By Mirela Minkova (YES 2016-2017, Bulgaria, hosted by American Councils PO in Edwardsville, IL)
YES made it possible for me to live as a member of a loving American host family and to attend a great school in the beautiful town of Edwardsville, IL. I will always be grateful for that. Being an exchange student in America taught me that there are no boundaries that can stop me from achieving my ambitions. At the end of my exchange year, I was determined to continue developing myself in an American-style education system and to eventually be involved with international education, one of my newfound passions.
I solidified my interest in public diplomacy through international education during my first year at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) where I am pursuing my bachelor’s degree in political science and Arabic. My professional interest in this field was inspired not only by my first-hand experience of the impact that international exchange can have on personal growth and cross-cultural understanding, but also by my active role in the student interest group on global education, ElevatED, at NYUAD. This interest, together with a desire to give back to the YES program, led me to seek an internship in Washington, DC, with my former YES placement organization, American Councils, through a program offered by my university.
I visited Washington, DC, for the first time during my exchange year in 2017. At the time, I was participating in the YES program’s Workshop for Young Leaders in English Teaching (WYLET). While there, I visited my placement organization’s headquarters. I remember how amazed I was by the nice environment created by the hardworking staff there. Now, two years later, I was back - this time as an intern working to support YES, YES Abroad, and another U.S. government-sponsored youth exchange program, the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX).
The internship presented a wonderful opportunity for me to strengthen my professional and communication skills. I got the chance to learn from professionals and be exposed to another side of international exchange programs: the process behind their implementation. I gained a new perspective on life in the United States and increased my cross-cultural understanding. I gained skills such as professional communication, attention to detail, and public speaking. I developed my ability to work with databases and became more creative by creating social media content. I learned a lot about the inspiring projects that have been implemented by FLEX alumni in Central Asia and Eastern Europe through researching alumni achievements in the archives of the FLEX program magazine, the Bradley Herald. I gained important insight into the way YES organizes events by attending and assisting with the End of Stay orientations for YES students and the Pre-departure Orientation for YES Abroad students. I got to meet representatives from all the organizations that implement the YES program and learn how the program operates in countries all over the world.
One of the highlights of my internship was visiting the State Department, both with the YES 2019 students before their departure for home and with the YES Abroad students as they prepared to spend a year in a foreign country. Both visits were eye-opening and gave me a different perspective from when I was on program. The YES Abroad visit in particular was also great exposure to the world of diplomacy and leadership. I was happy to hear an inspiring speech by Deputy Assistant Secretary for Professional and Cultural Exchanges, Susan R. Crystal. I also had the chance to speak to the former Cultural Attaché of the U.S. to Bulgaria, Tammy Paltchikov. These were truly remarkable moments because the people with whom I met are working in an area of keen interest to me.
Besides learning about U.S. foreign policy through the lens of cultural exchanges, I got the chance to be an ambassador myself. I was happy to talk to the YES Abroad students who will spend a year in Bulgaria, just like I did in the U.S. Sharing the challenges I faced in the U.S. and giving students advice on how to maximize their exchange year let me see my own country in a new way. It was truly a privilege to represent Bulgaria and to become part of the students’ first introduction to the Balkans.
Finally, Washington, DC, itself offered me numerous opportunities for cultural engagement. I familiarized myself with a variety of political matters and benefited from attending discussions and events held by think tanks, such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Atlantic Council. My internship was a rewarding start to my professional career.
Interning with the YES and FLEX programs was a great chance for me to contribute to the mission of these programs directly and to gain a deeper understanding of the way they make it possible for hundreds of students to become ambassadors and to spread peace and understanding across borders. I feel a strong connection to the values and the mission of these programs and I am incredibly grateful for having had this opportunity to build upon my interests and strengthen the skills that are necessary to be a successful leader in the world of public diplomacy.