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.
The humidity in Mexico's night air wrapped itself around Robin Sutherby as she joined her teacher and classmates to stroll slowly down the road. In town, they headed into a piano club tucked away under the brewing clouds. Having visited the beaches of Acapulco and browsed the silver crafts in the city of Taxco by day, this break in their two week Spanish class tour abroad seemed just right.
“There was a musician playing a fast, hot sound. It started thundering and lightning outside, and rain poured down as we were sitting listening to this piano music playing.”
When asked why they had chosen to work together, the Association of Parents with Disabled Children (APDC) and All for Education! (AFE) National Civil Society Coalition made a simple but powerful prediction about their partnership: “Our voices would be louder together.” Given the challenge they faced, all their voices were needed.
Haziq sings a solo in front of his classmates at the closing ceremony of his weeklong reading camp. It’s a small crowd, and he hasn’t memorized the lyrics. Instead, Haziq is reading them from a screen at the front of the room. It may not seem like much, but to Haziq, it could be the very turning point of his life. And it took three people traveling halfway around the world and back to get him there.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”