Staff Member Spotlight: Sonja Bienert

Director, Support Services


Sonja is a German alumna of the YFU CBYX program. Having spent her exchange year in Nebraska, her subsequent travels have taken her around the world to bring her back to the USA where she currently lives and works.

What is your favorite travel memory?

One of my hardest but best moments of travel was when I visited our partner office in Bangkok, Thailand. Staff, volunteers and a host family did an amazing and loving job of integrating me into their lives in a very short time. When I said goodbye to spend my last weekend on a popular vacation island I felt empty and depressed, despite the fact that gorgeous beaches were waiting for me. This moment showed me once more how meaningful and moving a personal connection is during travel - so much more valuable than just setting foot in a place, no matter how beautiful.

Which destination is most underrated? Conversely, which is most overrated?

Estonia is one of the most underrated travel destinations. That country is a little gem on the Baltic Sea. Many people think of it either as a nondescript part of the Baltic Countries or a broken off piece from Russia while modern Estonia has so much going for it. It's a fascinating blend of modern technology, being the country where Skype originated, and tradition. You can find untouched nature both forests and beaches, then turn around to return to the city where free wifi and modern amenities wait.

What do you believe to be the biggest factor in being a successful company?

Our company is a not-for-profit company, so success is clearly not measured monetarily, the only exception being the number of scholarships we can offer. YFU sets up the framework for individuals to go abroad and make their own memorable intercultural learning experience. Success to me means enabling each individual to enjoy their time abroad and to not shy away from tough situations that may bring the biggest aha-moments and the deepest connections. Combing more than 60 years of experience in our student, host family, and volunteer orientations helps us set up our participants to be successful and that ultimately is the only success that counts.

What unique qualities does your company possess?

Youth For Understanding is an amazing non-profit that organizes exchange experiences. For over 60 years, individuals in the United States and around the world have contributed to the goals and mission that originated with one volunteer. Not only do we have decades of experience to look back on, we have a dedicated team of volunteers and staff. Around the world we practice what we preach, working inter-culturally sensitive with each other, growing and developing our staff through training and meeting that bring us back to our core work on a regular basis. This love of the mission shines through and is something that the participants can feel and experience.

What is the best story you've heard from a return student?

I recently heard an amazing story from a host family in Hungary. Hungary, being located in central Europe, is a major stopping point for refugees coming to Europe to seek shelter. Unfortunately, the political tendency has been more nationalistic than open in recent years. We have a host family where the father is an active politician in the conservative party. This year, when they picked their student, they chose an American girl who is the daughter of a lesbian couple with very progressive views. Our partner in Hungary started a conversation with the family to share why they don't think it is a good idea for this family to host this student. As it turns out, the family deliberately picked the student. They aim to get to know, love and make part of their family a person that is different from them and that will help them gain a broader understanding and perspective of the world.