Central Iowa nonprofit makes global connections


Jill Itzen/Iowa State Daily

The IRIS office in Ames is located downtown.

Established in 1993, Iowa Resource for International Service is a nonprofit organization in Ames whose mission is to encourage the development of peaceful relationships across the globe.

IRIS has programs that include scholarships and student exchange opportunities for students from overseas. The organization commits a good deal of time and planning to the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program or the YES Program.   

“The YES program is funded by the U.S. Department [of State’s Bureau] of Educational and Cultural Affairs,” Kimberly Hope, operations manager at IRIS, said. “It was created after 9/11 to help bridge gaps between our country and countries that have significant Muslim population. We are trying to do soft diplomacy, making sure that students from those countries are getting a sense of who real Americans are and maybe not buying into propaganda or negative stereotypes they might be getting of our country.”

Hope said IRIS has seen a lot of success with the YES program. The students who may apply for the YES program in their countries are from Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

“IRIS is in charge of doing the recruitment in Nigeria and Tanzania, so we have staff from those countries and we send staff over and do the whole application process with all the students [applying],” Hope said. “We choose the very best applicants; there are hundreds that will apply in those two countries and we narrow it down to about 18.”

IRIS handles both the selection, and then the placement of the YES program finalists who are chosen. They work to find host families around the state of Iowa who are interested in hosting a student for about a full year.

“I think that most people who decide to do this understand that our program is a lot different than what other exchange programs are providing in that it is students that come from pretty different places,” Hope said. “… They really are quite motivated to be doing well in school and they get really involved with activities and they are super thankful to their host families for giving them this opportunity.”

During the exchange students’ stay with a host family in Iowa, they get the chance to volunteer and participate in activities that offer the chance to engage in and learn about American culture and society. Many families that volunteer to host a student will do so more than once.

IRIS, YES Program volunteer Alexis Vosburg and her family have hosted two exchange students, one in 2012 and again in 2015, the students were from Tanzania and Turkey and it was each of their first time in the United States.

“This isn’t your typical exchange program that just takes the students that have the funds to do this trip,” Vosburg said. “These students had to work hard for this opportunity. IRIS focuses on community service and promoting international relations, including strengthening Christian/Muslim relations.”

The first student the Vosburgs had hosted in 2012 was a young girl named Nasra from Zanzibar, Tanzania. The Iowa way of life was a bit of a culture shock to her, but the Vosburgs enjoyed the experience as hosts and loved learning about Nasra’s culture and religion.

The second time they hosted was in 2015, a boy named Bora form Turkey. Vosburg said that his self-taught understanding of the English language was amazing.

“Both experiences were so different for us as a family,” Vosburg said. “… It is humbling and rewarding to call these young people my children. Our lives are forever changed. To this day when you ask my sons how many siblings they have, their answer is never just one. Two years ago world affairs meant little to me and I could not understand my husband’s need to do something international. I brought international to us to fill his hole … but what I did was create a hole in myself. It has ignited a passion I did not know existed.  My heart hurts for those hurting around the world, not just in my community.”

Vosburg frequently volunteers in Ames in order to promote her global understanding. This includes helping IRIS recruit more host families.

“Hosting exchange students not only changed my family, it changed my view of the world,” Vosburg said. “I am a global citizen. People in other countries aren’t just news stories. They are real people, with real families, just like mine that just want the best life they can have for their families. I would not know this without IRIS and the YES program — for them, I am forever grateful.”

She strongly supports possible hosts to volunteer without hesitation. Vosburg stands by her opinion that the experience will forever change people’s worldview and enrich their understanding of different religions and cultures, as well as drive them to do something about injustices in the world rather than watch them happen.