18 Questions with Haldis Toppen: How Cultural Exchange Can Catalyze Global Cooperation

by Sierra Winters

Haldis Toppen is the Communications Director at Greenheart International, an organization that coordinates cultural exchange programs for Americans and foreigners who wish to learn about other ways of life. Greenheart is passionate about creating global leaders, reflected in such initiatives as its alumni conferences and volunteerism. Greenheart also deeply values environmental sustainability and even runs a Fair Trade shop. Haldis Toppen has worked with Greenheart for eleven years in various roles. Join us as she explains how Greenheart’s values positively impact individuals and the world alike!

  1. What is your role at Greenheart?

I am the Communications Director, which means I work with the different bureaus of the Department of State, like the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). I also oversee our scholarship and fundraising efforts. The pandemic reshaped our operations, and I am currently acting as an enrollment manager/director, managing different applications that come through. Now that we have restructured the organization, I am transitioning to my traditional communications role.

  1. Describe Greenheart Odyssey.

Odyssey programming refers to the leadership events we provide for local Chicago youth and alumni. It encompasses kids who are just starting to learn about cultural exchange at 12-13 years old, as well as our Alumni Council, a kind of junior advisory board that completes a Global Purpose Grant. It also includes the Greenheart Global Leaders Conference (GGLC), where alumni convene in Washington, D.C. to discuss cultural exchange, business, social justice, sustainability, and community development topics.

  1. What drives you to work for an organization like Greenheart?

My story is a little unique. After studying abroad in college, I knew I wanted to travel more and be of service to others. I participated in Americorps for two years and nearly participated in the Peace Corps too, but declined at the last minute. Shortly afterward, I found a perfect match as an intern at Greenheart, which allowed me to support cultural exchange, meet people from around the world, travel, and engage in volunteerism. Now I have worked here for eleven years.

  1. Would you describe your work as hands-on or organizational?

My job is a mix of both. I created the GGLC (among other initiatives). In the past, I have talked to all the participants in our summer work-travel programs to ensure they were getting both professional and cultural exchange experiences. 

  1. How does Greenheart work to support sustainable initiatives?

Before the pandemic, we had a carbon offset program, which is becoming more relevant as we begin to travel again. As a result of the pandemic, we have largely decreased our office space, and most of us work remotely. We also support projects around the world through our Greenheart Global Impact Grants, the majority of which are sustainable, environmentally focused initiatives in our alumni’s communities. 

  1. What does it take to be a sustainable and conscious tourist?

Any tourist or traveler needs to be conscious of carbon offsets for plane travel. On a daily basis, they also need to be mindful of how to reduce waste – for instance, reducing consumption of single-use plastics or learning about local recycling initiatives. A traveler should do their research beforehand to understand how to respectfully contribute to a culture’s norms and values around sustainability.

  1. What would you say to someone who refuses to take flights because of their environmental impact?

I respect that stance. I know, for instance, that Greta Thunberg only takes boats. We need people like her to remind us that even in the best-case scenarios, air travel is not good for the environment. Hopefully, they will inspire enough people to protest against poor airline practices. I would love to see 100% electric aircraft and no plastic on planes. Like everything else, there has to be a balance, and we should always keep the goal of sustainable travel in mind.

  1. What makes this alumni network so valuable?

The alumni network reminds us of the impact of our programs. Our staff is mostly focused on day-to-day operations, like student placements and scholarship funds. We are immersed in our high school exchange program, with students coming to or leaving the US, or our professional exchange programs. Positive or constructive feedback from program participants helps give perspective and improve our program. Our alumni also bring life to our Odyssey programming.

  1. Briefly, how does Greenheart interact with the government?

J-1 programs, now known as BridgeUSA, are overseen by the Department of State, but their day-to-day operations are delegated to organizations like Greenheart. In short, we are a designated visa sponsor. We ensure program regulations are upheld, participants meet the program’s standards, and any issues are reported. I also send the ECA positive stories arising from Greenheart initiatives, and I stay on the pulse of embassy appointments. We work closely with an association called the Alliance, which occasionally lobbies DC for any initiatives or to protect the program.

  1. How do, and why should, exchange programs and environmental awareness intersect?

Environments are everywhere. If someone is going abroad, they need to learn about the culture around the local environment before going to respect the people and the environment itself. As much as possible, tourists need to leave no trace behind so that the cultures they visit can continue to thrive for the people who call those places home.

  1. In our current tumultuous political climate, what is the value of foreign exchange?

The political climate can always seem tumultuous, but the purpose of foreign exchange has always stayed true. The J-1 program started in 1961 to create mutual understanding worldwide through one-to-one interactions and cultural immersion. You can read a book or watch a movie, but only after meeting and talking to someone and experiencing their life will you come to truly learn from them, develop patience, and understand the gray areas of culture.

  1. What are some valuable lessons you have learned through your own travels?

I have become a lot more patient. Even when interacting with family members at home, I have learned to let things go. I have developed better communication tactics, such as reacting less quickly, and I now tend to think more about the intent behind our words. Professionally, travel has helped me understand the nuances of such things as time zones, email communications, and deadlines, all of which are perceived and experienced differently depending on the culture. For example, in some countries, time is more fluid, and I might have to be more explicit about a deadline that needs to be met.

  1. What was it like to bring and send program participants home when the COVID-19 pandemic began in the United States?

The pandemic began at the height of our arrival season, when we had about 6,000 participants coming into the country. It was very stressful, but we rallied as an organization. Despite having to make layoffs, we have rebuilt the organization into something I feel is working better now than it did before. Additionally, if something like this were to happen again, we now have more experience in making our participants feel safe, whether they are forced to stay in place or repatriate.

  1. What is a positive lesson Greenheart has learned through the process of adaptation to COVID-19 and post-pandemic life?

The pandemic has leveled the playing field, whether with our hosts or participants. Exceptions we may have made before regarding where we place program participants, we now think about more critically. Some questions have also arisen regarding the necessity of some of the regulatory requirements for the program, and the government has been very receptive to making the changes we have suggested.

  1. How do you hope to move forward and build back programming?

We hope to continue growing. The industry typically brings about 100,000 exchange visitors per year (the largest exchange program in the U.S.) on the summer work-travel program. However, in 2020, only 4% completed their program, with 25% in 2021. The industry is almost back to our pre-2020 numbers, but of course, we want more and more people to travel and see the world. This means sending more Americans abroad and also bringing more foreign participants to the United States.

  1. Describe a memorable interaction between program participants that you have observed during your years at Greenheart.

There have been several, but the one that comes to mind immediately is one of our previous Ugandan interns who came back three times for our Greenheart Global Leadership Conference in Washington, DC. He became friends with a Turkish participant, and any time we clicked a group photo, the two of them would hold hands and hug. A picture paints a thousand words; neither were American, and they were unlikely to meet anywhere else in the world, but they forged a meaningful connection in six days.

  1. What kind of bond can develop between a host family and a participant?

I was just visiting some hosts in Pennsylvania, and it was so valuable to hear in person how happy everyone was. The testimonials and stories about what participants and hosts have learned about each other’s countries are really special. I have often heard hosts say they cannot wait to visit participants in their home country or maybe even go to a wedding.

  1. Why is volunteerism prioritized in Greenheart’s initiatives?

Volunteering is a great way to get to know your host community. Getting outside of your bubble, meeting people you normally would not, and discussing issues you usually would not give you a fresh perspective that can open your eyes to how you can hopefully change the world. If nothing else, you have at least met someone a little different. Volunteering is an American tradition; volunteerism may not be the norm in other countries or even viewed in a positive light. Making it a priority at Greenheart lets us be advocates of volunteerism and demonstrate its benefits to the world.

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