By Katerina Hatija (YES 2013-2014, Albania, hosted by CIEE in Everett, WA)
As this year marks the YES program’s 15th anniversary, YES alumni in Albania decided to organize a reception that would gather together in one place alumni from all generations. With the support of the U.S. Embassy in Tirana, 30 alumni, recipients of YES scholarship between 2010 and 2017, gathered at the Embassy’s Garden of Roses on May 15, 2018, and celebrated the joy of being an exchange student together with U.S. Ambassador Donald Lu, Public Affairs Officers Ryan Roberts and Meghan McGill, and American Councils Country Representative Linda Meniku. Current YES program finalists also attended and excitedly listened to stories of the unique U.S. experiences shared by alumni from all generations.
The aim of this reception was not only to bring alumni together. When alumni gather and share their experiences, ideas emerge through discussions and the alumni community gets stronger. A particularly inspiring moment during the event was when Ambassador Donald Lu expressed his expectations for alumni, stating: “Being a Youth Exchange and Study (YES) student is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You serve as ambassadors of Albania in the United States, but as alumni, you also represent the United States here. You are in a unique position to share U.S. values with your home country and bring the best of America to Albania.”
The event was a reminder to all of us that among thousands of teenagers in Albania, only 92 have had the chance to be part of such a unique experience. Many alumni in attendance noted a sense of responsibility to give back and motivation to change their communities. Participants talked not only about life as exchange students, but also the projects they initiated back home in Albania, inspired by their hours spent engaging in community service in the U.S. Since 2010, when the first YES exchange students returned to Albania, the YES alumni community has continuously increased efforts to “be the change” in Albania. Activities have included educational programs and workshops for orphanages, English classes for children with visual impairments, book drives, clothing drives, toy drives, blood drives, a nationwide community cleanup initiative supported by the U.S. Embassy, and the ongoing YES Volunteers program for empowering non-alumni youth to engage in community service. Alumni used the reception as an opportunity to discuss ways to build on past projects and initiatives to have an even greater impact in Albania moving forward.