The Best Year of My Life

This post originally appeared on yesprograms.org

By Tea Drmac, YES 2016-2017, Bosnia and Herzegovina, hosted by American Councils for International Education in Lacy Lakeview, TX

I always wanted to go somewhere, to visit new places, to do something new, and America was one of the places that I always wanted to visit, but it seemed like it was only a dream. However, in high school I heard about the YES program. My first reaction was that I could not do this program, especially because of my language skills. However, my friends who were in the program before me convinced me that I should try to apply. They believed in me. I must admit that I didn’t need much persuading, and after testing, submitting the application, and completing my interview, I was offered the scholarship in March a few days before my birthday.

To leave my home, my family, and my friends wasn’t easy, but I did it and it was the best decision ever! I wanted to experience a new culture, to make new friends, and discover new things about myself. When preparing for the YES program, I didn’t know that I would go to Texas until seven days before my departure. I had a little conversation with my American family, and that was it. Everything else was a mystery. I was so excited for my new adventure. I was ready for a change in my life.

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Today, seven months later, I’ve learned a lot of new things about other people, other cultures, and about myself. First, I learned that America and the American lifestyle aren’t the same as they are shown in the movies. Americans are people who go to work, school, and college every day. Also, they don’t go to restaurants every day. American schools have students who like to study, and students who don’t like to do that. The best part about American school is that teachers and students have a friendly relationship, and classes aren’t boring. For example, in my U.S. history class, every student had to give a presentation on a country assigned to us by our teacher. One of the things we had to do was to prepare a kind of food that is typical in that country. It was fantastic! We often do these types of projects. Therefore, American schools definitely are very interesting.

Americans are very friendly and very kind. They are also very social, curious, and optimistic. Everyone wants to know everything about me, my country, my language, and my culture. The U.S. is a wonderful country with wonderful people, culture, and traditions. The best thing about American culture is the equality between the sexes! I love this country! I never felt like a stranger! In fact, I feel like I’m at home.

I’m more open to new things now; my language skills are better; and I have new, wonderful people in my life. Here, I also overcame my fear of dogs (Mom and Dad, thank you for convincing me..). All-in-all, I can say that I haven’t felt sad, nostalgic, or homesick here.

In the end, why has my exchange year been so good? It’s because of my family, of course. They are wonderful people who gave me a home, love, attention and a lot of new experiences. Now, I have two families, one in America and one in Bosnia. I’m sure that my exchange year wouldn’t be so good if I didn’t have my mom and dad. It’s wonderful to have them.

I really don’t know how I will go back to Bosnia, leave my American home, school, and my life here. If you’re thinking about becoming an exchange student, do it! It can be the best decision ever! There are a lot of reasons for going on exchange. Get out of your comfort zone! Learn something new about the world, and get rid of prejudices. Believe that you can change the world!

I believe that it is possible to change the world for the better, but in order to do that, we need to learn about ourselves and learn about other people.

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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.

 

Fighting Bullying in Bosnia and Herzegovina

This post originally appeared on yesprograms.org

By Merima Muhic YES Bosnia and Herzegovina 2015-2016

My name is Merima Muhic, from Zivinice, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and I was an exchange student in 2015-2016. I was placed in Apex, North Carolina, where I attended the local high school. While in the U.S., I was inspired by how much my high school worked on bringing everyone together, as well as by how my own counselor actively held meetings with students to make sure they felt welcomed and safe at school. After I came back from the U.S., I started working on projects, eventually became a volunteer City Representative for YES alumni.

Then a bullying incident happened in my high school. It showed me how much of a problem bullying is and that it’s happening right in front of my eyes. I decided it was time to plan an anti-bullying workshop. At first I wanted it to be pretty basic: a workshop for ten people. Then, I decided that there is no point in doing something if it’s not going to make noise, so I reached out to another City Representative, Pavle Lakic (YES ’12), to get help on this project.

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Twenty high school students of all ages and backgrounds participated in the workshop, which took place on February 2, 2017. We created a safe space for everyone to speak and made it a conversational workshop, rather than having us do all of the talking. The presentation that was included in the workshop consisted of actual information and evidence about how bullying has been taking schools by storm, and highlighted the fact that our society isn’t doing a whole lot to promote anti-bullying and diversity policies. During the presentation, I played a video that was based on a real-life event, where an innocent life was lost due to constant bullying at school. It was obvious how much it affected every single person in the room; whether they were victims of bullying or bullies themselves.

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I wanted to expand the reach of this project so I made flyers with data on how many children are bullied, both in Bosnia and Herzegovina and around the world, and how little is being done to help them. The participants of the workshop helped me pass out these flyers and purple balloons (connecting the color purple to the purple ribbon for anti-bullying) to people on the streets.

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When I started planning this project, I hoped to reach out to at least 10 people and help at least one victim of bullying. I certainly didn’t expect that the story of our workshop would reach the local TV station and other high schools. I was happily surprised when other students started stopping me in the hallways to ask me when they could attend a workshop like this one. I already have two more workshops to do at other high schools, and I am working with the Alumni Coordinator for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Davor Tunjic (YES ‘13), on a proposal for making a short movie about bullying/anti-bullying and the workshop that started it all.

Baba Marta in Illinois – Teaching my community about Bulgarian traditions

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Today we got a letter from Mirela Minkova, YES student currently on the program. Here is how she celebrates Bulgarian Holiday and share about her country and customs to her American friends and her host community!
Dear American Councils,
Thank you for the great opportunity that you have given me – to be an exchange student. Since I got the chance to become an ambassador of my country, I have been determined to represent it in the best way that I can.
Today I felt extremely lucky to have the chance to share my culture with my American friends and my host family. March 1st is one of the most important Bulgarian holidays – Baba Marta (Grandma March). On this holiday we celebrate the coming of spring and the new beginning. We make a small ornament, called Martenitsa (made of white and red yarn), and we give it to friends and family as a gift, which will bring us heath, luck, and prosperity.
I was more than happy to make bracelets and necklaces from white and read yarn, and to teach my friend and family how to make them. Everyone from school, and from my community loved the tradition, and they were really interested. Bulgarians wear the ornament during the entire month of March and after we take it off, we tie it to a branch of a blossoming tree. I was surprised and pleased to hear that my American friends and family were more than willing to do the tradition with me. They are excited to wear the bracelets during the entire month. Then we all will find a beautiful tree to tie the Martenitsa on. They were thankful that I shared my culture, and they wanted to know more about Bulgarian customs. I will never forget the feeling when I saw how people were engaged, and were asking questions, memorizing each word that I say about the Baba Marta holiday. Everyone was excited to wear their Martenitsa, and they were taking pictures, telling other friends, and family.
I felt proud of myself, that I succeeded in teaching so many people, that I got the chance to share one of the symbols of my country. I feel great that I know how all my friends will remember Bulgaria and me with the beautiful red and white bracelets that we made together.
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YES Alumna Creates Hometown Book Exchange

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

After spending a year in Chaska, Minnesota as a YES student, Anela Tiro (PY 2015-16) knew how powerful it was to discover and engage with a different perspective. She wanted to bring that experience to people in her hometown of Mostar, BiH so she decided to create a public bookshelf at the American Corner in Mostar. Anela described the bookshelf as “a resource for personal and intellectual development” that she hoped would help her peers “discover new things in order to shape critical thinking and make this world a better place.”

The public bookshelf is open to everyone and operates under one simple principle: if you take a book from the bookshelf, you should also donate one in return. That way, the bookshelf is home to an ever-changing variety of literature that anyone, regardless of their background or personal finances, can access. Anela hopes that “the shelf might bring new ideas to others, and will spark a fire in someone’s deepest thoughts.”

And it appears to have done just that! Since its opening in August of 2016, the shelf has grown in popularity. American Corners staff in Mostar have remarked that most locals are surprised to find a bookshelf like this exists in their hometown. People have enthusiastically latched onto the bookshelf’s principle, with many people taking one book, but leaving 3 or 4. In fact, the bookshelf is so popular that at times it’s hard to find a place on the shelf to put the newly donated books! With this simple structure, Anela Tiro has created a whole new type of exchange in her own backyard.

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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

 

 

 

A Brewed Awakening: Bosnian Tradition Brings the Feeling of Home

By: Ben B., YES Abroad 2016-2017, Bosnia and Herzegovina

This story was originally written for the Sarajevo Times, an online English language media outlet based in Sarajevo, on November 24, 2016. 

Almost every day, my host brother asks me, “Hoćeš kafu? Do you want coffee?”, to which I always reply yes. After preparing the drink the traditional Bosnian way, he carefully pours the hot black coffee from its džezva. My host brother passes me the the small cup and we sit back and slowly sip our drinks. This Bosnian tradition has become a tradition for me too, and is something I have come to appreciate and enjoy. Drinking coffee with my host family is one of my favorite parts of the day, and is part of what makes me feel truly at home living in a city over 6000 miles away from home.

Ben Blum Bosnian Coffee

My name is Ben Blum, and I am a 16-year old American high school student from the coasts of California, living in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a “youth ambassador” on the Kennedy-Lugar YES Abroad program. I’ve been in Sarajevo for almost three months now, and so far my time here has been filled with learning a new language, exploring a new city and meeting new people. Even though studying abroad has had its highs and lows, living in Bosnia and being able to open my eyes to a new culture and way of life has been an incredibly life-changing experience for me so far. From playing late night pickup basketball games with my host brothers to helping my host mom peel dried grah beans, being immersed into the daily life of Sarajevo has taught me so much about the culture of the country I now call my home.

As the excitement of living in a new city has faded into daily life for me, I have realized how similar the culture of my Bosnian host family is to the culture of my American family. Despite speaking different languages and celebrating different traditions, I believe that we are alike in more ways that we are different. When I first arrived in Bosnia, I was able to connect with my host brothers through shared interests and beliefs. Despite growing up in different countries, we became closer because of our shared passion for graphic design, photography and the NBA. We even read the same books, just translated into our own languages. Moreover, I have noticed my two families share common goals and aspirations, and both strive for a better future for not only themselves, but for their friends, their community, and their country. My two families also share common fears and worries for the future. Understanding and accepting these shared aspects of our cultures has made living in Sarajevo even more meaningful for me – not only has it expanded my worldview, it has made me realize how similar we all are, regardless of where we’re from for what we believe in.

When I leave Bosnia and Herzegovina in June, it is this idea that I want to carry with me back home. Today, more conflicts are being ignited because of cultural differences than ever before. Religion, language, traditions and beliefs – more and more, we are becoming divided by the qualities that makes us us. How can we progress as a nation and as a world if we are stuck fighting battles over culture? Through immersing myself in a culture different from my own, I have realized that these conflicts could be more easily resolved if people simply open their eyes, hearts and minds to other cultures, and accept others for who they truly are instead of who they are thought to be.

Letter from Bulgarian YES student currently on the program in USA

by Mirela Minkova, YES sudent from Bulgaria currently on the program in Edwardsville High school, Illinois

I have been in Edwardsville, Illinois for a month and a half but I already feel like a part of that amazing community. I am thankful for the great opportunity that the YES program gave me. Every day I learn new things about America and I teach people about Bulgarian culture. My experience so far has been really exciting and I am happy to share some of my most awesome moments. I want more students in Bulgaria to find out how much they can gain from an exchange year and I want to encourage everyone interested to apply!

Now I am a senior at Edwardsville High school and my wonderful host sister, Dara, is a freshman. We are having a lot of fun together. In one of the photos that I am sending, Dara and I are enjoying one of the best zoos in the US – Saint Louis Zoo. On the other photo we are having a great time at the lake at Holiday Shore, Illinois. It was my first time kayaking. On the third photo I am at my first American football game. I was really excited to take a picture with Edwardsville High School mascot, the Tiger! I feel great and I am an active part of the school life. I believe that it is an amazing experience and that everyone should try and apply to become an YES exchange student.
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YES Alumni Mingle at Welcome Party

To celebrate the return of the YES Alumni 2015-2016, a party was held at American Councils on Saturday, June 25. The new alumni retuned to Macedonia from the United States a few days before the party, and the event was a way for them to get to know each other and other YES Alumni.

The party started when those in attendance went around the room to introduce themselves and tell the group where they were placed in the United States. The group then mingled and chatted in both Macedonian and English about their experiences. Alumni discussed what they enjoyed about the United States, what surprised them about the United States, and what they learned during their time abroad.

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They also shared stories about their unique experiences and then talked about what they hope to accomplish now that they are back in Macedonia and have access to the support system and network of YES Alumni.
Rina Halili, who spent the past year in Minnesota, said she was thankful the party gave her the opportunity to talk with everyone and hear about their experiences.

“Everyone was very welcoming and friendly,” she said. “The alumni really helped us by sharing some information and tips on what can we do in the future as YES Alumni.”

She also said she “really enjoyed” the food at the party. The Mexican lunch included mini burritos and quesadillas in addition to various soft drinks and chocolate-covered churros for dessert.