Melissa Gulledge, CIEE Regional Director from South Carolina, has years of experience placing international exchange students from all over the world with American families, but a last minute decision to host a teenager with a disability led to one of her own family’s most meaningful hosting experiences.
The clock was ticking to match Pinar, a young woman from Turkey who is blind, with a host family and school.
I am 17 years old and an ASSE YES Exchange student from Karachi, Pakistan. I was very excited to get the opportunity to come to the United States of America. This was something that I prayed for and it was like a dream come true.
I am visually impaired and have had very little vision my entire life. In Pakistan, where I attended a school for the blind, there are many challenges and few opportunities for blind people. I’ve learned the opposite is true here in the U.S. What I’ve learned here [in the US] is more than I could possibly write about in a few short paragraphs.
I will never forget the day I met my host father, Mark, in the arrivals terminal at Bishop International airport. Mark offered his hand and greeted me by saying, “Merhaba,” which means hello in Turkish. I was both surprised and happy at the sincerity of his greeting and instantly felt very close to Mark. My first impression proved true, and throughout the year I had a very strong relationship with my host family.
The main reason I applied to the YES program to the United States was because I wanted to experience a place where people are different, yet not judged by their differences; a place where my abilities would be seen objectively. My parents were really encouraging because they knew my determination and capacity for overcoming difficulties.
Dear Future Exchange Student,
If you are chosen as an exchange student, you might have a lot of questions and thoughts about everything. That's how I was at first.
I worried about everything, especially because of my disability. There was a time when I almost gave up on everything. I was tired of thinking of all the stuff I had to do, all the forms to fill out, all the discussions I had to have with my parents, and a lot more.
In the modern world, career and social life is like a chain. Each opportunity is connected and often times followed by another, so that by missing one chance you might be losing hundreds of opportunities.
When I completed my Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) year in the United States, I became a member of an active alumni community in Georgia and gained access to a wealth of information about scholarships, exchange programs, competitions, internships, volunteer opportunities and jobs.
Growing up, Haben Girma knew that international exchange was bound to be in her future. She had visited Eritrea and Ethiopia, places her parents called home before immigrating to the United States. So when Haben learned about BuildOn (www.buildon.org) as a teenager, she was determined to go. She was excited about BuildOn’s mission of empowering and educating youth by building schools in some of the world’s poorest remote communities and knew first-hand the importance of access to education.