When Michelle She started her first year of college in Tennessee far from her home in Maryland, her parents weren’t concerned about the distance or her year delay in starting. At least not in comparison to where she went the year before, and what she gained in return.
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.
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.
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!”
When Muhammad, a U.S. Department of State-funded Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) student from Pakistan, first arrived in the United States, he had no idea what to expect. But, he brimmed with excitement at the opportunity to experience life in America. His exchange experience was unique because he would be experiencing true immersion in not just one, but two non-native languages: English and American Sign Language (ASL).
When I was in middle school, my best friend's family hosted an international student on a summer exchange program. I was absolutely and totally engrossed by watching this student's experience in the United States, learning English and constantly being exposed to newness. I wanted very much to be in his shoes: in a new land breathing in new air and a new way of looking at the world. Since that summer, I knew that I needed to make it a priority during college to travel overseas and learn a new language.
Going overseas was something I had wanted to do since my early college days. I had always dreamed of being in the jungles of Africa or on a camel riding through a desert, but when the opportunity came to travel to Russia with Wheels for the World, I enthusiastically accepted the challenge.
In the cafeteria lunch line of the Cité Scolaire Albert Camus, I stood between two high school teachers and a small group of giggling junior high girls who recognized me as “elle,” or “her”— the American girl who was spending a year as an English language assistant. Shyly, one of the girls dared to test out her English skills, and tentatively offered a greeting, “Hello?”
Awake early, Melissa Jensen walked out of the circular yurt into Mongolia’s vast rural lands. “I’m from Wisconsin, so I’m used to cows. But I’m not used to brushing my teeth at an outside sink with primitive plumbing and being surrounded by cows,” says Melissa, who at the time was a college student from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. “That big culture change is what I love.” Melissa was volunteering to help rebuild a destroyed Buddhist temple in Mongolia, just three years after her second head injury near the end of high school.
With a deep-fried scorpion staring at me from the end of my chopsticks, I couldn't help but think how this delicacy in China would stump even my best diabetes doctors in the United States. How much insulin does my body require for a scorpion?!
During one of my fall semesters in college, I studied abroad in Rennes, France, on a program sponsored by the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE). In addition to many great opportunities to develop my French language skills, I also explored many new places and activities that I had never had the chance to do before in the United States.
In Italy, my friend Neika always did the haggling for me. Left to my own devices, the shopkeepers would have taken me for thousands. She was skilled at bargaining and probably the reason I came home with so many delightful souvenirs and jewelry from Venice.
It is not just with bargaining that I have trouble “putting myself out there.” Despite my tendency to shy away from things, I have always had very big plans for myself. Early in high school, I realized that I wanted to travel extensively, earn a PhD degree, and live an adventurous life.
Because I grew up in a small Greek city where I never socialized with other Deaf people, I never thought there were other people like me. From kindergarten through high school, I attended a mainstream school that didn’t provide support services, nor were teachers aware of Deaf culture and deafness. As a child, I didn’t really realize I was Deaf, despite being born with hearing loss too extensive to use hearing aids. Instead, I considered myself a person with a problem in my ears and difficulty interacting well with hearing people.
In her work as a social media strategist and communications guru, Anne craves the chance to build connections with people around the globe. “I've always had a fervor for meeting people and finding ways to bond, and people gravitate toward that both online and offline.”
What’s Anne's secret to success? On her website, she mentions her “willingness to adapt,” which “spawns innovation." In today’s competitive economy, these qualities make job seekers stand out.
One day while teaching as usual, I noticed new parents appeared with their Deaf daughter. After my colleagues and I met with the parents, I was shocked to discover that their daughter never had been to school or learned sign language. Instead, she stayed at home and worked on the farm. She was already 18 years old. It was heartbreaking for me.