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"P.S. You're Amazing!": International Exchange Students with Disabilities Send Messages of Encouragement to American Pen Pals
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.
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!
P.S. Here are a few snippets from the FLEX and YES students’ messages to the U.S. students: