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.

GYSD Drive Safely Awareness

YES Alumni Coordinator – Bojan Aleksovski (YES ’14) organized a project that aimed to tackle Public Health – Safe Driving, one of this year’s development goals that GYSD is targeting.

MACEDONIA SKOPJE YES Alumni GYSD Drive Safely informative posters

Three YES Alumni and three YES Abroad students met up at the American Councils office. The participants had an open discussion about how to create positive teen-to- teen safe driving campaign reinforcing safe decisions and reducing distracted driving. Throughout the discussion the participants shared their own driving habits and experiences and concluded that many people, including teens themselves, think that the best way to reach young adults is to “scare them straight.” This rarely works. It can be overwhelming and cause teens to shut down. So, focusing on positive actions teens can take to be safe and to keep their friends safe can be a powerful message for teens.

MACEDONIA SKOPJE YES Alumni and YES Abroad work on GYSD Drive Safely project

Having that in mind the present YES Alumni and the YES Abroad students created informative posters about driving safely that are to be hanged in colleges and high schools in Skopje with most driving students. Additionally, the alumni created a social media for social change campaign plan. Namely, every Friday the alumni will post on the official Alumni social media accounts about safe driving.

Introducing the YES program and GYSD to Kumanovo Access Students

On Saturday, April 8th YES Alumni together with YES Abroad met up with students, participants of the Access Program at Pero Nakov High School, Kumanovo.

MACEDONIA KUMANOVO YES Alumni and YES Abroad discussing with Kumanovo Access Program students about Macedonian and American culture

The YES Alumni held a brief presentation about the YES program, promoting and familiarizing the participants with the activities that the Macedonian YES community organizes. The meeting continued with a discussion about the differences between Macedonian and American lifestyle. The YES Alumni and the YES Abroad students shared their experiences and most memorable exchange moments as well as their favorite values of the American and Macedonian culture. The visit to Kumanovo ended with a park clean up carried out by the participants with a goal to celebrate Global Youth Service Day.

MACEDONIA KUMANOVO YES Alumni, YES Abroad and Access program volunteers doing a clean up in honor of GYSD in Kumanovo

GYSD is the largest service event in the world and the only one that celebrates the contributions that children and youth make 365 days of the year. With today’s event, the Macedonian YES community aimed to tackle Sustainable Environment, one of the topics among this year’s causes that GYSD is targeting.

YES Program: A Postcard From Indianapolis

Toni Bevanda Program Postcard

— by Toni  Bevanda, YES Program 2016-2017, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Hi there,

My name is Toni, I am from Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and am placed in Indianapolis, Indiana. These 9 months have been a real roller coaster, because during this period I have had to adjust to a new culture and country, but then also start thinking about what it’s going to be like to leave this new life I built.

Thanks to the YES program I have realized everything is possible and that you can overcome almost every obstacle life puts in front of you. This year has affected me so much and has changed my mindset entirely. I feel like my brain and the way I think have improved and reached a level I never thought were possible for me.

I came to the U.S. to expand my cultural views and represent my country the best I can, and in return I have learned a bunch of things that have helped me determine my future life path. Living in a completely different environment and a new family helped me realize how there are different people, different cultures, and different ways of solving problems and doing things. The YES program connected me to both American and Mexican cultures, since I have been living with a host mother who is from Mexico. I am so grateful to this program but also to everyone I have met during this year. My new friends and family have shown me what support means and that they are the ones who will always help you if you are feeling homesick.

I did not document every moment through photos, because I think photos are a way to show off to others. I came here to experience things, to live in the moment and experience everything to the fullest. It’s too hard to choose what made this year unforgettable. From helping kids with disabilities with their theater performance, helping my teachers tutor students to becoming a captain of a Varsity Volleyball team and being a part of an amazing host family, theater family. I am a part of an amazing program which gave me so many chances to explore aspects of myself and learn about life. Something that I am always going to remember is International Education Week, when I saw how many students are interested in my country, a country 90% of them have never heard of.

I certainly know I will never, and I really mean never, forget this year of my life. This is the year which laid out for me a plethora of future paths. Travelling when you’re 17 and filling your schedule with volunteering and helping others is something that has helped make me feel fulfilled. Especially volunteering has showed me how grateful I have to be for everything I have, and I am proud to say I have reached my goal of volunteering for 100 hours while on program.

Now, when this year is slowly coming to an end I am trying to remember everything I have experienced and it is impossible to remember all of it. I urge everyone to at least try and apply for the program because you have nothing to lose. By applying for the program you can only enrich every segment of your life. It’s a unique experience and something you will never regret doing.

Family reunion overseas!

by Rinë Fetahu, YES 2013-2014, Kosova, hosted by American Councils in Baton Rouge, LA

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It only took me a thirty minute drive with small talks on our way back from the airport to feel like I never left!

Baton Rouge, Louisiana was the place where I spent my YES exchange year with my two host parents who fortunately I got to meet again after three years. My sweet reunion with my host family became far more interesting when my brother who is currently doing his masters in the U.S. was there, next to my host mom and her friend Miss. Wendy, wishing me a warm welcome.  I remember, at the moment I was thinking: “Finally, my brother is going to fully understand what it means to go from one home to another!”

Louisiana also welcomed me with its warm and humid weather as of the first steps I took out of the airport while having my  big winter jacket on.

The drive home was a roller-coaster of memories. Throwbacks, chills, and big smiles were being combined in this half an hour.  Surprisingly, the first stop was not my host family’s house, but my high school. My host mum and I shared the same excitement being there because we were reminiscing all the times we spent there on football, soccer and volleyball games, senior nights and award shows.

The next four days went by very quickly as I tried to meet up with as many people as possible, always having talks about Kosova and Louisiana and remembering my exchange year while eating bowls of gumbo, crawfish etouffee and other traditional Louisiana food, which is one of my favorite things about Louisiana.

Speaking of food, nothing conquers my host mums cooking. Her thoughtfulness of cooking something similar to what we have in Kosova for my brother combined with many conversations we had at the house with her and my host dad, and just the reigning atmosphere of pure positivity within the family, not only made me feel like I never left, but my brother’s comment was: “I feel like I am home.”

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At this moment I realized that in a world dominated by judgment and inequality, programs like YES, and people like my host family are the most important factors towards building bridges of connection and braking down walls.

Before realizing it, my trip to Louisiana came to an end. In 2014, when we said goodbye at the airport neither me nor my host family had any idea when we would be meeting again, and now different from that time, our goodbye was “See you later”.

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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