Pinar, a Turkish high school student who is blind, received a full scholarship to study abroad on the U.S. Department of State’s Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program. “Of course, my parents were really worried because my safety is important to them. Probably the most important thing!” says Pinar, reflecting on her experience. She lived with an American host family on weekends and stayed on campus at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind during the week.
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.
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.
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.
It used to be that the majority of blind and low vision exchange students were placed in schools for the blind in the United States. That is no longer the case. Experienced exchange professionals know that there is no one size fits all approach to placing these talented students in U.S. high schools.
In the United States, the vast majority of secondary students with disabilities are mainstreamed in public high schools.
Luljeta Koshi has been recruiting students for the U.S. Department of State-sponsored Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program in Bosnia since 2008. In this interview, Koshi shares her perspective on the vital importance of disability inclusion in youth exchange programs and best practices for recruiting students with disabilities for these opportunities.
What has been your experience recruiting students with disabilities?
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.
As a person with a disability, you have the right to participate in the same international exchange opportunities as people who do not have disabilities. You may decide that you want to participate in an exchange program that is not specifically focused on the topic of disability, such as one focused on Japanese culture, public health, or the performing arts.
When Annie Reifsnyder became an Area Coordinator for CCI Greenheart, a non-profit organization that places international high school exchange students in the United States, she found a way to connect with students from around the world.
One Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) student from Russia in particular caught her attention. “I received Natasha’s bio and was kind of enamored by it,” Reifsnyder says. “I just thought how neat, how cool, how amazing, obviously a student who wanted to come to the U.S., but one who is blind.”
Yet simply spending time in another country might not be enough. Use these tips to get started on planning for an international exchange program, so that you can get the most out of the experience.