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34 posts categorized "Alumni of the Month"

Study Abroad Opens Doors to the World: How One CIEE Alum Returned to India

By Priya Charry (CIEE Study Abroad, Hyderabad, India, 2013)

In my junior year of college, most of my friends studied abroad in well-known locations in Europe or South America. I decided that I wanted to go to a lesser-known destination. The desire for a unique and immersive experience, combined with my family's Indian heritage, led to India as my country of choice for a study abroad program.

As I researched options in India, CIEE Hyderabad emerged as the best fit. The Arts & Sciences program allowed me to study humanities with students from across the U.S. while exploring India through field trips and homestays. Hyderabad is centrally located in the country, allowing for affordable plane, train, and bus travel to many other cities. I was able to travel extensively during my semester there. All of these factors contributed to the amazing semester I had with CIEE Hyderabad!

Golconda Fort
Golconda Fort

Hyderabad is a dynamic, diverse city with something for everyone. There are remnants of the former Nizams (sovereigns of Indian states) in the palaces, tomb complexes, and the sprawling fort. You can explore stunning rock formations and hiking trails, visit a number of temples and mosques, and have some of the best food in all of India – Hyderabadi biryani! There are also a number of new breweries, pubs, restaurants, and stores. A lot of the recent development has been in the technology sector, with high-rise office buildings and eateries popping up in my neighborhood – Hitech City. This is a well-developed neighborhood with students, workers, and visitors from all over the country, and the world!

In Hyderabad, I felt like I had found a place where I could make a real difference. This affinity for India – the people, the geography, the music and art, the food – reinforced my connection to my distant Indian heritage. When my study abroad term ended, I made a commitment to return to India, either for extended study or work opportunities.

CIEE group
Priya and other CIEE students studying in Hyderabad

After college, I earned my master's degree in Library and Information Science and worked as a librarian in Boston. My work involved one-on-one interactions with communities and individuals to fulfill their various information needs. Unfortunately, these kinds of services are not widely available in most of India. I decided that I wanted to learn about the NGO/nonprofit sector in India and how my future career as a librarian and a public servant could unfold there. However, there were not many opportunities for early-career librarians to work in libraries in an international context. I learned more about the available options and found a fellowship that would take me there.

In September of 2017, almost five years after my semester abroad, I returned to India as a participant in the William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India, a ten-month service fellowship through the American India Foundation. When applying for this fellowship, I emphasized my experience in Hyderabad and my current work interests. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that one of the available placements was for an arts-based program at a nonprofit in Hyderabad – a perfect fit! In my interviews with the fellowship staff and with the nonprofit itself, I found that my prior experience in the city was a huge bonus in the selection process. It made the settling-in process a whole lot smoother, allowing me to jump into my work much sooner with a baseline degree of knowledge. It also demonstrated that I was willing and eager to create a fulfilling life here and make close connections with the community. The introductory Hindi course that I took during my semester abroad also proved to be very helpful while traveling during my current fellowship. It gave me a solid foundation for the language and, most importantly, taught me how to read the Devanagari script.

AIF Fellows
American India Foundation fellows

It felt a little uncanny, at first, to be in India again. I knew I would benefit from extended professional experience in India, so I was excited to return. However, so much has changed in the past five years! From infrastructure (with the new Hyderabad metro under construction) and technology (with apps ruling daily life), it took a couple weeks to acclimate to my new home and to shift from the mindset of a temporary student to an adult employee. And without a network of students/fellows in the same city, I felt a bit isolated during the first few weeks. But it was a huge relief to know that I had my CIEE host family just across the city, welcoming me with open arms.

Soon after I arrived in Hyderabad, I made a visit to my host mom and her daughter. It felt like nothing had changed (except my host sister, who had grown about a foot taller!). After reconnecting with my host family and CIEE staff, I felt much more at home and ready to settle into ten months of work. Both my host mom and I work full-time in different parts of the city, making it difficult to find time to see each other, but we message often and get together when we can. I'm so grateful for this relationship during this fellowship.

Host family
Priya (center) with CIEE student (left) and host family

My fellowship placement is at the nonprofit organization Youth4Jobs, which runs a national network of placement-linked employment skills centers for youth with disabilities. My project, Not Just Art, is a new startup of the organization. We work with artists with disabilities to promote and sell their artwork online, ensuring sustainable livelihoods for them and their families. We also hold art workshops for children with disabilities in local schools. The project became operational last year and is off to a great start!

My work requires interaction with colleagues in our office and with artists across the country. Though much of the work is based in my office, I have had the opportunity to visit artists at their homes, represent the organization at events, and even lead an art workshop for visually impaired children. These interactions with the community remind me why I came back to India and why I want to work here long-term. I am gaining valuable skills in my project management role, from web development to curriculum development to social media management. These skills are not tied to an Indian context, but will be helpful in any future work environment.

NJA workshop
Priya conducting a workshop in India

Generations of Exchange: A Mother & Son Share Their CIEE Experiences

Viv_eli_collage_2We know that an international exchange experience can have a tremendous impact on a person’s life. We’ve seen alumni go on to have inspiring careers, create change in their communities, become advocates of exchange, and talk about their experiences for years. But did you know how much of an impact a CIEE experience could have on the people around you?

At the Masket household, study abroad is generational. Stories of Vivian’s cultural encounters in Russia were passed onto her son Eli, building the foundation for his life of wanderlust. Further inspired by a few international travels with the family, Eli took the first opportunity he could to have a study abroad experience like his mother. It was through the CIEE Global Navigator High School Study Abroad program that Eli had his own international experience to talk about for generations.

St Basil's Moscow

It started in 1992 when Vivian Masket studied abroad with CIEE in St. Petersburg, Russia. At that time, the country had just begun to open up after decades of communist rule. Her summer was an immersive experience that brought assumptions, biases, and misunderstandings to light to form true connections between Americans and Russians during a delicate time in history. And was, ultimately, a period of immeasurable personal development. She remarks, “I learned that I had to dive in and be vulnerable in order to figure things out, whether it was approaching a stranger and using my language skills to ask for help in planning a subway route or mustering up the courage to bargain with a street vendor to buy the perfect nesting doll set to bring home as a gift. I also learned that studying a country’s language, culture, and history is no match for the learning that comes from immersing yourself in that country, experiencing life there firsthand, and hearing the stories of those for whom that country is home.”

Vivian at Peterhof
Vivian at Peterhof Palace

Many memories were created in Russia – experiences with a lasting impact that turned into stories told for decades in the household. So much so that, even after 25 years, the memories of Vivian’s time abroad are strong. She recalls, “It was really a fascinating time to have been in Russia. We lived in dormitories with the other American students on the program, so had to seek out opportunities to interact with Russians in order to practice our speaking and listening skills outside of our classes and group excursions. […] One day, a friend and I were returning to the dorm from the nearby metro station and were stopped on the sidewalk by an elderly gentleman who spent well over half an hour sharing his experience as a ‘blockadnik,’ a resident of St. Petersburg who had survived the German blockade of the city during World War II.” It was through study abroad that Vivian recognized the value of travel and language-learning in developing a deeper understanding of the world – a sentiment she later shared with her son, Eli.

The household conversations of cultural understanding, language learning, and adventure inspired Eli to develop a passion for languages and cultures of the world – especially China. He chose to attend the Denver Center for International Studies so he could begin Chinese language studies in the sixth grade and, after a few trips with his family, was ready to go abroad on his own. Like Vivian, Eli wanted something more out of his international travels this time – an immersive experience that facilitated personal growth and strengthened language skills.

Vivian knew that for Eli, studying abroad was more of a “when” than an “if.” She wasn’t surprised when he approached her about the CIEE Global Navigator High School Study Abroad program in Shanghai. “I talked to my Chinese teacher about summer abroad programs, and she recommended CIEE to me. I went home to speak with my parents about this program, and my mother told me she had gone to Russia in college with CIEE,” he said. “I had been dreaming of studying abroad for many years, and I finally could!”

Vivian was excited for her son to have a study abroad experience himself, especially with the enhanced cultural immersion practices of CIEE’s programs today. “When we investigated the program, I was thrilled to learn that he would have an even richer experience than I did, given the homestay aspect of the program.”


In the summer of 2017, the time finally came for Eli to have a study abroad experience of his own, and it was the kind of transformation he was hoping for. “Through my study abroad experience, my vocabulary improved, as well as my overall comfort level with the use of Mandarin. I also became a more outgoing person. At the beginning of my experience, I felt as if conversation with local residents was awkward and forced. However, I later learned that there was nothing to fear, and being outgoing can only benefit a situation. By becoming more outgoing, I grew as a person and became more independent.”

Vivian noticed this transformation in her son when he returned. She says, “Eli has always been very independent and studying abroad fed that side of him, providing him with the opportunity to be on his own and to navigate a new place geographically, linguistically, and culturally.” Like Vivian experienced in St. Petersburg, Eli’s time in Shanghai solidified for him the opportunities for growth and understanding that come from experiencing another culture and an unfamiliar – a now multigenerational understanding in the Masket household.

Needless to say, study abroad is already on Eli’s mind again. Although he is years away from college, Eli is eager to build upon his knowledge of international cultures and languages, specifically in China. In the future, he hopes to spend a semester abroad in China to experience the country and culture in greater depth. He’s also begun studying Spanish in hopes to experience studying abroad in a Spanish-speaking country as well.


For all our readers out there thinking about studying abroad in high school, Eli and Vivian have offered their advice from the perspective of a parent and a student.

Advice for Parents, From Vivian:

“While it can be scary to think about sending your child thousands of miles away, possibly to a place you’ve never been, the benefits of study abroad are worth overcoming that fear. Your child will not only acquire language skills, but will become more independent, and will gain a global perspective that is simply not possible to gain without the opportunity for extended living in another country.  Warning: you child might also come home with the ‘travel bug’ (a love for travelling) and ask you when they can go abroad next!”

Advice for Applicants, From Eli:

“To all students considering studying abroad, my advice is to simply do it. Many students have concerns and worries about studying abroad, but in the end, it is so worth it. Worried about cost? CIEE has various scholarships and fundraising isn’t as difficult as it seems. Scared of travelling far away from home? Soon enough, you’ll feel as if your home is abroad. Studying abroad is an unforgettable experience that I would recommend to all students.”

Learn more about how study abroad can impact you, your high school student, and generations of global citizens. Visit the CIEE Global Navigator High School Study Abroad website to get started.

Learning Outside the Classroom: A High School Study Abroad Story

Japon 027

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 to get started.

Two CIEE Study Abroad Alumni Make Documentary about South African Comedy

Meg & hannah

The Alumni of the Month for November are Hannah Rafkin and Meg Robbins, CIEE Study Abroad alumni and recent Bowdoin College graduates who studied in Cape Town, South Africa in 2015. After an amazing experience abroad, the two friends fantasized about returning to Cape Town in a meaningful way. Two years later, they are back in South Africa, working on a documentary about the stand-up comedy scene and how it’s bringing new means of expression for speakers of lesser-known languages in the country. We interviewed them to learn more about their exciting documentary and how study abroad inspired the project:

What attracted you to Cape Town?
We both attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine – a small liberal arts school of 1,800 students. The University of Cape Town (UCT) is a large research university in a major city, so we were excited to experience pretty much the polar opposite of what we were used to. We also both majored in English and wanted an opportunity to study non-European and non-American literature written in English. Beyond that, we were obviously attracted by the beauty of the city. The city/mountain/ocean combination definitely appealed to us. But that was an added benefit –we were definitely looking to broaden our perspectives and learn about the history and the current challenges South Africa faces. We wanted to have conversations that we wouldn’t ordinarily have at Bowdoin, or any other place for that matter.

What did learning abroad offer that you could not have received on campus?
The most powerful learning experiences we had in Cape Town were not in the classroom. We were lucky enough to experience the start of the #FeesMustFall campaign, a student-led protest that took South Africa’s universities by storm and has continued to evolve since. UCT students organized to demand their right to free education and to protest the treatment of black students and workers. This movement was literally unfolding at our doorstep. One of our resident advisors was arrested for peacefully protesting and spent the night in jail. Students held posters with slogans that their parents’ generation used in anti-apartheid protests. Our finals ended up getting delayed, but it was absolutely worth it to be immersed in this political moment. Witnessing political action and dialogue on such a high level was a unique experience that we knew we’d never get in Brunswick, Maine.

About the project:
As longtime comedy fans, we watched a lot of stand-up while we were in Cape Town. It was exciting to listen to comedians responding to current events and the historical context of South Africa. At this time, Trevor Noah was just starting to take over for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, so that became a frequent point of connection between us and South Africans we’d meet. We had a lot of discussions with South Africans about the role of comedy in confronting political corruption and difficult histories, and these talks got us thinking more deeply about the comedy occurring in our own nation.

After returning to Bowdoin, we continued having these conversations, and we were constantly itching to get back to South Africa in a meaningful way. Halfway through our senior year, President Trump was inaugurated. As our country was delving into chaos, the comedy was getting very, very good. People were turning to SNL, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, and Samantha Bee. We were deep in thought about this relationship between politics and comedy and kept returning to discussions about how this relationship works in South Africa. One night during one of these talks, the idea for our documentary clicked. We stayed up until 5 a.m. planning and researching – we knew we were hitting on something important and wanted to make it happen.

As we continued to research and talk to South African comedians, we realized that vernacular comedy was the most fascinating genre growing in South African comedy. That’s what we decided to focus on. Vernacular comedy is doubly political – the material confronts messy politics while the medium of mother tongue languages is itself a political protest against the dominance of English and Afrikaans.

What is it like to experience South African comedy?
South African comedy is a huge umbrella term for a variety of performance styles, languages, venues, and themes. Running through them all is an intense energy between the performers and their audience – comedians often repeat to their audiences that comedy works with energy.

We’ve obviously been going to a lot of vernacular comedy shows, and we often get asked what it’s like to experience those gigs when we don’t speak any of the nine indigenous languages that make up the ‘vernacular’ genre. Of course it can be frustrating at times to not understand everything that’s said, but the combination of the palpable energy in the room during these shows and the way the comedians use other linguistic cues and body language – tone of voice, volume, facial expression, hand movements, an English phrase here and there – enables you to sort of pick up on parts of what is going on. You can feel when something is hilarious even if you don’t understand exactly what that is. And sometimes you realize you don’t need a word-for-word translation. We’ve been able to talk to a lot of comedians about their jokes in English. They won’t translate them for us word for word, but they’ll explain the premises. For instance, one of the comics in our film does a joke about his grandfather who still thinks South Africa is under apartheid. Knowing that bit of background and then seeing the audience react as the comedian performs is enough for us to feel like we experienced his set in a meaningful way.

How is comedy challenging the status quo?
In South Africa, stand up has only been a viable art form since the nation became a democracy in 1994 (with the exception of a few white men who performed under apartheid). Since then, it served as a change-maker, a conversation-starter, and a healing tool. In dealing with such a traumatic history and its continuing legacy (South Africa has been rated one of the most unequal nations in the world), laughter has been crucial.

There have been multiple waves of change in post-apartheid comedy. In the early years after 1994, black and coloured comedians began taking the stage for the first time. In more recent years, there has been a surge of female comedians. Now, vernacular comedy – where comics perform in their native language(s) – is the next frontier. This is disrupting the status quo for an obvious reason: the status quo has always been English and Afrikaans.

There are eleven national languages in South Africa, and the majority of its citizens speak some combination of the nine indigenous African languages (Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu). However, English and Afrikaans have remained dominant. It is no coincidence that these were the two official languages under apartheid. The nine indigenous languages are often relegated to the domestic sphere, and are not as well-represented in entertainment, commerce, and public life. But now, comedians are taking to the stage and speaking in their mother tongues as a form of empowerment. By putting these languages in the spotlight, they are amplifying the stories, perspectives and cultures of South Africa’s majority. Vernacular comedy is bringing value to mother tongue languages outside of the domestic sphere, and in turn is helping shape how the languages will be spoken in the future.

What impact has vernacular comedy had?
Though formalized stand-up comedy is a recent phenomenon, humor and storytelling are by no means new in South Africa. But now, vernacular comics are making a living doing this. They are performing sold out shows in front of massive audiences without having to conform to industry pressures to speak English or to discuss certain topics.

As evidenced by enormous fan followings, consistently sold-out events, and booming laughter, South African audiences are ready to see their linguistic diversity represented onstage. We’ve even observed this at ‘English’ comedy shows. A comic will go through the whole arc of a joke in English, and then suddenly crack the punchline in Zulu or Xhosa – the audience explodes.

Comedians and audience members alike often describe comedy as a healing tool – a powerful means of grappling with both personal and political trauma. Vernacular comedians in particular stress the importance of relating to their audiences; they seek to provide them with stories and jokes that are relevant to their daily lives. In a country that has historically shunned the life experiences of its majority, this laughter and connection is especially important.

Learn more about the documentary by watching the video below and visiting their Indiegogo page, where you have the chance to donate to this incredible project!

CIEE Teach Abroad Alum Leads Girls' Health Project in Kenya

The Alum of the Month for October is CIEE Teach Abroad alumna Alyssa O’Connor. After graduating from Cornell University, Alyssa taught English in Thailand in 2013 to first, second, and third grade children in Chanthaburi. She now looks back on her experience as a time of growth and cultural immersion as she is about to embark on her next adventure abroad.

Alyssa with students in Thailand
Alyssa with students in Thailand

“Looking back, teaching English was the best decision I could have made for myself and I am so grateful for this organization. I enjoyed the chance to live and work abroad, immersing myself in another culture versus just traveling through it. At the end of my program, I found myself asking, 'Did I come to teach? Or did I come to be taught?' I learned so much from my kids, as well as my fellow Thai teachers, that I knew working internationally was the direction in life I wished to proceed. Taking the confidence and skills I gained from CIEE, I started working on my next opportunity to go abroad and am so happy to share this project with you.

"In January, I will be going to Kenya for three months as a menstrual health management project leader with Cross World Africa, a non-profit dedicated to ending inequality in East Africa. All over the world, menstruation persists as a taboo subject that is not discussed within the home and is largely skipped over in school. When girls reach puberty, many are left confused and scared about what is happening in their body. To make matters worse, many girls can't afford sanitary products and resort to using improper materials, like mattress stuffing and old newspapers, which leads to infections and missed school. Lack of education on menstrual hygiene management, as well as lack of access to sanitary products, are just two parts of a vicious cycle that negatively affect girls who already face enough barriers to their education and empowerment. This summer, Cross World Africa secured a partnership with Ruby Life Ltd., a socially-minded, menstrual health company that makes a product called Ruby Cup. Working together, the goal of this project is provide educational workshops and a menstrual cup to empower girls to make healthy decisions for their bodies.”

In just a few short months, Alyssa will be traveling to Kenya to lead the three-month-long project - Ruby in the Rift - in the Rift Valley. Though it will be a challenging time for Alyssa with new language barriers and cultural barriers to overcome, she has already developed the skills to adjust through her CIEE Teach Abroad experience in Thailand. Alyssa is ready for her next teaching experience abroad on a new continent - a great new adventure. Learn more about the project and read the CIEE shout-out on her project leader page!

When an Exchange Experience Turns Into a Career

The Alum of the Month for July is Wilka Nascimento. You might remember her from the Alumni Voices feature “How I Became a Global Citizen” on the CIEE Alumni Blog, in which she talked about her experience in the CIEE Work & Travel USA and Internship USA programs. Working in the hospitality industry in the U.S. while on these programs was an opportunity to learn about American culture, improve English skills, and gain international work experience. For this feature, we checked in with Wilka to learn more about how she turned an internship into a career.


Wilka recently accepted a position as a senior sales manager at Hotel Wales in Manhattan, and formerly served as a director of sales for hotels, allowing her to work with a variety of major brands in the industry such as Hilton, Marriott, and IHG – crediting her CIEE program experience as a strong influence on her career path. Two months after earning her bachelor’s degree in business management focused on hotels and tourism, Wilka returned to the United States to pursue the CIEE Internship USA program:

“I was studying hospitality management in Brazil and I wanted to improve my English so I could communicate with international tourists in Brazil. During my first year of college, I had the opportunity to participate in the CIEE Work & Travel USA Program for four months. After the program, I still felt the need to improve my English, so I decided to come back after I graduated from college for a deeper understanding of the hotel industry in the United States.”


Working at the Annapolis Marriott Waterfront Hotel in Annapolis, Maryland, Wilka had the opportunity to rotate through different departments such as housekeeping, accounting, and sales. The majority of her time was spent as a front desk associate cultivating her skills in patience, leadership, and communication while gaining valuable English language experience. The internship was an open door into the hospitality industry the United States, presenting new opportunities to engage deeper in her line of work. In fact, it was her internship experience that gave her the connections to get a job working for Holiday Inn Express Baltimore Downtown. Since then, she has worked in sales and marketing for a number of major hotels in the U.S. “During my internship in Annapolis, I fell in love with the sales department, which inspired me to pursue this field in my career and become a sales manager because I love to network, prospect, and close business, but beyond all I love to serve my guests.” To this day, Wilka continues to provide positive hospitality experiences for all visitors who come her way.

“I’m a pioneer in my family’s world.”

Beyond building a career, coming to the United States also meant visiting new places, meeting new people, and exploring the world without any fear. Her fearlessness even had an impact on family back in Brazil, inspiring her sister to take part in international exchange too. In a personal LinkedIn article, Wilka writes, “Actually I can say that I have two homes, two different worlds that I love to live in. I go to Brazil every year, and I love that I'm always learning something new about the United States. It brings me joy that my younger sister wants to explore and travel as well. Everything that I have done and been through it's worth it. I did build my own legacy in my family and that brings me joy.”

Interested in having a career-building internship of your own? Learn more about CIEE Internship USA today!

Learning to Embrace Different Cultures: Irish Student Experiences Life in the U.S.

Andrew twitter profile 2

CIEE Work & Travel USA alumnus Andrew Ralph from Ireland spent the summer of 2015 working at CIEE’s global headquarters in Portland, Maine. During his time at CIEE, Andrew had the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of the very program he was on and gain a deeper understanding of the J-1 Visa process in the United States. We saw on Twitter that Andrew is a proud CIEE alum so we interviewed him to find out what gives him pride in the CIEE Work & Travel USA program and hear what he’s doing now!

What makes you proud to be a CIEE Work & Travel USA alumnus?

I am extremely and vocally proud to be a CIEE Work & Travel USA alumnus because CIEE profoundly benefited me. The three-and-a-half months I spent in Portland, Maine on the program and working for CIEE were three of the best months of my life – I do not want to praise CIEE and the work that it does in just words – I want to do what I can do for CIEE in practical and active ways too. Looking back on my time at CIEE and on the program, the pride that I have has manifested itself into motivating me to be an ambassador for CIEE and for the program to my peers and to my fellow countryman and countrywomen here in Ireland.

What inspired you to apply for the CIEE Work & Travel USA program?

I applied for the CIEE Work & Travel USA program because I wanted to immerse myself in the American cultural experience; I wanted to truly discover what it is like to work and live in the United States and how that differs to my own country and culture, I wanted to get the opportunity to travel within the United States and see the sights, meet the people, try out the cuisine, and experience all the things that help shape what the United States represents and the image it projects around the world. I was 18 years old when I enrolled in the CIEE Work & Travel USA program. The United States had dominated my life up to that point, and since. Coming from the Anglosphere, or English-speaking world, the United States had an indelible cultural impact on my upbringing, from pop culture to politics to the economy. I was very keen, eager, and interested to finally visit and finally see it and, most importantly, to finally experience it.


What did you do for work at CIEE’s global headquarters in Portland, Maine?

In Portland, Maine, I was a Work & Travel USA participant services coordinator for CIEE and this was an extremely exciting job. I had the opportunity to use the Salesforce customer relationship management (CRM) system, register visa participants on the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) database, assist visa participants that had employment issues or healthcare problems that were required to make insurance claims, chaperoned high school exchange program participants in the New York/New Jersey area, and more. Working in the participant services department at CIEE offered me a great deal of valuable insights into the workforce, educational exchange programs, and providing with top quality customer service.

What else did you learn from your experience?

From my experience, I learned to embrace and open my eyes as well as my mind to different cultures, to different ways of doing things, and to people of various nationalities, races, and creeds. After participating in the CIEE Work & Travel USA program, I returned to Ireland in September 2015 having developed and improved my interpersonal skills, my education and knowledge on the world (especially the United States), and my workplace skills. My exchange experience was holistic and multifaceted. It wasn't just about the work that I did – it was also about the people I met, the places I visited, and the lessons I learned. They all positively improved my attitude to life and rendered me a better, stronger, wiser, and more well-rounded person at the end of it.

What are you doing now and what are your plans for the future?

I have just completed my undergraduate degree in journalism. I’m currently working for the “Dublin People” newspaper and I am pursuing a master’s degree in politics and international relations. I hope to have a career in the media or politics someday!


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Passing on a Love for Travel: CIEE Study Abroad Alumna and HI USA Staffer Kassi Oliver

"Travel leads to world peace...You learn to appreciate and not judge. And it’s not even a forced process; building tolerance and being a less prejudiced person just starts to happen naturally while traveling."

Mom and o
CIEE Study Abroad alumna Kassi Oliver with her world-traveling daughter.

Kassi Oliver, from the University of Texas at Austin, studied abroad with CIEE in Legon, Ghana back in 2001. Sixteen years later, she still has a passion for international travel. Kassi currently serves as the national director of volunteer services for Hostelling International USA (HI USA) based out of Austin, Texas. She has worked for HI USA for six years now, pursuing their mission “to help all, especially the young, gain a greater understanding of the world and its people through hosteling.” HI USA runs hostels throughout the U.S. and also offers educational and engagement programs to hostel guests and community members in the local areas they serve, utilizing volunteers to help lead their programs. Working for HI USA, Kassi gets to ‘pay it forward’ to provide fun and welcoming environments that support international travelers’ cultural experiences, just like CIEE Study Abroad offered her in Ghana. We interviewed Kassi to learn more about her career and what she thinks about her CIEE Study Abroad experience now, sixteen years later:

What is your favorite memory of living in Ghana?

I have so many good memories of living in Ghana. I arrived to Accra a day early before the other CIEE students arrived. I remember staying at a beachside hotel where the staff were incredibly friendly. The hotel had windows open where the ocean breeze cooled off the room. I heard the waves crashing as I went to bed and I remember literally pinching myself asking, “Am I really here?” I just couldn't believe this dream was a reality.

Other great memories include:

  • Taking African drumming class at the university. Our class sat outside under a very large tree – we would sit in a circle and play.
  • We didn’t have classes on Fridays so every weekend my two new friends and I would travel and explore. We traveled all throughout Ghana and also went to all the surrounding countries: Togo, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast. We were able to see it all!
  • The food: not everyone loved the food, but I LOVED it. Fried plantains were amazing and I loved the fufu and banku. While some of my classmates were losing weight, I was gaining it!

How did studying abroad with CIEE impact your life?

Ever since I was in junior high school, I dreamed of traveling to Africa. Going to college and choosing to study abroad with CIEE made that dream a reality. The experience taught me that if you really want to do something you can make it happen. I was able to find a great supportive program through CIEE and even received a travel scholarship through my local university. Traveling to Ghana definitely gave me the confidence to go on and do more traveling abroad – some on my own and some with friends. Now that I am a mom of a 3-year-old little girl, I want her to have the same zest for travel. She has been to 10 states and also left the country once. She even has her own Southwest Airlines miles account!

What are you doing now?

I am the director of volunteer services for Hostelling International USA (HI USA), a non-profit organization that operates over 50 hostels nationwide. Each year, we welcome travelers from more than 100 countries, and more than 1,600 volunteers play a big role in helping fulfill our purpose to create a more tolerant world.

In my role, I help support and grow our volunteer program and volunteer experience. A lot of our volunteers love volunteering with us because it allows them to be part of a diverse community of travelers and be alongside fellow travel enthusiasts. To learn more about volunteering with HI USA, check out or email me at We always are looking for great new volunteers!

Me fountain - crop

What do you like the most about working in the tourism industry?

I feel very lucky that my job mixes my love of travel and my love of being a part of something bigger – something that is trying to make the world a better place. I love that at HI USA we help provide travel experiences for others through our travel scholarships programs.

How do you think studying abroad, travelling, and staying in community housing like hostels helps create a more tolerant world?

Travel leads to world peace. It’s easy to judge and hate when you don’t know someone or don’t understand their culture. If you travel to a different country and become a traveler (not a tourist) and immerse yourself in their culture through talking with people, eating their food, listening to their music (you know, all the good stuff!), you gain a respect and understanding for a new culture. You learn to appreciate and not judge. And it’s not even a forced process; building tolerance and being a less prejudiced person just starts to happen naturally while traveling.

The same things happen every day in our hostels as people from different counties either sit down to share a meal, grab a beer, or go on a bike tour together. Conversations start to flow. There are laughs. There are plans made to hang out later that day and friendships are formed. Ultimately tolerance and respect are created.

Family photo
Kassi traveling with family.

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From Costa Rica to California: One Study Abroad Alum’s Quest to Save an Endangered Species

Scientist. Educator. CIEE Alum of the Month. These are just a few words to describe CIEE Study Abroad alumna Kristin Aquilino, an Assistant Project Scientist at UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory who dedicates her time to saving the endangered white abalone. Abalone are sea snails found in many coastal waters whose meat is consumed as a delicacy and whose iridescent shells are used for jewelry and other mother of pearl decorations like guitar inlays. The white abalone is just one of 57 species in a group of herbivorous marine snails and is considered endangered as a result of overfishing, infections, and reproductive failure. Saving the species is Kristin’s passion. How did she become interested in this challenging work? What does study abroad have to do with it? We interviewed Kristin to find out this and more.

What motivated you to study abroad with CIEE in Monteverde, Costa Rica?

As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, I was totally jazzed about ecology, biodiversity, and evolutionary biology. Few places in the world have as incredible biodiversity of plants and animals that evolved interesting ways to cope with their environments as Costa Rica. I also knew that putting myself slightly out of my comfort zone would help me grow as a scientist and as a person, and embarking on a journey that included backpacking in the rainforest was certainly a bit out there for a kid from Iowa who had hardly ever been camping.

Aquilino CRMonteverde
Photo courtesy of Kristin Aquilino

What’s one of your best memories from your time abroad in 2004?

One of my favorite memories from my time in Costa Rica is of learning the theory of island biogeography from a beach on the Osa Peninsula. It was my first and only experience with “sand PowerPoint” – our fantastic instructor, Dr. Carlos Guindon, would draw keywords and figures in the sand with a stick, and our teaching assistants would advance his “slides” by sweeping palm fronds over what he had written so he could start anew. To this day, it is the best lecture I have ever attended.

The most impressive part of the experience was not just being able to plunge my feet in the sand during class while enjoying a backdrop of crashing waves and scarlet macaws, but being able to experience the concepts we were learning in action. After our lecture, we visited a nearby island and compared species abundances and ecological processes on the island to those on the mainland. This immersive, hands-on approach was what made this field course so much more impactful than my lessons that took place in lecture halls on campus.

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Photo courtesy of Kristin Aquilino

How did your study abroad experience impact your education?

Observing natural history, asking and investigating my own scientific questions, building confidence, being surrounded by inspiring peers, witnessing the global, “real-world” impacts of science, understanding the context of science in society and how it affects people… all of these things made me a better naturalist, scientist, and human being.

My study abroad experience gave me a much more holistic appreciation of the earth and the way humans interact with it, which broadened my scope of interest when applying for graduate programs and pursuing future research questions. It also made me appreciate home; though I always had a passion for nature, I often didn’t appreciate the Great Plaines and rolling cornfields that surrounded me. Sometimes it takes something like an exotic rainforest to help you appreciate the wonders of the ecosystem in your own backyard.

What makes you so passionate about the white abalone?

Where do I begin? There is certainly a sense of purpose that comes with trying to correct past environmental mistakes. We humans were responsible for the decline of this species, and I believe that we have a responsibility to save them. Efforts to save an endangered species also allows for an excellent opportunity to engage in meaningful communication about the importance of science to our quality of life. I love opportunities to share our work through social media, video production, science outreach seminar series, and K-12 education.

I also have the pleasure of working with several amazing people and organizations. While the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory leads captive breeding efforts, we work closely with other universities, federal and state institutions, aquariums, and aquaculture farms to do this work, which is overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Aquilino microscope_Karin Higgins UCD
Photo courtesy of Karin Higgins, UCD

Most people have probably not heard of white abalone. What are five things everyone should know about the marine invertebrate?

  1. White abalone are a delicious marine snail that will go extinct very soon without our efforts to save them: We fished over 99% of them in the 1970’s, and the ones that remain are too far apart from one another to reproduce. This overharvest led to them being the first marine invertebrate to land a spot on the U.S. Endangered Species List.
  2. White abalone is one of seven species of abalone off the west coast of North America, and there are abalone on every continent except for Antarctica. Abalone are hugely culturally and economically important to communities worldwide, including coastal California; people eat them, make jewelry and guitar inlays out of their shells, and native people even used the shells as currency. My husband learned to harvest abalone from his uncle when he was a boy, and we can’t wait to teach our daughter to dive for them. Abalone are in the DNA of Californians and coastal inhabitants throughout the globe.
  3. White abalone and their congeners also possess ecological superpowers – they are like the Zambonis of the sea, maintaining a habitat that is perfect for lots of other animals to inhabit, and competing with species like urchins, that can wreak havoc on kelp forests when their populations go unchecked.
  4. White abalone are adorable. While many people appreciate the giant foot of these snails, so many don’t realize they also have “squee”-worthy faces. Few things bring me more joy than showing someone the beady, black eyes topping the mollusk's long, skinny eyestalks. They have personalities!
  5. We can save them. Captive breeding and outplanting was identified as the best way to rescue this species from the brink of extinction. We now boast more white abalone in captivity than exists in the wild. While this is a scary prospect for the wild population, it also presents a great opportunity to save them. With their wild habitat in relatively pristine condition, we should be able to get our captive-bred animals to thrive there and save this important species.
Aquilino with white abalone_Shauna Byron
Photo courtesy of Shauna Byron

For updates about Kristin and her colleagues’ efforts to save white abalone, follow them on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter!


Transporting to the Future: How a Young Latvian Entrepreneur is Changing How We Fly

"BAFF gives you an opportunity to learn entrepreneurship, to see the world from a different point of view, and to create a network of skillful and talented international friends who you might cross paths with again in your future ventures."


The Alum of the Month for March is Elviss Straupenieks, former participant of the Baltic-American Freedom Foundation (BAFF) and creator of AirBoard, the world’s smallest manned aircraft. The young entrepreneur enrolled in the BAFF program to gain experience practicing and understanding the relational aspects of leadership on the path to pursuing his personal and business goals. For Elviss, participating in BAFF was the perfect opportunity. “Learning how to focus on gaining concrete leadership tools enabled me to create transparency and direction while at the same time involving individuals and groups of people in meaningful dialogues about goals associated with my business,” he says. “The most important factor that made me interested in BAFF, however, was creating a network of skillful and talented international friends for my future ventures.” Coming to Portland, Maine on the BAFF program offered Elviss an opportunity to make connections and gain the leadership skills needed to take his inventive idea one step further. But that’s not where his story begins.


Elviss’ interest in entrepreneurship and revolutionizing personal transportation started at a young age. He was only twelve years old when he began to recognize the lack of creativity in personal vehicles and contemplate the future of transportation. In an interview, he tells us, “It was obvious that on top of safety, functionality and ergonomic improvements over the last hundred years, a car still continues to be a metal box with four wheels and the fundamental way we move around has not changed for the better. In fact, many of the roads we used 100 years ago are still present, thus limiting the transport time from point A to B with countless relief projections and ground obstacles. It was clear to me that the future of personal transportation is going to be some sort of flying transport. For such an air transport to be mass-used it should be as simple as possible. Thus, the idea of an intuitive aircraft controlled by shifting the person’s weight (AirBoard) was born.”


Though technology on the consumer market wasn’t quite yet advanced enough to support Elviss’ idea, he patiently followed advancements in technology such as flight controllers, speed controllers, batteries, small brushless motors, and radio controlled vehicles until, two years later, he recognized that key parts reached a point of advancement and economic viability that would allow for his aircraft to turn from concept to reality. For years, Elviss spent all of his free time after school, on the weekends, and during summer breaks learning about aerodynamics and the engineering principles necessary to develop the aircraft. Then, things started to get serious. “I started computer-aided design (CAD), aerodynamic simulations, stress simulations, renderings, and lift-off calculations with hundreds of different iterations and virtual prototypes.” Elviss considers this determination and strong focus on his business to be the keys to success in his journey creating the world’s smallest manned aircraft, among other entrepreneurial pursuits. However, that’s not the only element needed to be successful, he says. “Having a fast-paced and tremendous work ethic, combined with the ability to overcome obstacles, is hugely helpful in day-to-day challenges, but patience is key for achieving the long-term goals.”


Determination, contemplation, innovation, and patience. These are the makings of an 18-year-old CEO.

We asked Elviss what it’s like to run a company at this age when most of his peers are going off to college, travelling on a gap year, or just beginning to craft their futures. “In my opinion, being a young, risk-taking entrepreneur is a competitive edge. When you don’t have the baggage from the past, it’s usually much easier to look at things from a totally different perspective.” With this fresh perspective, AirBoard was born despite the odds. “After faced with the challenge to open a business in Latvia at the age of 16, where the legal age restriction is 18, I found civil law Article 221 that allowed me to gain legal majority in the court of Latvia. After 6 months of rigorous paperwork and long processes, I gained the legal majority that allowed me to receive investment, employ people, and sign contracts. To this date, it is the single only case in Latvia where the court has given a positive decision for entrepreneurial reasons.”

“AirBoard is a Segway crossed with a hoverboard” – Daily Mail

Here’s how it works:
“AirBoard is the World’s smallest manned aircraft. It is an all-electric personal air vehicle controlled by shifting weight. It moves in the direction you are leaning. The rider is standing in a vertical position with his feet on the board and both hands holding handles. When turned on, the aircraft starts to hover in constant height from the ground. Pilot can use a button located on the handle in a thumb reachable area to adjust the flight altitude and lean further to accelerate the vehicle. The more a person shifts forward, the faster the vehicle flies forward.”


“AirBoard Remote App shows important data like AirBoard’s battery life, flight speed, compass, and level. User can control flight level or altitude in which the multicopter is moving. The board can be locked and unlocked with a free mobile application. When the board is locked, power button is inactive and motion detection GPS alarm is turned on. Vehicle can be unlocked without ever taking the mobile device out of the pocket because the vehicle senses when the paired phone is nearby. App allows the customer to update the board software when an update that contains crucial fixes or new features are available.” Learn more about how AirBoard works.

Thank you, Elviss, for sharing your story with us!

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