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 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?
His bags were packed, his passport and flight tickets were in hand, but three days before he was to fly into Beijing, Nathan Liu still didn’t have a confirmed host family on his high school study abroad program. He hadn’t considered that the delay could have something to do with his being blind until a friend raised the question: “Are some countries more accessible than others?”
After months of getting ready for his language immersion experience in China, Nathan was taken aback by the possibility that perhaps China wasn’t ready for him.
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.
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.”