Geauga County woman travels to Taiwan, Zambia with IFYE

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Meghan O’Reilly, a Geauga County native, works in a field in Taiwan as part of the International Farm Youth Exchange program. (Submitted photo)

Many people like to wait for life to happen to them, and others actively search out what life experiences they can find. Meghan O’Reilly is an active searcher, wanting life to be a rich adventure.

A self-described 25-year-old Geauga County native “farm kid” who participated in 4-H from the time she can remember, O’Reilly’s family owns a farm that produces soybeans, corn and hay. She said her parents encouraged her to grab hold of life and hang on, and she naturally feels drawn to varied experiences, especially those that involve travel.

“I believe that you should take hold of every opportunity that comes your way,” she said. “Saying ‘no’ to something is all that holds you back.”

Her latest adventure, and one she wants to share with anyone who will listen, was made possible through the International Farm Youth Exchange. Because she loves to learn about the global community, her father encouraged her to apply. The organization has been providing exchange programs abroad for young adults since 1948. O’Reilly had completed her degree in visual communication design from Kent State, and was doing freelance graphic design work.

Being young and unencumbered by family or job responsibilities, she knew that she had the luxury of fully immersing herself in travel. Add to that, her father, David Kevin O’Reilly, had participated in the program 30 years ago and found it to be a fantastic learning opportunity for him.

This young woman has a warm smile that flows like maple syrup. She gestures with her hands while she talks, accenting the important points with a staccato rhythm to emphasize her passion.

“I chose a six-month experience and traveled to Taiwan for three months and Zambia, Africa for the second three months,” she said. Her expenses were partially paid for in Taiwan by a scholarship from the United Soybean Board. The remainder of her expenses were paid for by donors and her own savings. There were 17 outbound students and 21 inbound who were part of the exchange last year.

Taiwan

In Taiwan, O’Reilly got to see firsthand how soybeans are housed in an air-conditioned facility for quality control. This is to prevent fermentation because of the high humidity in that country. She was privy to listen, like a “fly on the wall,” to business discussions of Cortland, Ohio farmer Dan Schwarz and Mr. Lin, the Taiwanese buyer of the beans, as they discussed purchase contracts for the upcoming year. She saw the main food staple of creamy soy tofu used in just about every meal and in every way imaginable.

“In Taiwan, the climate is very tropical. There are mountains in the center, and the rice and vegetables are grown on the other side of the country, away from the typhoons. They are concentrating on growing more organic produce to meet demand,” O’Reilly said.

She enjoyed excursions to tea farms, and she marveled at the ways that the Taiwanese government supported agriculture and exchange programs of this type.

Africa

The second three months of her journey was in Zambia, Africa. She said that the locals were always so willing and welcoming to learn and to show her what they were doing.

“The farmers use the resources they have – particularly for fertilizers, which otherwise is very expensive,” she said. “They are learning self-sustaining ways of using native plant varieties to fight off their own insects and diseases in their area.”

She added that organically produced foods are also becoming more of a priority in Zambia. She learned that “sadza,” a somewhat bland but affordable thick porridge made of African cornmeal, is a staple here.

Meghan O’Reilly stayed in Zambia, Africa for three months as part of the International Farm Youth Exchange program. The United Soybean Board sponsored part of her trip. (Submitted photo)

Whether talking about water erosion or making dolls from corn husks, O’Reilly paid attention to the culture around her and absorbed it. “The little children were delightful,” she said, adding that they enjoyed playing games with her or braiding her hair.

“I was nervous about details like what to pack or how I would communicate. But it all worked out. The IFYE really takes care of planning everything, and I was able to use Google Translator on my phone to speak with anyone. It’s slow, but it works,” she laughed, saying that while native tribal languages are spoken in Africa, just about everyone also speaks English.

O’Reilly moved about in the countries to various host families, hotels and short-term rentals. She moved about every two weeks, so she met a wide variety of people. She did become a bit homesick sometimes, especially with sometimes sparse cell phone service in Africa, but otherwise found herself so busy and intrigued that it wasn’t an ongoing problem.

Upon her return, she was hoping for snow as she is an avid downhill skier and snowboarder. Instead, she was met with gray skies and a rather wimpy northeast Ohio slush. But her family brought Chik-Fil-A chicken to the airport, and she was very pleased with the treat.

“The chicken in Zambia is very bony. I really appreciated some good chicken,” she said.

More information

Those interested in learning more about the IFYE program can gain information and contacts through the website at IFYEUSA.org.

The program serves young adults 19 to 30 years old and applications are available in October for those wishing to travel in 2025.

The program motto is “Peace through Understanding.” Last year’s cost for the six-month excursion was $6,600, which included air fare. There are also shorter programs of two- or three-month lengths.

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