The Value of Student Exchanges to Developing Countries — and the U.S.

A smiling woman looks off in the distance. Behind her is a sign that says "We all smile in the same language" with images of children with and without disabilities.
Natalia Osaulenko visits a school in Michigan that educates students with disabilities. Natalia, a wheelchair rider, is an advocate for people with disabilities in Ukraine.
USAID’s student exchange programs prepare students - like Natalia, from Ukraine - to be leaders in their country’s development. But they also bring benefits to American students, faculty and communities.

When students travel to another country to study as part of an exchange program, the benefits don’t just accrue to the individual student — communities across borders gain from the experience.

USAID funds student exchanges between institutions in developing countries and U.S. colleges and universities. The students who come to the U.S. gain knowledge and skills they can use back home, which in the long run can result in higher employment, enhanced productivity and a stronger economy in their home country.

Natalia Osaulenko's experience is one such example of how scholars who arrive in the U.S. come with a plan for putting their skills into action once back home in their own country.

In Ukraine, where there is limited or no access to transportation and infrastructure for people with disabilities, Natalia sought to ensure disabled children are able to integrate into society.

After participating in a USAID-funded program, Natalia opened the Rehabilitation Center for Children with Disabilities in Romny, the first to exist in a rural area of Ukraine.

Natalia then traveled to Detroit, Michigan, for two weeks to participate in a USAID student exchange as part of a group of nine visitors from Ukraine.

“The main purpose of my time in America was to find modern rehabilitation methods for children with severe disabilities,” she said. Upon returning to Ukraine, “the first thing we did was introduce new teaching methods for children with disabilities who have severe speech problems.”

While in Michigan, Natalia visited Wing Lake School, which serves students in Oakland County who have cognitive disabilities and multiple disabilities. She also organized a bake sale with the Union of Ukrainian Women of America in Ann Arbor to raise funds to open a speech therapy school back in Ukraine.

The visit by Natalia and her group was also meaningful for personnel at the Henry Ford Hospital in Michigan, which has a historic and ongoing support relationship with communities in Ukraine. For them, it was an opportunity to make a direct connection with people from Ukraine who work on health issues.

“While in Detroit, Natalia made a positive and powerful impression on her professional colleagues in advocacy for people with disabilities,” said Marian Reich, Executive Director of the nonprofit organization Global Ties Detroit, a USAID partner which hosted Natalia's group and organized their program. With "her drive, perseverance, and optimism," she was a role model to those in both Ukraine and the United States.

Although she has since returned to Ukraine, Natalia remains in contact with Detroit-based colleagues as they share best practices in improving the lives of people with disabilities and their families.

Natalia Osaulenko participated in the Participant Training Program (PTP), a professional exchange program implemented by World Learning. International Visitors Council of Metropolitan Detroit (IVC Detroit) was a Host Organization for the Mastering Modern Methods in Rehabilitation of Disabled Children program.

This story is excerpted from The Value of Student Exchanges to Developing Countries—And the U.S., courtesy of USAID, and adapted.