At first glance, Senka Mekic is polite and soft-spoken. But, spend just a few minutes talking with this U.S. Department of State-funded American Serbia and Montenegro Youth Leadership Exchange (A-SMYLE) student and you’ll realize first impressions aren’t meant to last. Senka admits, “I’m not just a bit stubborn, I’m very stubborn!”
When Muhammad, a U.S. Department of State-funded Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) student from Pakistan, first arrived in the United States, he had no idea what to expect. But, he brimmed with excitement at the opportunity to experience life in America. His exchange experience was unique because he would be experiencing true immersion in not just one, but two non-native languages: English and American Sign Language (ASL).
The full participation of youth with disabilities in international exchange is a critical step in increasing independent living skills, accessing post-secondary education opportunities, and pursuing competitive employment. International exchange also provides an understanding and respect for other peoples and cultures, cross-cultural competencies, including foreign language proficiency, and a true global perspective.
Welcome to the online A World Awaits You (AWAY) Journal! Focused on increasing the effective participation of youth with disabilities in international exchange, this issue introduces you to youth with disabilities who have successfully gone on international exchanges and the strategies that were influential in their success.
As a teacher at the Wisconsin School for the Deaf, my students started a project to assist their peers who struggle with reading. Although my students are fluent English readers, the vast majority of the school’s freshmen students are English Language Learners who cannot read at the 9th grade level, which makes novels used for course curricula inaccessible to them.
Before they arrive in the U.S. for a life-changing cultural immersion experience, prospective high school exchange students from around the world are expected to demonstrate their level of English ability, usually by taking a standardized test. Whichever test you use to assess your applicants, learn how to adapt it to fairly and accurately measure the skills of students with disabilities.
The Pamperins first learned about Ivan, a Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) student from Russia, from a youth exchange organization, States’ 4-H, that places students in their area. “Ivan’s name was at the top of the list of incoming international exchange students and we noticed very quickly that he has cerebral palsy (CP).” They had previously hosted a Japanese student who uses a wheelchair.
Flying from the Philippines to the U.S., I thought I would be learning about American traditions and pop culture as a Youth Exchange and Study (YES) student through the U.S. State Department and AFS Intercultural Programs. Surprisingly, I also learned about myself.
Of the forty-one Filipinos embarking on a journey as young ambassadors to the United States, three of us had disabilities, including me. This was the first time I met other people my age with disabilities.
True to its name, the Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX) had predicted wisely when it counted Yulia Simonova among its "future leaders" in 2001. Although over a decade has passed since Yulia spent a year in the U.S. as a high school exchange student, she claims that the experiences that shaped her there continue to serve her in her current role as a disability rights leader and founder of non-profit organization Perspektiva in Russia. Yulia, who has a physical disability and uses a wheelchair, created this video to describe how.
It might be going abroad for a high school field trip, volunteering on a church mission trip, or participating in a State Department-sponsored program. You can find a lot of fun programs to see the world and gain new experiences!
Youth with disabilities use these international experiences to help build important skills that make them more competitive for post-secondary employment and education opportunities.
Additionally, participation in international exchange can lead to:
When Katharine Royal was five years old, she told her grandfather that one day she’d welcome a child from Africa into her life. Years later, her childhood dream came true as she and her husband opened their home to Stella, a high school exchange student from Kenya who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair.
Katharine understood the challenges that Stella was facing. Like Stella, she, too, has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair.
"Pretty much before [my friend] even fully asked me if I would consider hosting Stella, I told her we are doing this."
Azat Toroev jokes that he is happy if his classmates can find Kyrgyzstan on a map. Since he arrived in his host state of Colorado, he has been raising awareness of his native country while studying for a year at a U.S. high school. Toroev, who has cerebral palsy, has also increased his own self-awareness while in the United States.
A Deaf student from Russia, Tatiana experienced the best of both worlds by attending two schools during her Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) year in the United States.
She attended the Delaware School for the Deaf (DSD) for the first five months of her exchange program while taking pre-calculus at Christiana High School, a mainstream public high school. After five months attending DSD, she transitioned to Christiana full time.