Promoting Cross-Cultural Exchanges: Executive Director Scott Sugiura
Some of the most eye-opening experiences in life come from immersing oneself in another culture and having long-held beliefs challenged. Such exposure to other cultures promotes cross-cultural understanding and increases cultural literacy. The nonprofit organization VIA (Volunteers in Asia) has facilitated such cultural experiences through its educational and service programs for Americans and Asians. Volunteers from the United States serve as English teachers and English resource staff in countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam. Students from Asian countries participate in language and cultural programs at Stanford University. VIA has intentionally kept itself small so it can provide specialized and high-quality support to the participants in its programs. Since 1963, VIA has sent more than 1,600 Americans to 15 Asian countries and brought more than 4,000 Asians to the United States. As Executive Director of VIA, Scott Sugiura, 39, oversees these cultural-exchange programs. To learn more about him and VIA, check out this week’s Nonprofit Spotlight.
VIA (formerly Volunteers in Asia)
Menlo Park, California
San Francisco State University
International Relations Graduate Work
B.A. Diplomacy and World Affairs
Waseda University, Kokusaibu
Japan-U.S. Community Education and Exchange (JUCEE)
Asian Pacific Islander American Health Forum
Rainforest Action Network; Bay Area Ridge Trail Council
Project Open Hand, International Rescue Committee (Thailand)
Generation 3.5 Japanese-Californian
About the non-profit
Since 1963, VIA has been providing opportunities for Americans and Asians to walk in each others’ shoes, share each others’ cultures and come to understand each other through a common commitment to service and education. The goal of all of our programs is to enhance cross-cultural understanding through the exchange of people.
Our deep commitment to service and education drives our work and motivates students, volunteers and staff. We envision a world where people on both sides of the Pacific are appropriately equipped to build durable solutions to global problems through mutual understanding and cooperation. VIA programs have given thousands of Americans and Asians the tools and cultural literacy to help achieve this vision.
If you are an American or permanent resident in the US interested in living and working in a community where you can explore another culture as well as gain a better understanding of yourself and your capacity, I would encourage you to consider volunteering in Asia with VIA. There are few experiences more powerful than living in another culture and learning to negotiate your place within that culture. The most formative experiences in my life and the lives of many of our alumni have revolved around international opportunities for education and service. One of the keys to success in this is understanding that you have an equally significant role and responsibility to teach as well as to learn, to serve as well as to receive.
VIA volunteers have been making an impact for more than four decades by working with Asian partner institutions as teachers and English resource staff. Our approach to this work and our commitment to stepping lightly with great humility has resulted in a strong network of institutions and communities that have supported our volunteers in 15 different countries in Asia. Whether you continue to work in a field related to Asia or not, the course of your life will be permanently changed by your experience.
If you are a college student in Asia or at Stanford with a deep curiosity about cultures other than your own and an unbounded enthusiasm to learn, please check the Opportunities for Asian students and Stanford students pages of our website. At the request of universities throughout Asia, VIA has been facilitating language and cultural exchange programs since 1977. While there are numerous exchange programs available to students from Asia, VIA’s Stanford Programs are unique in several respects. Most VIA programs are multinational, bringing together students from several countries in Asia in addition to the interaction with Stanford students. All of our programs have a strong service component which link them to VIA’s overall mission.
We have kept VIA purposefully small and believe that our hand-crafted approach to programs has been a key to keeping the VIA experience unique and life-changing. It has also been the glue that keeps the VIA family of alumni, staff and board as engaged and active in the long-term health and well being of the organization and the opportunities our programs create. Join us!
What are your day-to-day responsibilities?
As Executive Director of a small nonprofit I work on a little bit of everything: program development & oversight, finance & fundraising, board & alumni development, making coffee & copies.
Most notable milestones
- Began offering one and two-year volunteers opportunities in Asia as alternative service for conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War.
- Began sending volunteers to Indonesia in 1968.
- Began sending volunteers to China in 1980.
- Began sending volunteers to Vietnam in 1990.
- Began sending volunteers to Myanmar in 2006.
- Sent volunteers to 15 different Asian countries over the past 45 years.
- Began programs for undergraduate students from Asia at Stanford University in 1977.
- Over 1,600 American volunteers & more than 4,000 Asian participants to the US.
What’s the niche?
VIA is all about making person-to-person connections through international service and education. This is a broad area and we differentiate ourselves from bigger organizations like the Peace Corps in our ability to approach a country or partner institution from a completely neutral and nonaligned position. This approach has enabled VIA to develop opportunities in countries that the Peace Corps is unable to access.
Because VIA is intentionally small we are also able to provide highly specialized and high-quality support to all our programs. What has sustained VIA over 40+ years is our ability to facilitate “life-changing” experiences for participants whether they are spending a summer of service work at Stanford or two years in the jungles of Kalimantan.
What’s the biggest challenge?
Like most nonprofits our biggest challenge is mobilizing resources (financial and otherwise) to get our work done. VIA is lucky to have diversified income sources and generous support from our alumni but we are continuously seeking out new sources of revenue to support new programming and offset rising costs.
What’s in store for the future?
One trend that is slowly emerging is a change in the demographic of our volunteers. When VIA began in the 60’s we worked exclusively with college students and recent graduates. Our profile today is much more diverse and we expect to have a growing pool of baby boomers (both VIA alumni and non) who are looking to volunteer after they retire. This represents a great opportunity to connect partner institutions in Asia with highly skilled volunteers who bring a career’s worth of experience to the field. It also changes the dynamics of our volunteer cohort in positive ways by adding more diversity to the group and providing more mentorship opportunities among volunteers.
For VIA’s programs bringing Asian undergraduates to Stanford we are also anticipating growth in participation from mainland Chinese students. As China’s economy continues to grow and our ability to obtain visas for students increases we are looking forward to greater numbers of Chinese on our summer programs.
Best way to keep a competitive edge
VIA staff is always on the look out for new opportunities that fit our mission and for ways to improve on our existing programs. Over the past 40+ years VIA has not been afraid to take risks in new areas and this flexibility has enabled the organization to stay responsive and innovate. Fostering an organizational culture that empowers staff to think outside the box while remaining mission focused is one of our key goals.
Guiding principle in life
Goal yet to be achieved
VIA’s niche has always been creating unique opportunities across the Pacific and pushing people’s boundaries. One goal that has been on VIA’s to-do list for some time is to develop volunteer opportunities in North Korea. My best estimate would be in the next five years.
Best practical advice
Get out of your comfort zone.
While VIA does this literally by sending people across the dateline into unfamiliar surroundings, it is essentially a mental challenge to keep questioning your assumptions.
Too many to mention – mostly former supervisors and co-conspirators. It has been very helpful to me to have a variety of people whose opinions I respect who are willing to give unvarnished feedback. I also think it is important to have mentors who are at a different stage in their careers so that you can see how people you respect have dealt with challenges you may face in the future. Ultimately it’s all about being a conduit for information and support and giving is as good as receiving.
What motivated you to get started?
I have always been interested in doing work that results in a net positive social impact. While I have chosen to work almost exclusively in the nonprofit sector, positive social change is definitely not limited to this sector. I am increasingly interested in how the traditional lines between “for profit” and nonprofit are being blurred and what strategies nonprofit organizations can adopt that will increase their impact.
Like best about what you do?
Working with students from Asia and Stanford. Connecting with volunteers and alumni. Travel to Asia.
Like least about what you do?
At age 10, what did you want to be when you grew up?
What was your first job?
“Sorting” peaches on a farm in the Central Valley during summers. I think I was 14 years old.
Biggest pastime outside of work
Eating and sleeping. We have a six-year old and a three-year old.
Person most interested in meeting?
Barack Obama. He should be a good spokesperson for VIA’s Indonesia programs.
Leader in business most interested in meeting?
Craig Newmark. I heard he answers the phone. I think it’s great that craigslist is successful, community-driven and is a dot org.
Three interesting facts about yourself
- I have eaten a whole reuben sandwich from Katz Deli in one sitting.
- I once bought a water buffalo carcass for work.
- I play pool left handed.
Three characteristics that describe you
- Big picture
- Yokubari (in a food context)
Three greatest passions
“Pinball, 1973” by Haruki Murakami, translated by Alfred Birnbaum.
Who would you like to be contacted by?
I would love to get a call from the office of Representative Tom Lantos or Senator Richard Durbin asking VIA’s advice on how to amend the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act of 2007 (S.991) which has been referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The bill would create a public-private partnership that would support opportunities for at least one million American college students to study abroad annually in 10 years’ time. The bill authorizes $80 million for grants to individual students, universities and nongovernmental institutions that provide study abroad opportunities. Of particular relevance to VIA is the bill’s emphasis on expanding study abroad opportunities to less-commonly visited destinations in the developing world.
It is exciting to see bipartisan legislation recognizing the need to build the global competencies of American citizens in order to sustain US global leadership, competitiveness, and security, a key argument validating the need for VIA programs. It would be even more amazing if there were an amendment to extend this opportunity to graduating college students who would like to volunteer abroad but cannot do so because of staggering student loans.
Student loan debt encumbered almost two-thirds of the graduating Class of 2006, according to federal statistics. VIA has also witnessed this trend through increasing numbers of applicants requesting financial assistance and information on how to defer student loans. An extension of the student loan forgiveness available to Peace Corps volunteers would remove a huge barrier for those interested in volunteering with VIA, especially in countries where we are focused and options like Peace Corps are not available .
You can read more about the Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act at: http://www.nafsa.org/public_policy.sec/commission_on_the_abraham
Interview by Vanessa Chan
Introduction by Preeti Aroon
Edited by Valerie Enriquez