Advancing disability rights and leadership globally®

"P.S. You're Amazing!": International Exchange Students with Disabilities Send Messages of Encouragement to American Pen Pals

Date:

This blog is part of a series of posts highlighting MIUSA’s summer orientation for international high school exchange students with disabilities who recently arrived in the U.S. on scholarships through the FLEX Program and YES Program.

During the one-week orientation, students with diverse disabilities and from a range of countries explore themes of leadership, self-advocacy, and accessibility in order to confidently navigate their upcoming year in their host communities across the U.S.

Learn more about the FLEX and YES programs here.

In their roles as citizen diplomats, all FLEX and YES students are expected to devote ample time volunteering in their host communities, such as helping out at school-related events, working in an animal shelter, or beautifying public spaces. For volunteers with disabilities, community service can perhaps take on additional significance, signaling that people with disabilities are not just recipients of service, but are actively contributing their time and talents to serve others. MIUSA’s orientation included a morning workshop exploring how students with disabilities can fully participate as volunteers in community service projects, and how they can self-advocate if such projects are inaccessible. Through role-playing scenarios, students learned strategies for being assertive and creative when taking part in group volunteer projects if and when access barriers arise.

Students with disabilities may or may not opt to work with other disabled people or disability-focused organizations as part of their community service work, but if they do, it can sometimes be an illuminating way for both exchange students and hosts to learn more about disability rights, access, and culture in other parts of the world.

To kick off their year of community service, the exchange students participated in their first U.S. volunteer project that morning. MIUSA had reached out to Partners for Youth with Disabilities to get the names of U.S. youth with disabilities who participate in its Young Leaders Rising program. Each of the FLEX and YES youth composed letters to one or two of the U.S. teens, sharing information about themselves – their passions, their hopes for their coming year in the U.S., their disabilities, their home countries and cultures – while at the same time encouraging their new American pen pals to venture out of their comfort zones, embrace foreign languages and cultures, and even apply to be exchange students themselves!

Some students dictated their letters to be transcribed, while others decorated their hand-written letters with cheerful doodles and colorful designs. All were earnest and heartfelt, and we can’t wait for the Young Leaders Rising participants to receive them! Although no doubt many of these young Americans with disabilities have had exposure to multiple languages and cultures and world travels, we hope our students’ messages will whet new appetites for even broader horizons!

Pile of hand-written letters on a variety of paper
You’ve got mail! Students personalized their letters with doodles, designs, and words of encouragement.

P.S. Here are a few snippets from the FLEX and YES students’ messages to the U.S. students:

“My country is at an intersection of eastern Europe and western Asia. It’s territorily small but culturally VERY rich. Everyone needs to visit it one day. Maybe I’ll host you there, too!”

– FLEX Student from Republic of Georgia

“My country is in Central Asia. It is a small country with beautiful nature. We have our national games and every two years we host The Nomad Games. The most interesting game we play is with horses.”

– FLEX Student from Kyrgyzstan

“After studying in the US for one year, I want to go back home and volunteer with my community for people with disabilities. I want to teach Deaf people about accessibility technology.”

– YES Student from Cameroon

“I’ve been here for a few days now and I feel like I need to encourage other students like me to take this step and experience life outside the U.S. Cultures vary so much and it’s so much fun to have an opportunity to get to know as much as you can first-hand. I hope our paths will cross one day in the future!”

– FLEX Student from Republic of Georgia

“Programs like FLEX enabled people with disability visiting other countries. We can learn new languages and get to know new culture. It shows that people with disabilities are not different and everything is possible for us. This is amazing experience.”

– FLEX Student from Poland

“I want to encourage you to join an exchange program as well! Trust me, you won’t regret it. You meet so many people of different cultures and accept challenges. You’ll experience stuff you’ve never experienced before. The main and coolest thing is that you will make enduring ties. As a person with a disability, DO NOT BE SCARED because of that. Yes, there are many risks but how are you going to grow as a person if you don’t accept risks? 🙂 Those abroad exchange programs will help you become the best version of yourself. I believe in you, you should believe in yourself too! P.S. You’re amazing!”

– FLEX Student from Republic of Georgia
Author: Ashley H

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