Lessons Learned Abroad

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By: Maeve Brind’Amour

YES Abroad, 2016-17

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

If I was asked last year to point out Bosnia and Herzegovina on a map, I wouldn’t have been able to. As I’m now nearing the tenth month of my exchange in Bosnia, it’s hard to believe that a country I had never heard of, has become a country I now call home. It seems like just yesterday my vision of studying abroad was more like a dream than an actual possibility. Now that dream has become my life, and very soon I’m going to have to leave it behind.

I’ve always felt perfectly comfortable in my small town back in the States. The people I interact with everyday are the same people I’ve grown up with and known for years. In Bosnia, I was truly an outsider for the first time, which caused me to question my confidence and self-perceptions prior to exchange. Moving to a country where I didn’t know the people or the language challenged my flexibility and patience; it taught me to let go of expectations and instead to accept aspects of culture that were difficult to understand.

Learning a new language was yet another obstacle of exchange. Living in a place where I didn’t have complete control and confidence in speaking the language made me realize how often I take for granted monolingualism in the U.S. I had never before felt insecure about my accent or grammar when speaking until my exchange. With every small accomplishment, whether it be greeting a neighbor, learning how to order food properly, or giving a stranger the time, I learned to appreciate the small victories. It also encouraged me to talk less and listen more when I couldn’t completely understand what was going on around me. I often find myself interrupting friends and family when I talk to them, but simply trying to understand conversations on exchange increased my patience and attentiveness towards others. Not only has this improved my listening skills but my Bosnian skills as well.

Another slightly shocking aspect of culture for me in Bosnia was the appreciation of free time. In the U.S. I’m constantly occupied with school and extracurriculars, which eat up the majority of my time. Conversely, most people in Bosnia don’t seem to be in a big rush, perhaps because there is less pressure to always be “doing something.” While plans seem to fall though here more often, this has provided me with another lesson in patience and flexibility. In Bosnia, I had far more time to spend with my host family, and explore Sarajevo. It made me realize how often I’m preparing for the next thing. My life in Sarajevo taught me that a meaningful use of time does not necessarily constitute a planned activity or event. Some of my favorite moments on exchange have been enjoyed simply chatting with my host family over coffee.

In the end, I can honestly say that a year of exchange has taught me far more than a year of school ever has. Learning about a place from a textbook is a completely different thing from actually experienced it. While this might seem obvious and even expected, few other high schoolers receive the opportunity to leave their home country and live for ten months in a different one. Going through such a transformative experience at a young age is truly incredible, and I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to go on exchange.  Though I will no longer be living in Bosnia, I will continue to hold on to the memories of my exchange and love for my host family wherever the future may take me.

The final countdown – end of year orientation for YES abroad students in Bulgaria

By Rumyana Yotova, program and administrative assistant, AC Bulgaria
It’s been almost 9 months since the first generation YES abroad students arrived in Bulgaria. I still remember the excitement that we the AC staff together with the host families experienced while waiting for Rachel, Elijah and Sophia to arrive at Sofia airport. For these 9 months we had some hard moments together but many great moments as well. Now since there is only one month left on program, it is time for reflection on the exchange experience and lessons learned.
On May 26-27th, 2017 YES abroad students Rachel Freeman and Elijah Septoff had their final end of year orientation preparing them for returning home in the beginning of July. The orientation went very well, participants ware reflecting on the changes in their self-perception and perceptions of the host country. We discussed the stages of reentry and how to recognize them and the common problems that can face when returning home as well as the possible solutions. Rachel and Elijah were able to think of people they want to thank for this opportunity and they wrote a common letter to Tammy Paltchikov, educational and Cultural Attaché in US Embassy in Sofia. At the end of the orientation students read massages from YES alumni with advice how to spend the last month on program and how stay active as part as the alumni society. Students also shared their suggestions what changes can be done in the program in order to make the exchange experience even better for the second YES abroad generation.
The orientation was held in city of Plovdiv and was combined with sightseeing and visiting festival of the Bulgarian rose in the nearby city of Karlovo. As Rachel mentioned this festival was part of her “things to visit in Bulgaria” list so she was able to put one more tick on it. Although the weather was not our friend (it was raining almost whole day) we didn’t change the plan and went to the rose gardens on the morning of May 27th. We saw where these wonderful plants are growing and smelled the aroma of thousands of roses. After the gardens we went to the city center where different products with rose water and rose oil such as cosmetics, candles, soaps, rose jam etc. were exposed. The main attraction of the festival was demonstration of traditional production of the rose oil in the History museum. Thinking of returning home students start buying gifts for their friends and family.
It’s been 9 months since we started this wonderful journey together. Thank you YES abroad for the moments we shared. Probably you have grown up, but I have changed a lot too and it is because of you.

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Human library project with YES Abroad students in Bulgaria

By Rachel Freeman, YES Abroad student in Bulgaria

At the beginning of the year, I signed up for an elective class called Confronting Racism. It’s new and our main goal was to build a foundation. We’ve watched a few documentaries, taken a field trip, discussed the role of Roma people in Europe and Bulgaria, and done a lot of organizing. Recently, our biggest idea came to life in the form of a human library event.

If you’re unfamiliar with this type of gathering, then my explanation follows. Organizers pick a theme and find people who can talk about this topic. These speakers function as “books” and their “readers” gather around them and engage in the story through listening and asking questions. It’s meant to be an informal setting to create discussion and exchange information.

For our particular event, we chose to title it Building Bridges. We searched for people who had been in situations where they were the minority and had maybe faced some sort of discrimination. It resulted in stories about systemic racism in the US, life as a Turkish in Bulgaria, living in Nigeria as a Bulgarian, being a Trans activist, a photography project that highlights the diversity of Toronto’s population, and my own mishmash of identities. Attendance was high and the room was filled with chatter for almost two hours. The general feedback consisted of positive opinions about the unique ideas and interesting stories.

While the event went surprisingly well, the wrap up was my favorite part. There were only a handful of people left and each speaker had the opportunity to share a snapshot of their story for the group because many of the organizers, like me, were not able to visit everyone. A few anecdotes were shared, but many chose to focus on reflecting about the message they were trying to convey to the students. We had worked hard to make this event happen and were now able to listen directly to people found through connections from our school community. It was a welcome reminder of the dialogue that can be created through the exchange program  and how this can take place in many scenarios.

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Exploring Europe with Gymnasia Josip Broz Tito

By Jaleh S., YES Abroad 2016-2017, Macedonia

High school students in Macedonia usually take a big school trip, or excursion, in the spring of their third year. This year, the students at Gymnasia Josip Broz Tito (JBT) took a five day excursion to Budapest, Prague, and Vienna. Even though we’re just exchange students, as part of JBT’s third year IB class Kyra and I got to participate as well.

Our entire class piled onto coach buses on Tuesday afternoon, and we drove all night to get to Budapest the next morning. Along the way we made a late night stop at a McDonald’s outside of Belgrade, which was pretty fun for me and Kyra. Although neither of us eat fast food very often in the United States, we hadn’t had “real” American food in seven months and the golden arches are about as American as it gets.

In Budapest we took a brief tour of the city in the morning, and then we had free time for a couple of hours. We were actually in Budapest on their national independence day holiday, so the whole city was decked out in Hungarian flags and patriotic symbols. Although some of our classmates were upset at not being able to shop since most stores were closed, I thought it was great to see Budapest looking so festive; there were parades and different concerts going on, and we saw a few people wearing traditional clothes. The city itself is also beautiful – we got some fantastic pictures of the beautiful architecture during a nighttime river cruise, and Kyra tried traditional goulash for lunch .

 

 

 

 

 

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We spent one night in Budapest and then left for Prague the next morning. We didn’t do much the night that we arrived, but the next day we took a short tour and had more free time to explore the city. A lot of that time was spent shopping and eating trdelnik, a Czech pastry made from rolled dough topped with sugar and walnuts. We had one more night in Prague, and our entire class went out together to dance and have fun.

Our final stop was Vienna, and although we only had a few hours to spend in the city it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of the trip. Kyra and I spent our day eating sausage, touring the national library, and wishing we had more time there. Vienna was the perfect wrap-up to our excursion, and we are now safely back in Skopje. I am so grateful to have had this amazing travel experience with my classmates, and I’m sure I’ll be back in Budapest, Prague, and Vienna soon!

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Intercultural Saturday in Sofia

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by  Shebnem Niazi, YES 2013-2014, Bulgaria, hosted by World Link in Kalona, IA

On the 25th of February American Councils for International Education together with Youth for Understanding (YFU) Bulgaria organized a workshop called “Coloured Glasses”. YES alumni, exchange students from both organizations who are currently studying in Bulgaria, their host siblings and best friends gathered at the American council’s office in Sofia to explore and learn about values, cultural differences, stereotypes, non-verbal and verbal communication as well as identity.

The name of the workshop, “Coloured Glasses”, refers to the well-known analogy of the sunglasses which represents the cultural filters through which we observe and interpret reality. The objectives of the workshop were to introduce young people to the concepts of intercultural learning and to raise awareness on problems in society caused by intolerance. The aim of the initiative was achieved by using interactive non-formal education methods.

Intercultural learning has always played an essential role in countering stereotypical and prejudicial racist views. The intercultural element was clear even in the beginning when the workshop started by a fun name game. There were students who have either lived, came from or been exchange students in Denmark, Argentina, Germany, England, Bulgaria and the Unites States of America.

Together we brainstormed different stereotypes that we had of each other or of members of different nations, cultures, communities. It wasn’t difficult to come up with myriads of examples. We realized that when we make inferences about a new person or about some social event, we usually use our existing knowledge to reduce the uncertainty in the situation. The less we know about the object, the more we use stereotypical generalizations. We discussed how such generalizations might be harmful and might lead to errors in decision making that carry the potential for negative consequences, especially when it comes to legal, employment-based and interactive decision-making.

Through interactive group games we were introduced into the concept of identity. We came to the realization that there is a classic confusion between identity, culture, belonging and tradition, in which individual traits are generalised or linked to culture when they are actually much more difficult to define. By playing a “silent” card game we realized that to avoid such confusions we have to be able to communicate with one another effectively. Effective communication is not only verbal. The non-verbal elements, our gestures, body position, tone of speaking play a great role when we are approaching someone.

The YFU volunteers who carefully organized and lead the “Coloured Glasses” workshop provided a space to reflect, to work on individual attitudes and to bring about social change. The initiative reminded us that intercultural learning does not happen at the end of one activity or a week’s training. It is a process of change, which carries on once participants have left the centres and go back to their daily lives. There, they continue reflecting on the courses and on their experiences while interacting with others. And this is how the lessons learned are being (un)consciously implemented.

 

A Historical Trip Through Hungary and Poland

By: Maeve Brind’Amour YES Abroad Bosnia and Herzegovina, PY 2016-17

Last weekend, the other YES Abroad students in Sarajevo and I had the opportunity to travel to Budapest, Hungary and Krakow, Poland with our fellow classmates from our host school “Druga gimnazija.” As part of the curriculum in the Bosnian language course taken by our peers, students read Fatelessness, an autobiographical novel depicting a young Jewish boy’s experience through the Holocaust and the infamous concentration camp, Auschwitz. On the trip, which was organized by the Bosnian class teacher, we visited many of the places which illustrated the background of the Holocaust as Gyuri, the main character, experienced it.

We first stopped in Budapest, Hungary, Gyrui’s original home. We spent our night in Hungary visiting the Hero’s Square and the marvelous, neo-Gothic Fisherman’s Bastion. The Hero’s Square in Budapest features statues of the seven chieftains of the Magyars as well as other important national leaders, including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Fisherman’s Bastion pays homage to the guild of fisherman who protected the architectural feat during the Middle Ages. These attractions represent some of the most glorious moments in the country’s history, in stark contrast to the horrors which ensued in in the Holocaust. In this way, we experienced the grandeur of Hungary as it was, before the oppressive grip of the Nazis added a darker chapter to the nation’s history.

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After a long ride through much of the countryside of Hungary and Slovakia, we arrived in Krakow, Poland at dusk, giving us time to orient ourselves before an informative tour the next morning. We began our tour in Kazimierz, a historical district preserving and exhibiting Jewish culture where Krakow once had a large, flourishing population. The tour also gave us further insight into Poland’s history and some of its most iconic sights including the Wawel Castle, often referred to as the “heart of Poland,” and Rynek, one of the largest market squares in Europe.

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The next morning, we visited the Auschwitz concentration camp, where 1.1 million Jews, political prisoners, and other enemies of the Nazi Party lost their lives. On this frigid day, the chilling wind whispered and wavered around us, carrying the harrowing essence of victims who had their lives stamped out in the name of hatred and ignorance. The powerful visuals and horrifying facts presented to us on the tour evoked a deeper understanding of the atrocities, though the victims faced suffering on a far greater scale than is possible to truly emulate.

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In addition to learning more about the Holocaust, we explored other parts of Eastern Europe’s rich culture and history. We discovered and picked out similarities between Bosnia and Poland through language as well as Austro-Hungarian architectural styles evident in both Krakow and Sarajevo. All in all, I’m very grateful to have been given the opportunity to go on this informative, eye-opening trip.

“Surva” – Bulgarian masquerade festival between the tradition and the modernity

By Rumyana Yotova,  American Councils Bulgaria Program assistant

On January 28th American Councils team in Sofia together with YES abroad students Rachel Freeman and Elijah Septoff visited the International festival of masquerade games “Surva”. The festival traditionally takes place in the city of Pernik every year in the last weekend of January and it is the biggest event not only for Bulgaria but in Balkan context as well.

The festival promotes ancient masquerade rituals known in Bulgaria as Kukeri and Survakari, that are still alive in the folklore tradition but also integrate new interpretation of the mask culture. It is a competitive event in which more then 100 groups from almost every folklore region in Bulgaria are taking part as well as the International competition with companies from Europe, Asia and Africa. The participants are marching in a procession showing not only their masks and costumes but also dancing and making sounds with huge bells hanging from their belts or performing different shows. According to the traditions these pre-spring rituals are performed by single men and are related to the end of the old year and the advent of the new with the wish for a rich harvest, health and fertility for humans and farm animals. The role of the mask is to protect from the harmful influence of impure powers and it usually represent heads of peculiar creatures with scary faces.

During the festival the YES abroad students had the chance to get familiar with these ancient pagan rituals still part of the Bulgarian culture. Besides the variety of handcraft masks Rachel and Elijah were able to see national costumes from different ethnological regions that participants were wearing as well as performing folklore music and dances . Some of the groups were also representing scenes of country life and different roles in the Bulgarian patriarchal family as well as traditional rituals such as wedding.

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Yes abroad students next to a Kuker. According to some beliefs touching the masked men brings good luck and good health.

Not Quite 17 Again: A YES Abroad Alumna Returns to Sarajevo

By Emma Morgan, American Councils BiH Administrative Intern, YES Abroad Bosnia and Herzegovina ’14

Returning to the place where you were a high school exchange student is a strange thing. At times, you feel like you’re 17 again, but the trick is to remember that you’re not. You’re older now, and (hopefully) wiser. You’ve been given an opportunity not just to revisit all your favorite spots, but to dive deeper and learn more about the city you called home for a year.

That’s what I’ve been telling myself since arriving back in Sarajevo, but the truth is old habits die hard. The french bakery will always be where I go to treat myself and I’m loyal to one doner place, and one doner place only. Even so, I’ve made it my personal mission to do the things in Sarajevo I neglected to or wasn’t able to do in high school.

Before I started my year as a YES Abroad student, I devoured information about Bosnia. I read countless books and articles about the country’s past and present. Once I arrived, however, I never really took advantage of the in-country opportunities to explore Bosnian history. I guess I had decided early into my exchange year that museums were for tourists and that I was no tourist. In hindsight, that was a very dumb decision.

In order to right my previous wrong, I’ve decided that I’ll spend my second term in Sarajevo visiting as many museums, lectures, and events in the city as I’m interested in. First on my list, is the National Museum. It was closed the year I was here in high school so I never got the chance to see the Sarajevo Haggadah, which actually played a large role in what that initially got me interested in Bosnia. Lucky for me, February 1st is the Museum’s 129th birthday and they’re hosting a special viewing of the original Haggadah. Talk about serendipity!

Onto the next phase of my mission: making more friends. When I was in high school here I spent the majority of my free time with my fellow Americans or other international students. I only really had one or two close Bosnian friends that I would hang out with, and now they both attend universities outside of the country. As a result, I’m left back in Sarajevo without the friends I made here the first time around.

So I’m faced with two options: make more friends while I’m here or become a hermit. I’m far too talkative to really enjoy a life of social seclusion, so the former option wins out. Unfortunately, I’m no longer in school here which means that I run into far fewer people in a day. I, therefore, have to seek out spaces where I have the opportunity to meet new people and make friends. (A ˝high contact˝ situation as my sociology professor back in the US would call it).

Cafés, for example, the hallmark of Bosnian social life, are actually not great high contact locales. People go there to hang out with the friends they’ve already made, not to meet new ones.  Gyms are equally tricky, because even if they’re crowded, most people (myself included) want to tune out the world and listen to music while they work out. As such, I’ve turned my attention to clubs and classes around the city. These are great spots to potentially meet a friend, because they guarantee that me and my hypothetical new friend already share at least one interest.So far, I have the information for three different groups around the city. My plan is to test the waters of each and find one that is both fun and social.

I doubt that most people feel the need to jump into new routines when they visit the place they studied abroad, but I really do. By seeing and doing more here than I did the first time around, I’m not allowing myself to think of my exchange experience as open and shut. I consider my year as a YES Abroad student here a success, but it was more of an Act I of the ˝Emma in Bosnia˝ story (working title) rather than the whole show. I’m back, the curtain is rising on Act II, and now the fun really starts.

YES Abroad Macedonia Mid-Year Orientation (January 16th and 17th, 2017 – Veles, Macedonia)

By Vesna Naumovska, YES Abroad Coordinator

It’s been 5 months that we have Jeremy, Kyra, Jaleh and Arshia in Macedonia. They were not happy at all that they are on a half way of their exchange, so instead of Mid-Year Orientation we called this Orientation “Trip to Veles”.

We organized everything for our trip on Monday, except the weather – we couldn’t control the weather and since it was snowing so much we couldn’t get on the morning train as planned so we took the later bus instead and we made it safely to Veles.

We had very successful Mid-Year Orientation in Hotel Gardenia. Reflecting on goals and expectations, setting up new goals for the next 5 months and seeing how much students have grown was very interesting and valuable for all.

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Mid-Year Orientation is so essential and students understood the value of it when they were done with all activities. We ended up the first day with relaxing activities enjoying the spa and wellness center at the hotel.

The following day the YES Abroad students met with Aleksandra Najdevska, YES Alumna from Veles. Thank you Aleksandra for spending time with us and sharing your exchange experience. It is always interesting to hear stories from YES Alumni.

My dear students, every day you experience something new. Time flies, so don’t waste time on worries and things that you cannot change or control. Enjoy the rest of your stay in Macedonia, explore and share and be the best youth Ambassadors that you can.

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Holiday Cheer At The American Corner in Banja Luka

By Lela Draganić, YES Programs Local Coordinator for Bosnia and Herzegovina

 

YES Abroad student Tana and Deputy Director of the Embassy Branch Office with kids at Thanksgiving

YES Abroad student Tana and Deputy Director of the Embassy Branch Office with kids at Thanksgiving

For three years now, the American Corner in Banja Luka has been a wonderful partner to American Councils in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They had provided us with the space to host our events, workshops and activities, and YES alumni and YES Abroad participants volunteer or come with their ideas and organize activities.

This year, we have celebrated every holiday at the Corner: Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Together with U.S. Embassy Banja Luka Branch Office staff, YES Abroad student Tana Korhonen and Cole Potter came up with fun games for elementary school kids and helped read famous American children’s stories on the day. With lots of laughter and squeals, the kids got to participate in a Mummy wrapping competition (toilet paper standing in for ancient band aids),  stuck their hands into ”Mystery Boxes” and touched eyeballs (peeled grapes) and raw brains (spaghetti). While our YES Abroad students were busy chasing after the youngsters, YES alumna Jelena Pilipović spoke to the media about the YES program and the work of American Councils in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

YES alumna Jelena Pilipović, PY 15/16, giving an interview during Halloween activities

YES alumna Jelena Pilipović, PY 15/16, giving an interview during Halloween activities

For Thanksgiving, YES Abroad student Tana helped Mrs. Sutton Meagher, the Deputy Director of the U.S. Embassy Branch Office, read stories to kindergarten and elementary school students. After this ”StoryTime” activity, the kids did some crafts and played games.

YES Abroad student Tana and Mrs. Sutton Meagher reading stories during Thanksgiving celebrations

YES Abroad student Tana and Mrs. Sutton Meagher reading stories during Thanksgiving celebrations

 

Two days after Christmas, during a time slot when the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, Ellie Dupler, runs her English conversation class they screened the now staple Christmas movie, ”Elf”, to a crowd of some 25 people. Since it was announced we would be creating a proper holiday atmosphere and bring some additional cheer by serving hot chocolate, tea, coffee and sweets to the audience, both kids, young adults and adults were in attendance.

Thank you to the American Corner, Fulbright English Teaching Assistants and the U.S. Embassy Branch Office staff. We are looking forward to many more activities and holidays with you!

YES Abroad student Tana hosting the Christmas movie night at the Corner

YES Abroad student Tana hosting the Christmas movie night at the Corner