Paying it Forward in January

“Pay it Forward” is an idea and an expression that is generating a lot of attention these days, as well as  many benevolent and often random acts of charity and kindness. The phrase was often used widely in the fields of banking and lending, but it has come to mean something very different in our modern parlance. The idea is fairly simple. When someone does a good deed that helps you, offers you a random act of kindness, or simply treats you with respect and does something that gives you a good feeling, you in turn do the same for a stranger rather than repaying the “debt”. In a sense, you carry that good deed to the next person, who will, hopefully, do the same for the next person.


The idea of paying it forward is spreading, too. Just this morning your humble correspondent opened his facebook page to find an invite to the Second Annual Pay it Forward Weekend, taking place from January 17 to January 19. A novel idea, I thought, because as much as we wish that people were benevolent, respectful, and courteous to one another everyday, sometimes there has to be an occasion for people to realize the value of an idea such as this. I signed on right away and hoped that my readers would as well.


Paying it forward does not require a grand charitable gesture, or the expenditure of large sums of money. It can and should be something simple. It should be something that makes one person feel good. That being said, I offer up the following anecdote as an example of paying it forward, and how a simple act of kindness can often mean a lot when it comes unexpectedly.


A few years ago I took a trip to Germany. I landed in Berlin with zero knowledge of the language, and only a cursory knowledge of the city. It was also my first visit to Europe, and when my feet hit the ground I existed in a state of mild panic that someone would figure out I was from the U.S. and make me pay for it somehow. The U.S. was losing the global popularity contest and I there was no way to hide my citizenship. I assumed that I felt the way our students feel when they land at the airport to be greeted by strangers, except no one was holding a sign heralding my arrival.


Berlin was a maze, the language was rapid-fired between people on sidewalks and in shops, and everything was written in a mishmosh of Roman letters I recognized, peppered with symbols I did not. On the first day, determined to begin my attempt at understanding my new surroundings, I strayed from my hotel to a Christmas market in Potsdamer Platz. Attracted by the sounds of music and the smells of roasting meat and hot wine I dove into the crowd, walking through the little stands full of candy and toys and crafts and listening to the strange and rigid sounds of the people coursing through the square. I felt like an outsider. I was amazed by the sights but I couldn’t be a part of them. Even the simple act of ordering a beverage seemed a monumental and potentially embarrassing task.


An older gentlemen must have noticed me staring into the depths of a stand selling bratwurst and mulled wine with a pained look on my face because he approached me and asked in English if needed help. I remember an immense feeling of relief at hearing another person speak my native language, and he must have seen it because a smile crossed his face. I explained that I had been in the country for eighteen hours with nothing to eat. Everything being sold at the stands looked delicious but I was too apprehensive to ask for any of it because I didn’t speak any German.


Without another word he walked up to the stand and ordered a few items. When I tried to pay he waved me off and asked me instead to find a table we could share in the plaza. As we ate he explained a few German words to help me get around, told me what it was we were eating, and asked me about my travels. For the twenty or so minutes I spent with the man he told me about German customs, explained where I could find people who spoke English if there was an emergency, and recommended different parts of the city for me to visit. He also told me that when he was a student he had visited Greece and woman in Athens had shown him kindness by buying him a coffee and telling him how to get around. He told me not to worry. Everyone is a stranger at one point or another. His countrymen were human beings. They would understand.


When we finished he handed me a small, creased subway map, shook my hand and welcomed me to Germany. Then he turned and folded back into the crowd. It was a strange and comforting encounter. With my hunger abated and a renewed sense of determination I left Potsdamer Platz and headed into the city. The man’s small act of kindness was enough to make me feel welcome, and as I walked through the squares I reminded myself to keep an open mind and try to learn as much as possible.


The rest of my trip was remarkable. I quickly learned how to get around on the Metro, bought armloads of gifts for my friends and family back home, and visited places I had only previously seen on television and the internet. It may sound strange, but the kindness shown to me by the man at the market gave me the confidence to try, and without that it would have been a very different trip.


That is what paying it forward it all about. One seemingly small gesture had changed the way I thought about Berlin in a profound way. It had changed my entire experience. The man at the market owed me nothing, but he remembered a time when he was young and in a new place and a stranger had offered him help.


What you may not realize is that these kinds of stories happen daily, and each new day is an opportunity. I encourage all of my readers to pay it forward this January. Find a way to make someone you don’t know believe that there are good people in the world, and maybe on day they will have the chance to prove it, too.


Because ISE loves to hear about and share in the accomplishments of our students, we are sponsoring a Pay it Forward contest of sorts. If you do something unique for a random stranger or if you think that we would love to hear about your Pay it Forward Weekend, visit the ISE twitter page and tell us about it. You could win a free piece of swag from the famous ISE Swag Bag. We cannot wait to hear your stories.


For more information about Pay it Forward Weekend, please click here.

August Brings The First Wave of Exchange Students

Placing foreign exchange students is a rewarding albeit difficult experience for many area representatives throughout the United States. The ISE NY office understands this and appreciates the dedication and commitment that each local representative has for exchange students.

As August rolls on, we are reminded of how amazing the world of student exchange truly is for Americans and international students. In the southern United States, many students have begun to arrive and exchange their cultures with their host families. In less than a month, students will arrive in the northern United States where they too will begin their exchange programs.

We are all delighted that this program continues on in 2010 and that people like you make it a reality for all parties involved.

If you are interested in hosting an exchange student, please visit