At just 16 years old, Ana was so confident that she and her wheelchair would soon be on their way to the U.S., she told practically everyone she knew that she had applied to the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.
Although Ana didn’t make the final selection pool the first time, she tried again a year later.
"When I applied the second time, I didn’t tell anybody except my mom. Most of my family found out that I was going to fly two days before my flight when we had my farewell party. They were shocked!"
In Washington, D.C., there is no shortage of international exchange organizations working to promote intercultural understanding and citizen diplomacy, but Sarah Amin was drawn to Cultural Vistas in particular, remarking on their enthusiastic staff who seemed open and flexible to creativity and fresh ideas.
With the busiest season just behind her, Shannon Kelly reflects on the role she and her colleagues played in the experiences of over 2000 students from around the world who arrived in the U.S. this summer through Spirit Cultural Exchange, where Shannon works as an intern:
"These students are thousands of miles away from their families and friends; we're here to be advocates for them."
Floriane, who has muscular dystrophy, has been using a power wheelchair since age three, and when she was eighteen years old, she joined disability groups that planned holiday travels. She has traveled from her home country of France to the souks in Morocco to the museums in London.
“If you struggle at home, you won’t necessarily struggle in other countries. There are always great surprises!”
This love for discovery of cultures would carry on not only with her personal endeavors, but also her educational pursuits.
On a September evening in Jakarta, Indonesia, Lintang Kirana took center stage as part of a celebration of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the achievements of people with disabilities around the world. Surrounded by MIUSA’s Brilliant and Resilient photo exhibit, a touring exhibit highlighting the work of thirty women leaders with disabilities, Lintang transported the audience to her Wisconsin host community through stories of her year in the United States.
My role as a CIEE cluster leader is to organize enhancement activities that build the leadership and teamwork skills of my students. Last year I had sixteen students in my cluster, two of whom were students with disabilities. Both were studying in the United States on programs sponsored by the U.S Department of State.
There are certain activities that we do every year as a cluster. One of the most memorable of those activities took place in the winter. All sixteen of my students went up to our little cabin, which is what we do every year, to go cross-country skiing.
Rebecca Zeigler Mano, EducationUSA Country Coordinator for Zimbabwe, has always worked to make higher education an option for many marginalized communities. She worked for a few years in the U.S. with high achieving, low income students to make sure they knew about access to higher education and scholarship opportunities. This thread continued when Rebecca started working with EducationUSA-Zimbabwe in 2000 and noticed little access for students with disabilities in local universities.
From her host community of Spokane, Washington, Polina beams as she recalls the highlights of her academic year on the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program.
“I’m fully enjoying my time here! I have everything I need: a great host family, people who care about me and have been supporting me from the very first day I met them, a school with good teachers, and new friends.”
But like many high school students who consider studying abroad, Polina wasn’t always so sure her experience would be a positive one.
Gohar Navasardyan is the only female athlete playing with the Pyunic Center for the Disabled’s wheelchair basketball team. She powers her chair across the court with strength and grace, as she does when she’s on the dance stage. Armenia doesn’t yet have a women’s wheelchair basketball team, but there is momentum to create new sport opportunities for people with disabilities across the nation, fueled by MIUSA’s U.S. Department of State sponsored Sports for Success professional exchange program.
Azat Toroev, a U.S. Department of State-funded Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) participant from Kyrgyzstan who has a physical disability, came to the United States driven by his interests in film, volunteering, and journalism. Azat quickly became an active presence in his host community of Fort Collins, Colorado.
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!”
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.
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.