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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.
“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
The Alum of the Month for December is CIEE Global Navigator High School Study Abroad alum Denise Alvarez. Denise received the Global Navigator Scholarship in 2015 to spend a summer term in Tokyo, Japan on the Japanese Language & Pop Culture program. The scholarship allowed Denise to go after her dream of finding something more outside the classroom. The experience was educational, cultural, and transformational. Studying abroad in high school even helped her look more competitive on college applications! Now in college, Denise is already planning her next study abroad experience. Most recently, she was able to return to Japan to visit old familiar sites and spend time reuniting with her host family. Learn more about the impact high school study abroad had on Denise:
How did you hear about High School Summer Abroad? How did you know it was right for you?
I had done tons of research at the end of my sophomore and beginning of junior year about different study abroad programs. All the programs I have looked into didn't give the financial aid that CIEE did, and although the programs seemed more costly, in the end with all the scholarships and financial help it was much, much cheaper. With CIEE there were so many more opportunities and it definitely looked like CIEE catered to everyone from all backgrounds; it made me feel like going abroad was an actual possibility.
What made you interested in studying in Tokyo?
Since I was young I've always liked Japan and my uncle and aunt who are from there have always told me about the cultures, legends and history – it was very hard to not fall in love! As I grew older, I knew it had to be Japan despite everyone telling me it's expensive, it's on the other side of the world, and the language is a whole other writing system. I went intimidated but came back braver and content with the decision I made.
How did your study experience fit in with your academics at the time?
I was a high school student when I went to Japan and, at that time, I knew that I already did very well academically. However, I felt like I had nothing else to show for myself besides my good grades. This experience abroad definitely taught me about culture, the Japanese language and customs, and more about myself and my ambitions.
I really did feel like this program added to my college applications tremendously, and I always have people ask me "You went to Japan!? Please tell me more!" It has definitely made it easier for icebreakers and such. The trip also helped me realize that I want to have a career related to international relations. Now I am an economics major and hope to continue to learn more about people and how markets and capital influence our history and actions.
How did studying abroad help your Japanese language skills?
Tremendously. I haven't been learning Japanese as intensely as I did around the time of the trip but when I returned to Japan I found myself lost and asking directions with the exact Japanese I learned while on program with CIEE. I was in shock that I managed to remember all the words and details, and I still know how to read and write the Japanese alphabet (except Kanji). Not only were our teachers great and were passionate to get us to remember the language, but being immersed among people and in situations where you have to use Japanese also helped with my memory retention.
You mentioned to us earlier that the experience helped you become more motivated and focused. How is that so?
I've always tried my best in school however it came to a point where I wondered, “why am I trying so hard to get good grades and where do I want to take my skills?” I've always been focused. However, during junior year, I dealt with a lot of personal problems that really put a strain on my motivation. I also felt that I've always been limiting myself due to my family income and I wasn't so involved as to not cause trouble to my parents. I realized that I needed a change of scenery and needed to change myself. After Japan, my confidence and determination grew. My friends even noted that I have become different in a positive way and that I was more happy and glowing, and to this day, I still am. I like to think that this trip has motivated me to work hard to continue to experience the thrill of travel and, to be honest, it has also influenced me to be able to host in the future as well and hopefully be able to change the life of another.
It’s amazing that you were able to return to Japan and visit your host family. Tell us more about that trip!
After the Japan trip I got in a slump over the summer because I thought, “how can I make something like that happen again when the only reason I went this time was because of a scholarship?” However, I still remember the words of my teacher who told us, "If you guys really want to experience more of Japan you can; it's all up to how much you actually want it." In the spring semester of my first year in college, I got my first job and I learned to juggle both school and work. I worked hard to maintain my grades and scholarship as well as my job and all the duties that came with it. It was hard at times because I found myself studying occasionally during work and during school I would just be tired and not focused. However, my grades came out great and my paycheck was enough for me to go to Japan. I returned to see my host family who was in utter awe that I even returned (despite me promising and messaging that I will!). They took me and my friend to a sports festival to see Yoshi, their daughter, and when we saw each other again she ran out of shyness because she wasn't actually expecting me to return! I am glad I did. However, they treated my friend and me with so much kindness and respect. I revisited the old places I went with CIEE and even went to the Olympic Center where we slept! It was very nostalgic but I am glad I could do it all again and I know this is all thanks to CIEE for giving me the opportunity to go the first time.
What is your advice for high school students who are thinking about studying abroad?
It is very much possible to study abroad in high school despite it being seemingly not. I think the worst mistake one can do to themselves is to create limits. CIEE offers so many opportunities for those who struggle financially and if you have good merit, they acknowledge it and reward you for it. It has definitely changed my life and made me look much more competitive to colleges. I got memorable friends and a wonderful host family who, despite only knowing me for one month, still call me and text me TWO YEARS after the trip!
Want to share your CIEE story? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to get started.
*This post originally appeared on the CIEE Exchange Programs blog
My name is Naoel and I am from Tunisia! I worked this past summer at Morey's Piers in Wildwood, New Jersey in Water Park Admissions and as a Game Operator. I was part of a team of 17 people from 8 different nationalities so I was exposed to a difference of culture and traditions every single day. One of the main reasons I participated in Work & Travel USA was to learn more about others and their perception of the world, and hearing about all of their stories, their lives, and their countries was very enriching. Every Thursday I used to go to a party called "international cafe” that was held by my American friends for international students. We would chat about life, religion, food…and eat s'mores (my favorite American snack!).
I met some amazing people that are now my friends and will remember those nights forever.
In Wildwood, I made friends with whom I traveled with around the U.S. after I finished working. Living and experiencing the American life is completely different from what I was expecting even though I have been to many places around the world. One thing that I was astonished by is how nice people are! They also smile a lot, even if they don't know you!
In my journey, I was chosen to participate in the CIEE Civic Leadership Summit in Washington D.C.! I don't even know where to begin to describe how life changing those 4 days were. Cultural understanding was one of the things that marked me forever. I realized how important it is to educate others on those aspects. It gave me the passion, drive and motivation to continue to be involved in my community. I was inspired with many ideas that I could implement in organizations that I am involved with in Tunisia. I want to lead a future generation and help them acquire the sets and skills they need to become creator and innovators and contribute to our country's development.
This experience opened my eyes and inspired me to take part in my country and be a leader.
I took part a year ago in a social enterprise called Young Tunisian Coders Academy. Its main goal is to develop young kid's technological skills by teaching them coding, robotics and entrepreneurial skills. This helps us become creators of technology and not only consumers. I am currently the external relations manager of this group and having this responsibility is great. It enables me to build a professional and personal network and work to maintain relations with other organizations and NGOs. We constantly try to identify opportunities to build partnerships and evolve to become known in the whole country.
Our group recently competed at the 2017 Social Impact Awards regional competition that was held here in Tunisia. The first time I pitched an idea like this was at the CIEE Civic Leadership Summit. I don't know if I would have been able to help my Coders Academy team if I hadn't learned how to pitch an idea at the Civic Leadership Summit. (Thanks to my Civic Leadership Summit team leaders and the whole CIEE staff!). One of our team members was able to travel to Serbia to attend the SIA Summit where we were awarded funds and development assistance to support our project in Tunisia. (You can watch their SIA Tunisia 2017 Finalist: Youth to Youth video here!)
I had the chance to help create our pitch (which was in French) and it was only my second time working on a presentation like this!
This experience truly changed me. I will forever be grateful for this opportunity and I encourage anyone that hasn't experienced an exchange program to get out in the world and do it! I really believe it changed me for the better!