you know, we're ultimately the same. We just all want to be loved and respected and accepted. He kept saying it all the time. And so they ended up bringing kids to the States. They ended up going to their respective countries. They ended up learning and teaching and they have created this whirlpool of love. And they've always said to every single one of us, they said "you guys are family, that you're a family. And when we go, just make sure that you're all in contact with each other." I genuinely, I have never met people like that before.

[00:11:18] Isabelle Roughol: [00:11:18] That's amazing. I relate a hundred percent cause I was an exchange student too. And there's something very unique about the people who take people in as exchange students. Also, where you land is always completely random. Like at first I was told I was going to go to Oregon. researched Oregon like crazy. To this day I know everything about Oregon, where I have never set foot. And I've been in like 40 of the 50 US States, but never this one. And, um, and ended up in New Jersey, which is only, literally on the other side of the continent.

[00:11:53] Um but It's really interesting. I'm curious. Let's talk about the whole exchange student thing. I'm curious why your parents were like, "Hey, you need to go and do this" because mine were like, "Hey, you need global exposure." You were not lacking in global exposure.

[00:12:10]Being a young stranger in a foreign land

[00:12:10] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:12:10] No, that's true. My parents were so internationally oriented. My father in particular, he was friends with several world leaders. He knew several presidents, it was a very sort of close relationship as a first name basis. And he had always said that, you know, "you need to make sure that you don't lose your English." When we came back to Moscow and I went to a Russian school and I think my mind was so confused because we kept traveling all the time. So I was sort of dipping in and out. And every time I come back to Russia, my written Russian would struggle, obviously.

[00:12:44] And just as I was getting my bearings in the Russian school, they said "we're going to pluck you out and send you off again, unless you really object to that." But you know, If you know my parents, you don't really object to them like ever, unless you're completely suicidal and crazy. So I said like, "yeah, right, sure." Anyway, their whole thing was English. It wasn't necessarily to do with the States. If they happened to come across any other ad at the time, it could have been anywhere else. But at a time I was speaking German and and Afrikaans and Afrikaans I didn't particularly care about. German I don't know, somehow it wasn't on the agenda. And so it was English that they were very, um fussed about. So they said like "you pretty much have to go" and that's how it was.

[00:13:27] That's interesting. Cause it's, it was also early nineties. So just as the Soviet union had broken up. Did that make a difference, both to your parents wanting to turn you towards the States and how you were received in the States?

[00:13:44] Well look, the weirdest thing is, although they've sent me there, they're just really not fans of of the States at all. They really aren't. But in terms of how I was received, yes, it did make a difference because it was, I got there in August 93. And by autumn 93, there was this transfer... well, there was essentially a mini revolution with Yeltsin coming into power. We had tanks on the red square, when people were being shot in central Moscow. All that was happening. And I remember that CNN came over to interview me to the school. And they were asking me all sorts of, you know very predictable questions like "Are your parents struggling? Is your family struggling? Do they have any food?" I was like, "uh? Have you met my parents?" I was like, "what? No. Forget it." And I was so offended. I just remember they made me sound like some kind of, some refugee from God knows where and it's the farthest thing from my family anyone could ever imagine. I said "no they're completely fine, nothing's wrong with them."

[00:14:46] If you keep in mind it was 93 so all of the international calls were hugely expensive. I remember every time I called home it would be roughly about 60 bucks a phone call. So I was nervous. I was really stressed out. I didn't know what was happening entirely, and although they kept telling me like, "everything's fine. It doesn't concern us in any way, shape or form." It was still hugely distressing because, you know of course on the other side of the Atlantic, all you see is all the tanks and people with machine guns in the center of your city. Still to this day, I can't believe it even happened.

How technology ruined it

[00:15:15] Isabelle Roughol: [00:15:15] It is interesting how much the experience of being an exchange student, it must be so different today. If anyone still does it, I don't think that many people do.

[00:15:25] No, they do. They do. It's really complex with COVID and unfortunately a lot of programs have had to shut down and kids were sent home early or were not able to go on the trips that they had planned, which I find just devastating because it is a life-changing...

[00:15:45] it is the most important thing I've done in my life. Half a lifetime ago, but I still think of it as the most important thing I've done in my life.

[00:15:50] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:15:50] Would you host yourself?

[00:15:51] Isabelle Roughol: [00:15:51] My parents have. My parents have, and so... funny enough hi Jackie, one of the Borderline members was an exchange student in my house when I was like 11, 12 years old. She was my host sister.

[00:16:04] We've had exchange students in the home and my parents are still helping organize. I'd love to host at some point. I'm still, I think I'm still a bit too young. If you're hosting teenagers, ideally you want them to have siblings in the house and all that, you know? But when I'm older and I have more space and all that, I would love to host exchange students. I think it's the most transformative gift

[00:16:23] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:16:23] I think I will do as well.

[00:16:25] Isabelle Roughol: [00:16:25] that you can give a young person absolutely. But it's interesting when you were talking about the technology. When my older brother was an exchange student, I think it was like 95, you know, he was still sending home letters. had the internet there, but we didn't have it at home. And by the time that I went, we could do emails easily, but we still didn't, it wasn't in It just wasn't a habit that we had. And I only talked to my family, I don't know, three, four times over the phone that year. It just, it really was...

[00:16:56] a different era. Yeah.

[00:16:57] A separation and an immersion in the culture that you went to. And nowadays, you know, kids can be on their phone and on Facebook and all that all the time so they don't have that disconnect from home. and I think that robs them of a bit of the experience.

[00:17:09] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:17:09] I was going to say the same thing. Yeah. In our case, you, you were kind of forced into integration. You had to adapt. You had to compromise. You couldn't just call your mom and complain. So I think it was, I think although at the beginning I found this was quite difficult, but ultimately at the end of the day, I thought it was a hugely beneficial thing.

[00:17:29] Isabelle Roughol: [00:17:29] Yeah, it's hard, but it's the only way that you're going to socialize. It's the only way that you're going to have contact with other human beings is to force yourself. And it forces you to grow up and to mature. I remember my first, you know, my first two, three months at school, cause I was in American high school, I would just come home with a huge headache at the end of the day because I had to focus on every single word when people spoke to me and I had to take notes in class. And like try taking AP US history in English when you're not bilingual. It's so hard. But you know, by, by Christmas I was fluent and

[00:18:05] It takes six months, yeah.

[00:18:06] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:18:06] Yeah

[00:18:06] Isabelle Roughol: [00:18:06] Because I had to be. And and at the end of the year I remember very well. I had a classmate come up to me to say goodbye at the end of the year, and she was like, "Oh, where are you going next year? Are you going to, you know, what are you going to do?" And I was like, "well, I'm going home. And I'm finishing high school in my country." And she was like, "what do you mean your country?" I'm like, "I'm not from here." And she had no idea. And I just, it has been like 20 years, but it's still the best compliment anyone's ever paid me. So it's thinking that I had managed to kind of assume American identity

[00:18:38] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:18:38] Yeah.

[00:18:39] Isabelle Roughol: [00:18:39] to the point that Americans even couldn't tell.

Dreaming of a borderless world

You mentioned that your parents kind of pushed you into this. Did you ever regret or miss not having the typical childhood or adolescence of your friends?

[00:18:53] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:18:53] Not at all. No. I can't even imagine it any other way. I wouldn't have it any other way. I think it's absolutely fabulous and I'm super lucky that I got to live that way.

[00:19:04] Isabelle Roughol: [00:19:04] Why is that? What do you think it did for you?

[00:19:06] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:19:06] Um, do you know what? Like I've told you before, I do believe that the world is essentially all one big village and we all belong together. And in my day-to-day working life, I work with people from Rio de Janeiro to Baku. Um and I attribute that to the fact that I was so young when I was traveling and then I was able to adapt to different cultures and see past and beyond nationality. I don't see... I don't really understand the concept of foreign. I just see human, right? So no matter where you're from, I just see that. And I wouldn't have had it if I grew up and I went to one school in one city with the same group of people all of the time, because it's just, it's a very different experience.

[00:19:57] Isabelle Roughol: [00:19:57] How do you see yourself then? Are you Russian? Are you a Londoner? Or do these labels even mean anything to you?

[00:20:03] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:20:03] No, absolutely nothing. The only thing that happens, I do find it very difficult to answer the questions "Where are you from?" I have no idea what to say, and then I stumble and then I struggle. And then it turns into this whole long conversation. But I genuinely, however corny as it sounds, I do see myself as a global citizen. And I love, absolutely love the fact that we can be working in, I don't know, in London two years and another five years in Berlin and then another three years, somewhere else. The whole idea of being free to work and travel and live and experience in different places throughout a lifetime, I think it's fabulous. Absolutely amazing.

[00:20:44] Isabelle Roughol: [00:20:44] What does that mean for you? Global citizen? How would you define that?

[00:20:48] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:20:48] It just means that we all get to share the planet. Which means we all breathe the same air, we all use the same water, we all use the same oceans, the same resources, as you can see, trade is all global. You get bananas from Paraguay, whatever.

[00:21:02] So seeing as we all are recycling global resources, we might as well care globally, which is why I find it so painful that the UK has left the EU. I think it, we should all be sticking together rather than separating.

[00:21:19] Isabelle Roughol: [00:21:19] Would you want kind of a borderless world?

[00:21:22] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:21:22] Absolutely. A hundred percent. There's no question about it. And I find that so weird that my parents, in order for them to come and see me, they'll have to go to an embassy, pay money, get a visa. It all takes time. It's a hassle. Also they have to give up their fingerprints, which, in essence, you're treating someone as a criminal, which I just find shocking. I find it so shocking. And rather than let people come and visit, my friends can't come and visit unless they go and apply for a visa. And as we all know, it's expensive. It's time-consuming, everybody's busy. It's a tons of paperwork. It's ugly. It's presumptuous that people are trying to sneak in somewhere. I don't think it's the way forward. I think it's an ugly way of treating people.

[00:22:10] Isabelle Roughol: [00:22:10] That's not really the world that's ahead of us though, it looks like. If anything, things are shutting down.

[00:22:18] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:22:18] Well for now, but I don't know, maybe I'm naive, but I hope it's temporary. I can't imagine that would be the trend for years to come.

[00:22:27] Isabelle Roughol: [00:22:27] What do you think it would take to bring more people to your perspective, which is really the most extreme end of the global citizen scale?

[00:22:38] Imagining a global exchange program

[00:22:38] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:22:38] Is it? I don't know. Is it extreme? I mean, for me, that's the norm, so I really don't know.

[00:22:43] I think you were on the right track when you said exchange students, that's transformative. And I think if there was, say for example, a year abroad whilst you were still in high school, not even university, high school, if that was compulsory, I think that would be huge. I think people would change beyond any recognition.

[00:23:02] I mean, obviously vetting families and obviously making sure that everybody's kids are safe, et cetera, et cetera. But finding good people and placing good people with each other. Oh my goodness. I can't even imagine. Wouldn't that be a wonderful experience?

[00:23:17] Isabelle Roughol: [00:23:17] Amen.

[00:23:17] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:23:17] Oh yeah.

[00:23:18]Isabelle Roughol: [00:23:18] I think that is the very obvious gap in education today, that lack of openness and of experience. I just don't think a lot of people see it as a priority in the way that everyone talks about learning to code and STEM and all of that. Learning to live with different people isn't a life skill that is valued.

[00:23:40] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:23:40] But a lot of experts are now saying that, learning to code and all those things are all good and well. However machines will be able to do a lot of that for us. And the one thing that's not going anywhere is human ability to interact with one another. And that part of our life is so vital. It's so crucial.

[00:24:01] The more separated we are, the more time we spend behind our screens, behind our closed doors, like we are now, the worst it gets. So people who will travel, people who will understand other cultures, they are going to be so much more in demand because ultimately we have a global workforce, which means we have one company with global offices all over the place. And we will be transferring people from one place to another. And it's important that we all understand each other and are able to get along, rather than sit around and make fun of one another.

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[00:25:32] Now, back to our episode.

[00:25:34] Learning empathy through lots of cringe

I love that we have this common experience of being an exchange student. I think it's, it really is just such an incredible thing to be able to do as a young person. And I really wish that so many more kids were able to do it.

[00:25:52] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:25:52] Yeah, and I mean, obviously money is a huge, big factor in all of this because not every family is going to be able to afford it, in which case I feel like it just should be something that states should provide for.

[00:26:02] Isabelle Roughol: [00:26:02] Yeah I mean yeah, it can be part of the education system.

[00:26:05]Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:26:05] I think it should be, I mean, really genuinely I feel like it should be a compulsory thing and at least six months. But you know what, I don't know whether it's something that you can, you had a similar thing. How old were you by the way, when you went?

[00:26:17] 17.

[00:26:17] All right. Okay. So I was 16 and I think it's a bit of a crap age in the sense that, you know, you're all so prickly and stubborn and yeah...

[00:26:27] I

[00:26:28] Isabelle Roughol: [00:26:28] I wasn't.

[00:26:29] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:26:29] I'm sure you were wonderful and sweet.

[00:26:30] Isabelle Roughol: [00:26:30] I was actually a pretty easy teenager but yeah, I was still a teenager. Yeah.

[00:26:34] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:26:34] I mean look, I was easy in the sense that I didn't drink, I didn't smoke, I didn't party, I didn't do any of those things. However, I was very stubborn. It was my way or the highway. And so that's not a good thing.

[00:26:45] Going earlier, maybe around 15, is a good time. We recommend earlier now. Cause I went with the Rotary. my parents are involved in organizing exchanges now and definitely like 17. So I was 18 by the time that I finished. That's definitely the latest that you should do it, but ideally leaving at

[00:27:05] 15 is better.

[00:27:06] 15. Exactly. Some people do half a year, but I think a year is is necessary because it literally took me... I remember, like I said, I came in August and I remember in February, my host family, my host mother took me to Mexico to visit one of the previous exchange students. And we stayed with her family.

[00:27:24] And and February in Desmoines, Iowa is, I don't know, it was two meters of snow. It's shocking cold. That's all you see: snow. Just plains of snow. And I was cold all of the time and it just, you wear so many layers. You're like a cabbage. It's just layers and snow. Suddenly we're in Mexico and everything is in bloom and you can wear t-shirts and shorts. And my mind was blown. I was like, "God, just please leave me here. It's so beautiful." And I think that was the first time really that she was slightly offended. She was like "well, if you love it so much, I can't organize it. You can stay." And then I kind of bit my tongue. I said no no, it's all fine. I mean yeah, no, of course we're going home." But it took me that long to really stop fighting,

[00:28:09] and accept and adjust and let go, and really, truly enjoy.

[00:28:13] Because up until that point, I was always on high alert trying to prove that my way is the better way. I knew best. Everything that anybody else did was stupid and of course I was naturally superior and blah, blah, blah, blah. And that was the dumbest thing ever. That was just really, and I look back and I think "God, what a prick."

[00:28:32] Isabelle Roughol: [00:28:32] We all think that about our teenage selves. But if I got to go home in January I would have missed out on so much.

[00:28:41] Oh, totally. I really got what this was about and I really took advantage from like April. April, May, June, July, like the last...

[00:28:50] the

[00:28:50] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:28:50] last few months. Yeah.

[00:28:51] Isabelle Roughol: [00:28:51] You know, and it was, I was in American high school, so I got the whole prom, graduation, etc.

[00:28:55] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:28:55] Exactly. Yeah, me too. Yeah, me too.

[00:28:57] Isabelle Roughol: [00:28:57] But that's when I really, when I really got out of my own head and lived in the moment and enjoyed it and learned so much.

[00:29:05] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:29:05] Exactly because like initially you just, everything at school was pissing me off, the teachers, the kids, everybody, everything. And then finally, you finally, you really just allow yourself to relax and just take it all in. And that's when it becomes amazing.

[00:29:19] Isabelle Roughol: [00:29:19] I mean, it's emotional overload. I mean, you're away from home for the first time. You've left your friends behind, you've left your parents and siblings behind. You're in a new country, in a new language. It's a lot to take in. Of course you have, you need a few months.

[00:29:34] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:29:34] I think it's also a very different way of living because even if you have within one town, you have two families, you exchange kids. They will have a very different experience because let's face it, every family runs by a slightly different set of rules. So chances are you're going to be a little bit upset and unsettled by the difference.

[00:29:55] So here you are, you're thrown into a completely different lifestyle. And like for example, it's just such a small thing, but I remember my host mother was cutting chicken with scissors. I was like "uh, what is this? Why are you doing that? She was like, "I don't know, it just how I do it." And I remember saying or thinking like, "oh my god, that's just so stupid,I would never do that."

[00:30:14] And rather than just stand there and ask and not judge and not prejudge. And that's the whole thing: you show up supposedly open to the idea and then you spend months judging.

[00:30:29] Isabelle Roughol: [00:30:29] Yeah. I mean so my program, they had you change host families. So I went through three different host families. You do like a trimester in each of the school year, which I think is great because it gives you different experiences. And they were all very different families. Like I had one where they were, high powered corporate jobs and they just, they weren't at the house very often. And it was a lot of takeout in the fridge for dinner.

[00:30:56] And then the last host family, it was, everyone at the table at 6:00 PM. Like we make dinner together, we set the table together and we talk as a family, so it felt a lot more European in a way, except it was very early.

[00:31:08] But then they also had different rules. So they were a bit more conservative than my family. I remember there was a party that was for another exchange student who was leaving and it was at a boy's house. And so I couldn't go, or I couldn't stay over rather because it was at a boy's house, which is something that my own parents would like, never have set a rule like this because you know, we had trust as a default when I was growing up, which I'm very grateful to my parents for. But yeah, you, you have to adapt to another set of rules, which is fair. But that's why also it's easier if you go a little bit younger because by the time you're 18, putting up with these kinds of rules when it's not how you grew up, even if you're a very polite young person, it's quite hard.

[00:31:56] Um and I've never been good with authority, so... I don't mind authority if they're smart, but if I disagree with them, I let it be known. Those are all experiences that kind of make you grow up and make you, learn to compromise and learn to adapt to other ways of living. And if there's a party you can't go to, well, there are worse things in life.

[00:32:18] The returnee's blues

[00:32:18]Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:32:18] How was it for you when you were coming home? Because I remember,

[00:32:22] Isabelle Roughol: [00:32:22] Very hard.

[00:32:22] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:32:22] Um exactly right. It was a period of adjustments and the horrible homesickness and just missing the host family so much. I remember coming home to my parents and, uh although you would never by any stretch of imagination call my family cold, but then the one thing that really struck me the first night is that no one kisses each other good night.

[00:32:43] And I got so used to kissing like every family member in DesMoines and then suddenly it's like just what? People just say good night and then tune out and that's it? I felt robbed, I was sitting in my room thinking, what the hell? Do I not even get a kiss anymore or what's happening?

[00:32:58] And I just felt really weird. And I remember sneaking in and just calling my host mother and just saying, "Ellen, I wanna go home, please, take me back." And she says "I did offer for you to stay. You could have gone to college here, but honey, you chose to return."

[00:33:12] And actually, do you know the funniest thing? I chose to return on the back of that interview with CNN, when they were treating me like some poor unfortunate kid who had to run away from whatever, Gorbachev. It really hurt my ego and my pride and I thought "I'll show you, I'll go home". And then suddenly I'm home and I don't want to be there. I don't want, I just I'm not used to this anymore and I'm missing Ellen and I'm missing Gary. I want to go home. So yeah, it was difficult.

[00:33:40] And actually, do you know what the funniest thing, how else it affected me? I just realized now that I've said it. Because I couldn't come back and adjust to the authority of my parents because they're very dominant. And then suddenly I was 17 and I was at uni and all of this was just all weird. And my mom would say "if you go to a party, you have to be home by 10." I was like "mom, a party doesn't start until 11. What are you talking about?" And she goes like, "well, I don't know, it sounds like your problems, so that's my rules. And until you're living under this roof, this is what you're going to do." And I thought well, I said "mum, so when does it change?" It's like "either when you're 24," for whatever reason, "or when you get married." And then Dima and I, it's so bizarre.

[00:34:23] Isabelle Roughol: [00:34:23] Is that why you got married so young?

[00:34:24] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:34:24] So, yeah, exactly. So Dima and I were dating at the time. And I was like, ah, ha.

[00:34:30] And seeing as my parents stupidly already bought me an apartment so I had a place to live, which I didn't have to pay for. It was already there. It was sitting empty. So Dim and I were like the worst thing's going to happen is we get a divorce, but for now, let's just at least live with each other, it's way better. And so he escaped his family, I escaped my family and we were like, bingo. Yeah. Now we're free and adult and grown up so screw you.

[00:34:54] Isabelle Roughol: [00:34:54] 20 years later, still strong.

[00:34:56]Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:34:56] 25.

[00:34:57] 25.

[00:34:58] Isabelle Roughol: [00:34:58] Oh my God. That's great. No for me. so returning it wasn't, I don't remember it being particularly hard with my family. Cause I had that freedom already, but so I left between my junior and my senior year of high school in France. And so I did a senior year in the US but when I came home to France, I had to do a senior year again and get my baccalaureate in France.

[00:35:22] The thing that was hard for me, it was going back to high school with a bunch of kids who would be, the class behind me. So they were all a year younger, which, that's fine. I didn't know them, but I got to know them fast enough. But you grow up so much when you leave home and your school and everything behind, and then you come back and it's like, everyone is the same, but you're not. And so that's the reverse, what they call the reverse culture shock.

[00:35:49] And the other thing, which is also something that I'm fascinated by is that, when you start living abroad, you never fully belong at home anymore. And I mean, I guess for you, because you grew up that way, that was kind of always true your entire life, but I didn't leave until I was 17. And so I was a fully French kid until I was 17. And then when I returned all of a sudden, you know, people called me American because I took a lot of their, of their culture.

[00:36:19] You're just kind of that puzzle piece that doesn't quite fit in anymore. And I never fully fit in in America, but I also didn't fit in in France anymore. And that's true to this day, you know. There's a lot of places that I love and that I call home. But there's none of them where I fit a hundred percent. And if I went home to France today, it would still be extremely difficult because some things in the French character or culture drive me insane. And when you know how things are done elsewhere, you kind of want to take bits of all the cultures that you've been in and put them together. But everyone else around you is like, " what are you talking about? You're crazy." And so, that's the bit that's really difficult.

[00:36:57] And you don't know when you leave what you're doing, what you're breaking, you only realize it when you return that you broke something that you didn't know that you had. You know, that sense of unquestioning belonging. I mean, if you were lucky enough to grow up in a safe and secure way, and that you felt that you belonged. Then when you leave, you break that and you don't know it, that you're about to break something in a way that you're never going to get back. I mean, that's growing up, right? But that's the thing that's really hard when you return for the first time. It gets a bit easier after because you're, you just know what to expect.

[00:37:35] Katherine Alexander-Dobrovolskaia: [00:37:35] Yeah, I guess I never had that because I never stayed in one place. Even just your regular school experience. Because most people get to one school and they just have the same, you stay with the same group of people for whatever the duration, 10, 11 years that you're in high school.

[00:37:49] I went through seven different schools across three different continents plus uni. Although when I was younger, I felt that I was at a disadvantage and that I didn't have the advantage of people who've known me my whole life. But now I feel like I have a ton of people who know me at different stages of my life and that's beautiful. It feels like brotherhood, sisterhood. You chat to people from Norway to South Africa, to the States and you have this amazing connection from different decades of your life. And yeah, it's just beautiful.

[00:38:24] Yes, it is. That's what this community is all about.

[00:38:31] Outro

[00:38:31] If you were an exchange student once, I hope this brought back fond memories. We're doing something fun in the newsletter and on social media this week, sharing Kate's and my photos from our exchange student days. Go ahead and share yours. We'll also be discussing this on the next LinkedIn live session on Thursday. And I'll explain exactly how the teens in your life can go about having that life-changing experience as well.

[00:38:52] One thing I want to insist on is it's not as out of reach as people might imagine. It's still too often an exclusive club of middle and upper class children, but I went with the Rotary and it was nonprofit. Host families are unpaid volunteers, Rotary clubs even give the kids an allowance. All my family had to cover was a plane ticket, health insurance and visa application. Now that is something, but even for that, you can raise funds, you can find scholarships. My point is the kids who would benefit the most, the ones with shorter horizons at home, are often the ones to whom it doesn't even occur. And we need to change that.

[00:39:27] And speaking of kids, finally, I want to tell you about one of the most impressive young people I know. Masha Shishkina, Kate and Dmitry's daughter, has been fighting like hell an incredibly rare and aggressive cancer. There are 17 cases of her illness documented worldwide so neither the NHS nor private medical insurance would cover some of her treatment. Luckily she found a charity that would, and she's paying it forward. She's been raising funds to help others with rare cancers get a fighting chance. You can help her and donate. The link is in the show notes and in the newsletter.


[00:40:00] If you enjoy Borderline, there are three quick things that you can do to help. First please share it with a friend. Then go to Apple podcasts or your favorite podcasting app, and rate and review us. And finally hit subscribe so you get the next episode as soon as it comes out and you can help drive Borderline up those charts.

[00:40:15] At borderlinepod.com you'll find full transcripts of the episodes. You'll also find the newsletter, just drop in your email address. There you'll have the option of a paid membership. Welcome and thank you this week to Whitney Juckno, Dmitry Shishkin, Gianluca Marcellino, Jacqui Lough, Jamie Pham, Adam Pepper, Ron Sylvester, Mark Oldach and Joseph Hauenschild.

[00:40:38] I'm your host, Isabelle Roughol. Music is by Ofshane. Borderline is a One Lane Bridge production.

[00:40:47] Amanda Bates: [00:40:47] "When you look at media, Black people and Brown people are never centered on that experience. And so he was like, 'I never thought of myself as an expat' and I'm like, 'right, because they always call you an immigrant.' And so I said, no, I want black folks to understand that this term applies to them as well."

[00:41:08] Isabelle Roughol: [00:41:08] Next week on Borderline.


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Isabelle Roughol Twitter

Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.