By Semra Amet (YES 2010-2011, North Macedonia, hosted by PAX in Powell, OH)
I learned many valuable lessons while studying in the U.S., but I would like to highlight two realizations that have had a continuing impact on my life. First, family is not just the people related to you by blood, but family is also people that you love and who love you. Second, on a more technical note, my English teacher in the U.S. taught me the value of systemic critical thinking. To this day, I still cannot read a billboard or watch a commercial without analyzing all of the elements and how they impact my reasoning. While I am a curious person and have questioned facts throughout my entire life, in the U.S. I learned how to question and analyze in a structural manner. In an era full of fake news, having this skill is crucial.
I have always wanted to improve my community, but often did not know where to start. Growing up in a country where you are taught to be humble and modest, it is difficult to take initiative. However, spending one year in the U.S. made me step out of my comfort zone in order to adjust and adapt to a new culture. By leaving my comfort zone, I gained confidence and more willingness to take risks. Additionally, by being placed in a small town where many of the social activities are organized by the community, it is inspiring to see the ways each individual can contribute to a larger goal. Prior to my exchange year in the U.S., I believed you had to take big steps to make a change and I lacked the power and resources to make that step; however, during my stay in the U.S., I realized small steps can have an impact as well.
After returning from the U.S., the first thing I did was start a volunteer group in my high school that would work with children with learning disabilities, raise money for orphanages etc. Together with the YES alumni, I organized and participated in many activities such as clean ups, fundraising, and workshops. My fellow alumni Noemi Chausidis (YES 2010-2011, North Macedonia, by World Link in Pleasant City, OH) and I organized a Social Entrepreneurship Workshop that served as a follow-up to the StartQube Social Entrepreneurship Workshop we attended together. The Social Entrepreneurship Workshop remains one of sweetest memories because we faced many challenges along the way, but we learned a lot during the planning process.
I also coordinated a Sport and Art for Peace Children Program which aims to bring together children from different backgrounds in order to foster interethnic dialogue. I implemented this program in the elementary school I used to attend because I observed students do not interact with peers outside of their language speaking group. The school system in North Macedonia is organized based on language. Furthermore, the political situation and history of conflict and war has also impacted interethnic relations. However, after working for three years with the same group of children, we learned in our post-evaluation that the participants were interacting and hanging out with their different language-speaking peers outside of program activities and with classmates that were not part of the program.
Since I was little, whenever I would get asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I was very quick to answer: “I will fight injustice. I will became a lawyer.” As a kid, my understanding of the legal system was limited, but flash forward 15 years and I have graduated from law school and am currently pursuing a master’s degree in International Law and Relations and the Law of the European Union. While I am still unsure if I will work as an attorney in the future, due to the dissatisfaction with the judicial system in my country, one thing I know for sure is that I will continue to work towards strengthening our institutions, promoting democratic values and political culture, and safeguarding human rights.
Currently, I work as a Project Officer at the Network of Associations of Local Authorities in South East Europe (NALAS). At NALAS we aim to strengthen local governments and help cities become resilient, stable, and inclusive. My focus includes promoting gender mainstreaming at the local level, coordinating online courses for local practitioners and administrations, contributing to strengthening the capacities of the local authorities in the water and sanitation sector, and coordinating the NALAS Knowledge Management Center with the goal of ensuring a local government that meets the needs of its citizens. My goal is to make this world a better place and to leave no one behind.