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Changemaker in Action: J-1 Exchange Program Inspires Political Career

Bruxelles EP Traineeship

When we interviewed three-time CIEE Work & Travel USA alumnus and Civic Leadership Summit alumnus Paul Runcan from Romania last year, he was pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and advocacy after his exchange experience convinced him to switch from a career in law to politics. His thoughts were, “…even though practicing law would allow me to help those around me, it would only affect a small number, and mostly one at a time. It would take too long to create real change…” Paul made a commitment to politics in order to be the kind of leader that the future depends on. Having an international exchange experience was the catalyst for change.

“I've had a mild interest in politics and public administration for years now, but I was lacking a... call to action, for lack of a better expression; something to get me going. I was, as most people do, watching corruption spread through the administration, thinking that there wasn’t anything I could ever do about it and that's just the way the world works. Even in law school I had colleagues who were very open about wanting to go into politics because ‘that's where the money was.’ It was really frustrating at the time and in a way contributed to the apathy I had towards politics.

“The Civic Leadership Summit was the first time I actually ran into like-minded people – young adults who still had that drive to change things for the better. It showed me that what I wanted to do wasn't a losing battle, that there are plenty of others out there who wanted the same thing I did – a better tomorrow for themselves and for their community. It inspired me to sort of turn my back to the legal system, which was where I aspired to work in until that point, and instead focus on public policies and politics.”

“I strongly believe that international experiences are one of the big keys to solving many of the problems that plague today's society.

Paul has since graduated from West University of Timișoara with a master’s degree in public policies and advocacy and completed a comprehensive analysis of tendencies of transparency in the decision-making process in Romania for his thesis. As a part of his work on transparency, he collaboratively published a political map of the distribution power in the Romanian Parliament that has been an excellent resource to help journalists, interest groups, politicians, and the general public understand who holds power and influence in the country. He is now working as an intern with the General-Directorate for the Presidency at the European Parliament in the transparency unit. Aspects of the role include dealing with Parliament’s relations with interest representatives, working on implementing the Parliament’s transparency policy and helping prepare negotiations on its evolution, and helping to manage the Joint Transparency Register run by the Parliament and the Commission. Paul credits his time in the U.S. as a major inspiration to where his career is today, and believes that it’s an experience that can change the world for the better.

Political map snapshot
snapshot of collaborative political map work 

“I strongly believe that international experiences are one of the big keys to solving many of the problems that plague today's society. Racism, bigotry, homophobia, and so many more, these are all the product of fear and a deep lack of understanding of other cultures. Growing up, most of us are used to living in our own private bubble, our comfort zone and almost never have to leave it. It prevents us from seeing the beauty of the world as it actually is, and makes us uncomfortable with everything that we're not familiar with.  To a certain extent, I understand that it's normal to fear what you don't understand. It's part of human nature. But at the same time, it's the 21st century. We can have access to almost any culture with a few clicks of a button, or a 12-hour flight at the longest. It's impossible to get accustomed to people who are different than you if you don't expose yourself to them, and staying in that safe and cozy bubble you call your comfort zone won't ever let you experience the true beauty this diverse world has to offer. I know it's hard to do so, because I've been through it, but my humble piece of advice is this: Get out, seize every opportunity life puts in your path, force yourself out of your comfort zone and explore the world. The only way we'll ever even begin to solve this world's problems is through mutual understanding, and the only way we'll reach mutual understanding is through international experiences. As cheesy as it sounds, we're the future. It's up to us to make sure we leave this place better than we found it.”

What does mutual understanding look like when on an exchange program? Paul experienced it himself on his first visit in the United States through the CIEE Work & Travel USA program. “Before that, all I knew about it [the U.S.] was from TV, books, and the internet. Somehow, I never met someone from the U.S. before that. Obviously, when I first arrived, it was a bit of a culture shock for me. But once that passed, I began understanding American values, the American work ethic, and I think most importantly the American people. Those I ended up working with began to understand me. Most of them were college students – some fresh out of high school, some had never left their home state, and most had never left the U.S. Of course, they knew about the rest of the world, but in the same way I had known about the U.S. – from books and the internet.”

Working closely with Americans was a big part of Paul’s cultural exchange experience. Friendships were made, cultures were shared, and knowledge was transmitted across a multi-cultural group. “We had traditional meals together, we shared stories and life experiences, and a few friends even started learning Romanian and made plans to visit. […] All of us were different, but we were brought together by, if nothing else at first, the fact that we were open to new experiences.” It was first the exposure to people of other cultures in the workplace and housing that laid the groundwork for mutual understanding, then the willingness to share and receptiveness to learning that made understanding happen.

What Paul learned by staying open to new experiences has changed his behavior and will accompany him on future travels around the world as a global citizen. “[Americans] amazed me by how welcoming they could be to a complete stranger from the far side of the planet. Not once while I was there did I ever feel that I didn’t belong there, and the kindness they showed me there, I now do my best to show to everyone around me. In the end, I think that’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in the U.S. – kindness towards others will lead to acceptance, which will bring the world together.”

Find out how you can have a life-changing international experience of your own Visit: https://www.ciee.org/in-the-usa/work/work-travel-usa

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