Each year, American Councils for International Education holds an essay contest called "My American Experience." We asked our FLEX, YES, and Cultural Bridges students to reflect on the value of exchange programs for both exchange participants and Americans in their host communities. Mirela Minkova, a YES student from Bulgaria, won the contest this year!
By Mirela Minkova, YES 2016-2017 Bulgaria, hosted by American Councils for International Education in Edwardsville, IL
One year in America as an exchange student gave me the chance to live a whole new life. It is indescribable how much I have learned, how much I have broadened my horizons, and how much I have grown. It was 9 months ago when I came, enthusiastic, motivated, and excited for my American experience. Now, a whole academic year later, I am not only motivated and excited, I am also a future leader, who acquired valuable skills, and who is determined to make a great impact on the world, to follow the path of success. This is the most precious skill that my American Councils exchange year gave me – confidence that I can achieve my goals with enough persistence, hard work and strong belief.
During this year, I realized how much my intercultural experience is not only mine – it is a great chance for my American friends and family to also develop better multicultural understanding and respect for the differences. This year changed not only me – it changed many people in my community as well. There is not something that can make you feel better than the feeling of gratitude, and genuine interest in people's eyes, when you tell them about your country. I will never forget my numerous cultural presentations about Bulgaria, and how proud I felt that I had the chance to represent my country in the best way possible. I will always remember my American classmates putting on Bulgarian bracelets for the national holiday Baba Marta, and singing Bulgarian songs with me. I knew that they wouldn't remember the long Bulgarian history, but I knew that they would remember about the Bulgarian tradition Kukeri, with the colorful costumes which men wear to scare the evil spirits; they will remember about the Bulgarian Nestinari who can dance on charcoals, without burning their feet. I knew that my American friends would go home and tell their families about that Bulgarian girl who tells fascinating stories about her home country's traditions. After all, this is all that matters – sharing. The exchange year is all about learning and sharing this knowledge, passing it down to the others. It is about the self-development of both the student and the members of the community – development of better understanding, respect, acceptance, and tolerance.
One of the most important aspects of my year in America was to learn the value of community service. This helped me to develop greater appreciation of American culture. It was amazing to see how the small good actions can make a big difference. Through volunteering I gave back to my host community and developed important leadership and real-life skills. I learned how to manage my time, how to be more organized and responsible; I became more grateful for what I have, and I developed stronger character.
As an active part of the school life in Edwardsville High School in Edwardsville, Illinois, I decided to get involved in plenty of community service clubs. The club that impressed me the most was Key Club, and it had an enormous impact on my perception about life and on my understanding of it. With Key Club I dedicated my time to helping students with special education needs. I was impressed by the fact that this club makes it possible for the special needs students to be equal to the others and to have a normal school experience. It is impossible for me to describe how much I enjoy all the activities that we organize with them and how much fun it is to spend time together.
My favorite Key Club activity is the Tiger Den, which is a coffee shop in the concession stand at school, where I went to volunteer, selling cookies, coffee, and hot chocolate, together with the special needs students. This activity was a part of the Vocational Foods Program, and gave special needs students the opportunity to gain real-life skills by working in a realistic working environment. It is amazing how much I learned from volunteering there. My favorite part was that I got the chance to interact with those students, to become their friend, and to learn more about how to understand and connect better with them. I love helping, and I can see how they are no different than the others. They are just as talented and capable. Interacting with them has been eye-opening and inspiring to me. I have learned that it is important to be patient, to appreciate what you have and to help the others with the best you can. They have taught me so much – how to accept differences, and how to find something positive in every situation.
My experience in the United States inspired me to make a change when I go back to my home country. Setting great goals, aiming to make a difference, being determined to implement my new skills, I will return in Bulgaria with the view to bring about improvement. I would like to start a club back home to promote English learning and American culture for the segregated community, because they don't have equal educational opportunities. I would also like to draw more attention on the education for special needs students, and I will share my knowledge about how they can be part of the normal school life, if we help and include them.
During my amazing year I became part of my host family, who opened their hearts to me, and loved me like their child, I gained greater appreciation of both my own culture and American culture, and I created a new life. Now, more mature and independent, I am ready to go home and make a difference.