Melissa Gulledge, CIEE Regional Director from South Carolina, has years of experience placing international exchange students from all over the world with American families, but a last minute decision to host a teenager with a disability led to one of her own family’s most meaningful hosting experiences.
The clock was ticking to match Pinar, a young woman from Turkey who is blind, with a host family and school.
"All I could think about was, ‘We have another student who needs to be placed!’ When I read her profile, I learned she likes ice skating, bowling, music and horseback riding. Who doesn’t like a child who likes all of those things?"
A sense of urgency led to a rush of excitement when Melissa decided to host Pinar, a high school student on the U.S. Department of State sponsored Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study (YES) program, herself.
“I called my husband and said, ‘We are getting a new exchange student!’ and then added, 'Oh, and by the way, she’s blind.’” Her husband’s response became a prophetic piece of advice that guided their experience hosting their first student with a disability: “Okay, we’ll figure it out.”
Nerves set in a bit as Melissa and her family began to prepare for Pinar’s arrival. “Whose parents allow them to go this far away from home when they are blind?”
The list of worries began to grow as Melissa thought through how to avoid potential pitfalls of hosting a high school student who is blind. What if she misses the bus? What will she do for fun? Will she be independent?
Melissa had the same questions as many people who are new to hosting a student with a disability. Her husband and son reassured her that these same issues came up with every teenager they had hosted in the past, too. “My concerns were probably the same as others, but were actually complete ignorance on my part because I really didn’t know a whole lot about blind people.” Melissa’s willingness to learn matched Pinar’s desire to teach.
Pinar’s arrival at the airport set the tone for a hosting relationship based on trust, open communication, and curiosity. Within minutes, Pinar’s self-advocacy skills came shining through when she requested to be guided through the busy airport with Melissa standing on her preferred side.
“I know nothing! You’ll have to teach me everything,” Melissa confided to her new student. Soon enough, Pinar was making new friends at the South Carolina School for the Blind, cheering in the stadium at her first college football game, and celebrating a first place win for her entry in the international education fair.
"The reality is that when you want to place a student, you want to describe all the wonderful things about them, but you don’t need to highlight their disability. Make sure you share that a teenager with a disability is just like any other teenager".
Pinar liked to sleep late, post Facebook check-ins and photos, and shop for the perfect outfit just like any other high school student. “We had the same learning curve with her that we had with all of our other students as far as adaptation and expectations.”
As a triad of teamwork, Melissa, her family and Pinar were tasked daily to ‘figure it out.’ They communicated openly, encouraged her independence, and most importantly, saw Pinar as a regular teenager first.
"I feel like with Pinar, I didn’t get just one or two cultures. I got three! I got Turkish, Muslim, and blind culture. I learned so much from her and from the school. Seeing things through her eyes has really made a difference in my life and our family’s life."
Melissa Gulledge is the Regional Director of Training and Development with CIEE, a non-profit leader in international education and exchange. She lives in South Carolina with her husband.