YES Programs



January YES Student of the Month

Mert sitting with host mom, smiling, each holding a dog

The YES program is proud to announce Mert Özer of Türkiye as the YES Student of the Month. Mert is placed by AFS-USA in Oakland, New Jersey, where he attends Indian Hills High School. Mert Özer exemplifies the best qualities of a YES student. Since arriving in his host community, he has acted as a positive force who impresses everyone he meets. Mert is the first blind student in his school district, and his impact been not a ripple, but a tidal wave. His teachers have repeatedly shared that they are better teachers because of him, and he has sparked "aha” moments in many sighted individuals.

Mert is experiencing many "firsts” on his program. One of his proudest moments at school was succeeding at a rock climbing and high ropes activity. During his first attempt, there were too many voices trying to give him directions, and he wasn’t able to make it to the top. After sharing his feedback on how challenging it can be to hear so many voices, he tried again, instructing only one voice to act as his captain. With the help and encouragement of many teachers, students, and coaches, he was able to make it to the top, and everyone was elated by his accomplishment!

Mert smiling in a restaurant in front of desserts with birthday candles in them
Mert on his birthday with desserts

During International Education Week, Mert shared his personal stories about the differences between living in Türkiye and the United States as a blind person. Mert educated his peers on how disabilities are viewed in both countries, how different it is to navigate his daily life, and the freedom he has found in the United States thanks to technology. Mert shared his dream to be able to drive one day with the help of technology. Mert also discussed the difference in interactions with dogs in Türkiye. While he was nervous that his host family had two dogs, soon after his arrival he fell in love with them. He hopes that one day, Türkiye will fully utilize guide dogs as a means for people with disabilities to have greater freedom and mobility. He presented his thought-provoking ideas to bring awareness to the challenges faced by those with disabilities and to make it easier for future students with disabilities to navigate their exchange experience in the United States.

Mert singing on stage while playing the piano

Both in and outside of school, Mert is involved in the performing arts. Mert is a gifted musician and singer, so he decided to try out for the school musical in the fall. The teamwork and camaraderie to make it happen was truly notable. A classmate was assigned to stand next to Mert, tap him for movements and guide him during the dance. The experience made him feel fully included in the school community. Expanding into other areas of the arts, Mert has been taking guitar lessons and just recently started taking tango dance classes with his host mother! Mert is exploring dance as a way to help with his body movement and sense of place. Just this month, Mert did a roadshow with his school band to three middle schools to perform and talk about the benefits of music, as part of a school initiative to have students advocate for music and bring awareness to students with disabilities. He has also volunteered to play the piano at various venues, including a seeing-eye training facility, Radio City Music Hall, and a homeless shelter.

Mert embodies the best attributes of a YES Student. His perseverance, desire for independence, his teaching through doing, and his positive presence in his school and community will leave a long-lasting impression.