By Asja Alispahic (YES 2017-2018, Bosnia and Herzegovina, hosted by AFS in Warren, NJ)
Being a YES Alumna has changed me in the most positive ways. Although the exchange year was magical, the role of an alumna has been even more impactful and inspirational. As I am going to university very soon, my general public will shift from high schoolers to college students, and I am very interested to see how my perspective and approach are going to change. Considering that my love for knowledge, self-improvement, and community service is endless, I expect many new projects filled with passion and positivity.
I have volunteered on multiple occasions, from animal shelters, clean-up events to different workshops in foster homes which I organized, often in collaboration with other alumni from my community. I have co-organized two years in a row our Annual Halloween Party with the American Corner in Tuzla. I facilitated workshops and seminars themed around Mental Health Awareness, Black History Month, Women’s Right Movement, and many other. Through the YES Grant, with the help of Merima Muhic, YES Alumni Coordinator for Bosnia and Herzegovina, I implemented the TALL Workshop which gathered 14 high schoolers from every part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. After the IDEAL Workshop which took place in Vrsac, Serbia and connected YES and FLEX countries from the Balkan area, I used the acquired knowledge and organized an educational workshop themed around Professional and Adulting skills.
What inspires me to do service projects is the sense of connectedness and community! Through service projects people unite and work together for something that makes all of their lives better—it is truly inspiring. Additionally, the joy everyone experiences through volunteering is the biggest motivation.
My favorite project is the TALL (Teamwork, Activism, Leadership, Learning) Workshop which took place on October 23-26, 2019, in Ilidza, Sarajevo in collaboration with the Institute for Youth Development KULT from Sarajevo and their trainers. The TALL workshop connected 14 students from 14 different communities, who lived together for four days, worked together for more than 20 hours, did their own dishes, and made their own beds which made the participants realize the importance of connectedness to their peers and communities. The “Learning” segment involved sessions on professional skills, such as writing resumes, public speech and job interview advice, and networking which is intended to help participants throughout their high school years, as well as in the business world when looking for a job. The feeling of unity is inspiring and in addition to the knowledge participants acquired, a big motivator to go out and improve what they do not like in their communities.
My projects have reached hundreds of people with many of who I am still in contact and who are active citizens in multiple Bosnian cities. I know for a fact that I have inspired friendships, interests, love for volunteering, and in that way made my community more open-minded and a better place. Our clean-up actions might not have solved the environmental issues, and our workshops on stereotyping might not have erased prejudice from our community, but every single participant in these events learned something new and is willing to share it further.
Considering that the majority of my projects are workshops and seminars with a big focus on education and skill-improvement, it is safe to say that school plays a big role in my outlook on community standards. I realized that while I was attending one of the best schools on the East Coast, The Pingry School in New Jersey. I met so many inspiring young people who sought every opportunity to learn something new, to improve, and to broaden their understanding of every possible subject. They looked for knowledge in and outside of school. I was amazed by their devotion and upon arriving back to Bosnia and Herzegovina, I understood what our schools and students were missing—and I made it my mission to change that.
Schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina lack opportunities for young people to develop skills which they most definitely will need later in life, ranging from self-awareness and self-respect to writing resumes and networking abilities. It is seldom mentioned that leadership skills, ability to work in team settings, and volunteering experience is crucial for their lives in and outside of classrooms—and exactly these skills were my focus throughout all of my projects.
The biggest lesson I learned during my exchange year was that there are numerous little lessons scattered around my 10 months in a completely different environment, where I got a chance to meet myself through meeting new people with different backgrounds and outlooks on life. These people taught me these little lessons, all of which together highlight one thing—caring for another is caring for yourself. I learned to love helping people around me in a way that involves fun, laughs, music, and everything which connects us. Tradition in essence holds connection on the highest pedestal, and through American, my host-family’s Pakistani, and my homeland’s Bosnian traditions I learned that connections make the world a better place.