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34 posts categorized "Alumni of the Month"

Study Abroad Alum Tells Us, "It's Okay to Come Home"

Alexandria Polanosky photo

Studying abroad is an exciting, educational, and transformational experience that changes lives forever. But after falling in love with a new city and country, it can be difficult to return home. Your thoughts and feelings about your life abroad may be frustrating to communicate to friends and family as you experience reverse homesickness (missing people and places from abroad), uncertainty, or maybe even withdrawal. The re-entry period isn’t easy, but there are ways to overcome reverse culture shock.

CIEE Study Abroad alum Alexandria Polanosky experienced this transition period herself and tells us “It’s Okay to Come Home” in her recent article for The Huffington Post blog. The Ohio University student spent a semester in Stellenbosch, South Africa, exploring the area and blogging like a true budding visual journalist. A year later, study abroad is still on her mind as she writes for College Tourist as a Summer Travel Blogger Team Member. We interviewed Alexandria to learn more about her experience abroad and her thoughts on re-entry:

What motivated you to write this article about re-entry, a year after returning from study abroad?

After working in my university's study abroad office upon returning from my time abroad with CIEE, I wanted to continue sharing my travel experiences as well as trying my best to inspire other students to take advantage of the many study abroad opportunities we have available to us. So, this past summer, I was part of College Tourist's summer travel bloggers.

Returning home after traveling has always been something I struggle with, and I spent a long time reflecting on why I should embrace coming home while also appreciating the experience I had. This article was both my way of accepting coming home and sharing these feelings with other student travelers that likely experience the same difficulties.

In the article, you encourage other study abroad returnees to take their spontaneity and curiosity that they had abroad and use it to explore their hometowns. Is this something you did yourself? How do you think this helps with the re-entry process?

If my time abroad taught me anything, it was to embrace the spontaneous side of myself that I previously pushed away. I learned to enjoy every single moment no matter where I was. I definitely adopted this idea at home as I continue to find new places to visit and explore. No matter how cold and cloudy it may get here, I have learned to enjoy it just as much as the sunny, beautiful town of Stellenbosch, South Africa I spent so much time in a few years ago.

Embracing spontaneity and never ceasing to search for new adventures at home can definitely help with the re-entry process. I think a lot of the fear of returning home comes from the thought of facing familiarity after experiencing so many new things and believing that your days won't be nearly as exciting as they were abroad. Overcoming this fear by making an effort to rediscover your hometown can be a great way to deal with re-entry.

What other advice would you give to recently returned study abroad participants?

For any recently returned study abroad students, I would definitely encourage you to share your experiences with others, good and bad! Traveling and studying abroad is a big unknown for many people and can seem scary or unattainable. Sharing experiences and advice, like how to pay for studying abroad, can help encourage other students to pursue such wonderful opportunities. You might also find that many other students struggled with the same aspects of re-entry as you. Also, try to keep in touch with any friends you made abroad; it’s fun to see where everyone's lives take them after the end of the semester or year. For those who have not yet returned home, don't let the return date on your plane ticket scare you. Enjoy every bit of today!

Have something to share about YOUR international exchange or re-entry experience? Email us to find out how you can share your story on the CIEE Alumni blog.

International Exchange Experience Inspires Leadership in CIEE Work & Travel USA Alumna

Meet Ariana Sánchez Barrios, our Alum of the Month for November:

U.S. Department of State - edits
Ariana in the George C. Marshall Conference Center at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C.

Born in Venezuela. English Access Microscholarship Program (Access) participant. Youth Ambassador. CIEE Work & Travel USA alumna. Civic Leadership Summit fellow. Volunteer coordinator. Dynamic public speaker. And she’s only nineteen years old. What has motivated Ariana to accomplish so much at such a young age? This alumna is on a mission to create positive change in her home country of Venezuela, using her leadership and exchange experience as the tools to help her achieve that goal.

Ariana’s journey with international exchange began when she was only thirteen years old as a scholarship recipient for the English Access Microscholarship Program (Access), which offers English language and cultural preparation for future exchanges and study in the United States. She then participated in the U.S. Department of State’s Youth Ambassadors Program, a four-week program that brought Ariana to the United States to engage in community service work, a home stay, educational workshops, and other opportunities aimed at increasing leadership skills and fostering community change in participants’ home countries. She says of the experience, “…that changed my perspective about life and made me realize how important it is to work for your community and also to keep on preparing yourself for the challenges you’ll face in life, always thinking of being your best and trying your best at all times so you can leave your mark in the world and in everybody’s hearts and minds.” The Youth Ambassadors Program was only the beginning of international exchange for Ariana. In 2016, she became a part of the CIEE family as a CIEE Work & Travel USA Access Scholar and Civic Leadership Summit fellow, spending her J-1 summer working at Six Flags in Queensbury, New York. For Ariana, the U.S. exchange experience was transformational:

“The Civic Leadership Summit was, with no doubt, the most meaningful experience during my program. It was such an important opportunity getting to connect with other leaders from all over the world with a similar idea of what the world should be like and how they are going to work in order to make it get at least closer to it. I got to share my ideas, my thoughts, my principles about life and the world with a lot of inspirational people that are definitely working to make their own countries a better place to live in.”

Employer Forum - edits
Ariana presenting at the CIEE Employer Forum in Washington, D.C.

While she was on her program in the U.S., Ariana spoke about her Work & Travel USA experience at the CIEE Employer Forum in Washington, D.C. She was also invited to participate in the 2016 convention of Association of Binational Centers of Latin America (ABLA) in Houston, Texas, to speak about her experience as a volunteer coordinator with Centro Venezolano Americano del Zulia or “Venezuelan American Center of Zulia” (CEVAZ), an organization focused on cultural exchange and mutual understanding between Venezuela and the United States. At the convention, she spoke of the challenges and responsibilities of being the coordinator of such a large volunteer group, while networking with organizational leaders and representatives from the U.S. embassies of five countries in Latin America, including her home country of Venezuela.

Volunteers Training Sesion - edits
Ariana speaking at a volunteer training session for CEVAZ.

Ariana’s international exchange and leadership experience has prepared her for creating positive change in Venezuela and around the world. Her ambitious attitude and love of learning has Ariana thinking big about the future, despite the challenges she may face:

“It is really hard to plan when we are going through uncertain times in my country. I’d like to run for presidency at some point, or at least have a position in which it gets easier to work helping people. I’m planning to have my own NGO aimed to develop my community in specific life aspects starting with volunteering because in this way, they will learn about different types of social work and at the end of it, they will be able to create their own projects and programs. I am truly committed to creating more and better citizens, no matter what position I have in life.”

We look forward to seeing what Ariana accomplishes next!

Do you have your own story to share? Email us.


Checking in with CIEE Study Abroad Alum Chris Grava and his Nonprofit, Intsikelelo

You might remember the article we posted back in December 2014 about CIEE Study Abroad alum Chris Grava, whose semester in Cape Town, South Africa in 2012 led him to co-found a nonprofit, Intsikelelo, to help orphaned and vulnerable children in the country. As mentioned in our previous blog post, Intsikelelo was conceived when Chris’s brother, Nick Grava, visited Cape Town while Chris was studying abroad there. After seeing a struggling orphanage in the nearby township of Khayelitsha, Nick skipped his flight home to dedicate all his time and energy to working at the orphanage, where he served as Managing Director for two years and was given the name Intsikelelo, or “blessing” in Xhosa.

In 2013, a year after his study abroad experience, Chris returned to South Africa to assist the orphanage with his brother:

“We made a lot of progress, but the improvements at the Home were often overshadowed by the scale of the challenges facing these children and their communities, such as HIV, crime, and poverty. We came to realize that there were many local, community-driven efforts working to tackle these social issues, but they often struggled for the same reasons as the Home of Safety and would benefit from additional support. Meanwhile, we also found that many other families and communities back home in the U.S. and around the world wanted to help.”

This realization is what propelled the brothers to found Intsikelelo in 2013 – an organization whose mission is “to improve the lives of orphans and vulnerable children in South Africa by developing and supporting community-driven initiatives and connecting them to the world.”

When we last spoke with Chris, he and Nick were working on launching an after-school program, Siluncedo, with a local team in Khayelitsha. We’re happy to announce that Intsikelelo was able to help Siluncedo by providing the initial seed capital to launch their after-school program and by helping them establish connections to children’s homes and schools in the area. The program is unique in that it employs an all-local team of tutors from similar backgrounds to the children. These tutors serve as academic tutors, mentors, and role models, all while providing a wholesome approach to personal development for the children. In the future, Siluncedo hopes to grow its team and expand its program to more children’s homes.

The brotherly duo has also worked to support the Langbos Creche & Care Centre, a kindergarten and community center in the rural Eastern Cape of South Africa. Intsikelelo began working closely with the community this past year to assess needs and opportunities within the community, including many meetings and a census that collected data from every home in the community. Since then, Intsikelelo has launched a monthly grant that supports security and nutritious meals for the community center. Intsikelelo also distributed solar powered lights and phone charging stations to every home in the Langbos community, an informal settlement with no access to electricity.

Their newest project is to build a home for orphans and vulnerable children in Langbos. The project is sponsored by GoPro as part of the company’s new GoPro for a Cause platform. To date, they have raised $80,000 to construct and fund the home. The building includes a design that incorporates local culture and style, as well as sustainable design elements such as earthbag building and solar power.

Intsikelelo has also begun an academic sponsorship program, helping vulnerable youth enroll in high school and university, as well as apply for various grants and scholarships.

If you are interested in donating or learning more about Intsikelelo, please visit their website:

Thanks for checking in with us, Chris. We look forward to more updates from Intsikelelo!

Meet Ria Jagasia: Blog Contributor, Study Alum, and September's Alum of the Month

Our Alum of the Month for September is Ria Jagasia, who studied abroad with CIEE in Tokyo, Japan this past spring. Now in her junior year at Vanderbilt University, Ria studies human and organizational development with an international leadership and development track and an Asian studies double major. At Vanderbilt, Ria works with the International Student and Scholars Services office in a program called International Learning, Empowering, Advising, and Developing (iLEAD), where current students lead a group of eight new international students through orientation and their first semester on campus. iLEAD involves seminars on college-relevant topics such as mental health, safety, and academics in the U.S. classroom, as well as fun social events organized by mentors like Ria. Another activity that this Alum of the Month is involved in is the Diwali showcase, which celebrates the Hindu holiday on campus. Since she was little, Ria has learned a traditional Indian dance form called Kathak and gets to share her talents at the Diwali cultural performance, which has been on of her biggest highlights of life on campus.

Ria (middle) wearing a yukata with friends in Japan.

When we asked Ria why she decided to study abroad in Japan, she replied, "As an Asian studies major, I decided to study Japanese during my freshman year and loved the language and what we learned about Japanese culture. I have always loved traveling, especially in Asia, and the new experiences it brings, so I thought study abroad would be a perfect fit for me. I really hope I get to go back to Tokyo soon!"

While abroad, Ria blogged about her journey through a Wordpress site she created called Jochi Journeys. Blogging was a great way for Ria to reflect on her experience and share insights with prospective students who are considering study abroad in Japan. We're excited to have Ria join CIEE Alumni as a guest blogger and to learn more about life as a CIEE Study Abroad student in Tokyo, Japan. Be sure to visit the CIEE Alumni blog weekly and read her stories. Her first post is about Japanese food - something you won't want to miss!

To see more photos from Ria's study abroad semester, check out her Instagram account: @jochijourneys


Are you interested in guest blogging for the CIEE Alumni blog? Send us an email with information on when/where you went abroad with CIEE to get started. Alumni from any and all of CIEE's programs are welcome! 

CIEE Work & Travel USA Alum Finds Career Inspiration at Civic Leadership Summit

Salut! My name is Paul Runcan. I’m 23 years old and currently living in Timisoara, Romania – my home town. In 2015, I graduated from the West University of Timisoara with a degree in law, and now I’m following the courses of an awesome master’s program in public policy and advocacy. Since it’s the only one of its kind in Romania, I’ve been blessed with a unique opportunity of furthering my knowledge and honing my skills in both areas. However, even though I’ve always had an interest in politics and the development of my country and the world, it was only in 2014 that I was shown a path that could take me away from a lifetime of courtroom battles and into the world of politics. It was the year I decided to spend a summer abroad in the U.S. through the CIEE Work & Travel USA program, and I can honestly say that it was the best choice I could ever have made. A few of my colleagues had gone before and all the stories they came back with convinced me that it should definitely be on my to-do list while in school.

I flew to Chicago and made my way north through Michigan until I reached the beaches of Lake Huron. There, on Mackinac Island, I spent the summer working at Mission Point Resort and Mackinac Island Bike Shop. The island was beautiful, and summer was the best time to explore every corner of it. M-185, the only roadway in the US without cars, offers the best bike lane one could ever wish for and makes for a great ride around the island, with the crystal-clear blue lake on one side and the dark green forest on the other.

Paul runcan photo

Even though they had their ups and downs, like most jobs do, they taught me a lot of life lessons, which I’m sure everyone who has participated in such a program knows and values greatly. I learned patience and humility, and I learned to be proud and value my work, whatever it may be. It taught me how different people can be and it gave me a unique glimpse into the American way of life. That could’ve been it – a summer well spent abroad, a couple of lessons learned, lots of new places explored, and a happy Paul. However, CIEE decided to make it even better, so they offered me one more opportunity, which ended up turning a great summer into one of the best experiences I’ve had. I’m talking about the Civic Leadership Summit and the huge influence it has had on my life since then.

I think everyone has a calling, and I think CIEE has helped me to find mine.

Throughout four days of lectures and workshops, I was taught the importance of an active civil society in sustainable global development; I was taught to (even though it might sound like a cheesy cliché) be the change I want to see in the world. And, last but certainly not least, I’ve met some of the most dedicated people I could ever dream of knowing. I think we all left Washington, D.C. with renewed faith and inspiration, maybe even with a new sense of purpose. I know I did, and so far it’s served me well. It was shortly after I returned home in October that I decided that, 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 – much too long – and poorly crafted laws, corruption, and the general lack of faith that people had in ‘the system’ would delay any form of much needed change.

Now, two years later, my career is still in the making, but there’s progress. I’ve learned a lot more, I’ve met like-minded people, and slowly but surely we’re making our way into the world of politics, educating the local youth, and hoping to bring a much needed breath of fresh air to an antiqued system. Looking back now, I realize just how big an impact the Civic Leadership Summit had on my life and career choices. Through carefully thought-out lectures, challenges, and a great mindset, they showed us the possibility of a brighter future. I think everyone has a calling, and I think CIEE has helped me to find mine. Civil engagement in politics is the way for the future, and the future needs great leaders. Do your part for the future, become a leader.

To learn about this year's Civic Leadership Summit, visit the CIEE Work & Travel USA Facebook page.

CIEE's July Alum of the Month Pursues a Career in Foreign Policy


The Alum of the Month for July is Leyth Swidan. As a Jordanian-American, Leyth spent his childhood summers traveling between Philadelphia and Jordan, familiarizing himself with Arab culture and learning Arabic, which has contributed to his interest in global affairs and the Middle East. He is a recent graduate of Pomona College where he studied International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies. During his time at Pomona, Leyth studied abroad with CIEE twice; first in Amman, Jordan on the CIEE Diplomacy and Policy Studies program, and then at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London as a Gilman Scholar. This summer, he is interning in the Near Eastern Affairs bureau at the State Department before starting his Master of International Affairs program at Columbia University as a Pickering Fellow. Leyth tells us about his experiences studying abroad and his pursuit of a career in foreign policy:

“Ahlan wa sahlan! Jordan welcomes you.”

As a first-generation Jordanian-American, I spent my childhood summers traveling between the U.S. and Jordan, familiarizing myself with Arab culture and eating the national dish, mansaf. Coming from a Middle Eastern background has given me a global perspective, which has cultivated my understanding of the importance of increased dialogue and cultural awareness. I have always been caught between two different cultures as I have attempted to find the intersection between my identities as an Arab Muslim and LGBT American. While I have grown tremendously from traversing between these different cultures, it has not always been easy. Growing up in a post-9/11 America, experiencing Islamophobia, and witnessing U.S. media misrepresent reality in the Middle East has shown me the importance of countering bigoted narratives of Muslims and Arabs. As an Arab-American, I believed I was able to dispel these misconceptions, both as a student studying abroad and as a future U.S. diplomat.

As an international relations major, I hoped to gain insight into the regional politics of the Middle East from different cultural perspectives by studying abroad. I wanted to understand the local context of the Middle East issues to build off the knowledge I gained in classes at Pomona College. Being abroad, especially in Jordan, allowed me to interact with locals and learn about their attitudes and opinions on hot-topic issues, which is another perspective that I would not have gained in Claremont, a small suburban town in southern California.

I somehow avoided culture shock during my time in Jordan. As a Jordanian-American, studying in Amman was a breeze for me in terms of immersing myself and assimilating. I have family in Jordan that I was able to visit on weekends while still making friends with people on my study abroad program and experiencing the unending hospitality of my parents’ homeland. In fact, I even took two of my CIEE friends to my cousins’ weddings on separate occasions. I would often take the bus to Zarqa, a city 30 minutes north of Amman where most of my extended family lives. Not only did studying in a familiar country provide me with a sense of comfort, especially with family being only a taxi or bus ride away, but it also gave me an excuse not to cook in my apartment since I would often be invited to lunches and dinners with relatives! Yet, it was my first time being almost completely alone in a foreign country in the sense that I was not living with my parents, which afforded me some sense of freedom. I found time to explore sites in Amman that I had never been to before, like the Roman Amphitheatre and Rainbow Street, and revisit other parts of Jordan that I had seen before with friends, including the Dead Sea and Aqaba. While this gave me a chance to brag about how much of a local I was, I felt the complete opposite at times, especially when chatting with taxi drivers. I did not even have to say one word for locals to recognize that I was Arab, despite being with non-Arabs and speaking English. I often felt the need to explain that I was “a real Jordanian”, that I knew the country, culture, and people, understood how bad traffic was, and that I was not one of those people who just forgot about their cultural roots. I would get asked if I liked the U.S. or Jordan more and, more often than not, if I could help them get a visa to the U.S. “Enta wa hazak,” I would respond. “Try your luck.” But as soon as I began haggling taxi drivers in Arabic to use their meters instead of overcharging me, I felt more like a local than ever.

At the Jordan Institute of Diplomacy, I learned a lot about the regional dynamics of the Middle East and about Jordan's role as one of the few stable countries in the region. My favorite class was titled “Arab Diplomacy,” which focused on the politics, history, and diplomacy of the Middle East from the Great Arab Revolt of the early 20th century to the Arab Spring in the 21st century. Perhaps one of the reasons why I found it interesting was because my professor was the former Jordanian ambassador to Israel and was able to speak candidly about the Jordan-Israel peace talks.

In Jordan, one of the most eye-opening experiences for me was meeting with and talking to Syrian refugees in northern Jordan about the challenges they faced when crossing into Jordan and not having the money needed to buy the medicine necessary for a life-threatening condition. It was also eye-opening to see innocent children run around the house, unaware of the situation their parents were in during that time as the victims of a political conflict. I was there experiencing firsthand the consequences of the Syrian conflict that I had read about endlessly for at least two years, and I felt useless. I was there but couldn’t offer them anything. I couldn’t help them in any way. It was such a humbling experience to be able to match faces with words that I have read in articles. That visit to northern Jordan allowed me to learn more about the ongoing conflict and its impact on the lives of millions of Syrians more than any article could have. That experience abroad, along with the interpersonal diplomacy I practiced while living in Jordan, reinforced my desire to contribute to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East as a diplomat in the United States Foreign Service.

London (1)

London was completely different from Amman weather-wise, food-wise, and money-wise. When people ask me about my experience in London, I always respond with “cold and expensive.” As a Gilman Scholar, my budget was not completely limited during my time there, which allowed me to take advantage of being in Europe and not eat frozen meals for dinner every night. But beyond that, London was very much a vibrant, cosmopolitan city that Amman cannot be compared to. Of course, one wouldn’t want to miss out on the many tourist sites throughout the city – watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, looking at contemporary art at the Tate Modern Museum, laughing at the Merchant of Venice performance in Shakespeare’s Globe, and of course, posing for pictures with Big Ben. There was always something to do whether alone or with friends. I also enjoyed my time on campus, particularly the student-organized events that took place at SOAS’ student union, like international music bands, guest speakers, and poetry readings.

Academically speaking, I could not have chosen a better institution to study at than SOAS. There, I had the opportunity to study issues that I care about, like global migration and international conflict and development in small, in-depth tutorials, and was overwhelmed with the options of classes available. Being at a university instead of an institute like in Amman offered me access to books from SOAS’ library, one of the world's most important academic libraries for the study of the Middle East, diverse student clubs, and greater interactions with non-American students who were also at SOAS. By designing an academic curriculum that fit my intellectual interests, I was able to develop an understanding of global issues in relation to the Middle East through specialized course offerings and regional focus. The discussions, conversations, and debates I had with professors and fellow students in my classes throughout the semester ultimately furthered my interest in democratic governance of states while allowing me to gain insight into Middle Eastern politics from a range of diverse perspectives, given the large number of international students at SOAS.

My time abroad in both Amman and London was wonderful. I was challenged academically at school and personally as I stepped outside of my comfort zone to make new friends at SOAS. I learned how to be comfortable exploring new places without the company of others, and I took full advantage of everything both cities had to offer, including the free coffee at Waitrose in London! The interpersonal diplomacy I practiced while studying abroad reinforced my desire to contribute to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Presenting American values abroad in Jordan and Britain allowed me to not only connect with others through cultural values, but also through shared narratives and experiences. I was fortunate enough to be awarded the Pickering Fellowship during my semester at SOAS, which will allow me to turn this passion into action, continue strengthening democratic governance with the U.S. Department of State, and represent a diverse America abroad as a future Foreign Service Officer.

I am currently interning in the Office of Levant Affairs in the Near Eastern Affairs bureau at the State Department. While my internship, study abroad experiences, and academic background at Pomona College have prepared me for a long-term career in the Foreign Service, I will pursue a Master of International Affairs degree at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University this fall to gain the skills needed to formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy and to strengthen mutual understanding between the U.S. and the Arab world.


CIEE Work & Travel USA Alum Builds Successful Career in Art and English Language Teaching

Our June Alum of the Month, Alisa Mustafina, is from Prokopyevsk, Russia. She participated in CIEE’s Work & Travel USA program three times—first in 2010 at the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Portland, Maine, then twice working in Customer Service at CIEE’s headquarters, which is also located in Portland, Maine. In 2013, Alisa returned to CIEE for a yearlong internship in Participant Services through CIEE’s Internship USA program. She is an accomplished artist with a talent for painting landscapes and a love for travel. We interviewed Alisa to learn more about her experience with CIEE and her career in the arts:

You participated in Work & Travel USA three times – what impact did this have on your life?
Participating in these programs helped me to follow my dreams. A lot of my dreams came true while I was in the U.S. When one of my dreams was coming true, a new dream was appearing and I just wanted to come back and let it come into reality! When this happens, it brings happy emotions, incredible feelings, and lifetime memories.

I learned a lot of things during my programs. I think what is really important to me is what I learned about myself. I just got into the atmosphere where I discovered new sides of my personality. That was really interesting and surprising. Being far away from home and family, being in a foreign country where everything is unusual, and living with people of absolutely different cultures – all of these just make you grow up and mature. That was a priceless life experience.

Another invaluable side of the exchange programs is an opportunity to travel. Participation in CIEE programs opened a new world for exploration in travels. I had a dream of visiting lots of places in the U.S. since I was a child, so I finally had the chance to follow my dreams. The more I traveled, the more places I wanted to see. I traveled across the U.S. visiting 23 states during my programs. I’ve been to many big cities like Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and many others. I’ve seen the cherry blossoms in D.C., Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, orca whales in the wild, Maine shores, and many other breathtakingly beautiful places.

I also took advantage of a unique opportunity to get acquainted with the masterpieces of world art by visiting several famous art museums, such as the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, MA), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City), the Museum of Modern Art (New York City), the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.), the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art (Sarasota, Florida), as well as many others. I am endlessly thankful for all these opportunities I got because of these exchange programs!

What did you learn while working at CIEE’s Portland, Maine office?
One of the most important things about the programs is that they helped me to improve my English. My work experience in Customer Support at CIEE also helped me learn how to work in a team and how to be a part of a team. I learned how to ‘hear’ people and how to find a way to help and support them. I was trained to work with various computer systems and taught how to maintain lots of information at the same time. I also learned to work with people of different cultures and ages. Such experience is useful for any profession. My experience at CIEE helped me to become more confident in myself.

CSC team, 2013

How did exchange in the U.S. help you in your career, especially as an artist?
I currently teach English to children at school and privately. I also work with adults who would like to learn colloquial English. My English skills, which I gained during my exchange programs in the U.S., help me in this career significantly.

Another career that I’m developing and is very important to me is a career in art. My exchange in the U.S. played a big role in that also. I started taking classes at the Art Studio (Russia) when I was four and continued attending them until I graduated from high school. However, I decided that I didn’t want to be a professional artist and entered the university to study world economy.

Since my first visit to the U.S., my point of view about art started changing. Living in Maine inspired me to return to painting. I’m a big lover and admirer of nature, especially of the ocean and lighthouses. They always beckoned me. I collected images with ocean views and lighthouses even before I learned about the Work & Travel USA program – before I learned about Maine and Portland. And it just so happened that life brought me to the place where the ocean and lighthouses are main attractions. This occasion became a source of inspiration for a new creative phase. Personal acquaintance with the ocean and lighthouses has left and indelible mark on the soul and on the canvas.

While I was studying, I didn’t have enough time to paint. However, when I returned to the U.S. for an internship with CIEE, I was able to dedicate more time to art. I started with very simple art, using simple paint and paper, then moved to more complicated subjects. I didn’t take any classes while in Portland; I just enjoyed painting whatever I wanted and then shared it with others. I painted several views of lighthouses and oceans based on my memories and imagination. Several compositions were painted right away after my trips to some places, like Peaks Island and Boston.

Visiting Head Light

Tell us more about your artistic journey and process.
To make my painting process even more enjoyable and emotional, I usually listen to classical music. My musical inspiration is Jackie Evancho, who I discovered thanks to the exchange program way back in 2011. The incredibly beautiful voice of this young classical crossover singer just couldn’t leave me unmoved. Again, thanks to the exchange programs in the U.S., I was able to attend seven of Jackie Evancho’s concerts and enjoy her voice live. These events are among the most incredible highlights of my programs. Therefore, my artwork is imbued with the scents of the Atlantic Ocean and the music of Jackie Evancho!

When I returned to Russia in the fall of 2014, I showed my paintings to my art teacher. She appreciated my artwork and asked if I wanted to exhibit it. I definitely agreed. So, in March of 2015, I had a solo exhibition of my paintings in a local Palace of Culture in my hometown. By that time, I learned to paint with oils and acrylics, which improved my artwork. Also, just a few days before this exhibition was opened, I became a winner in the international Internet project, “Seasons,” which involved artists from 14 countries. My landscape was considered the best in the category of “Winter.”

Based on results of my solo exhibition, I was invited to exhibit my artwork at the main Cultural Exhibition Center in my home city, Prokopyevsk. The exhibition at this center opened on March 11, 2016 and will be running until May 1. I don’t know if this exhibition would have happened if I didn’t participate in exchange programs and if I didn’t come to Maine, but I definitely know that my participation in these programs played a signification role in my art career. For that, I’m endlessly grateful to CIEE.

Paintings by Alisa Mustafina 2

Words of Wisdom from Alisa:
Another important thing that I learned from participating in exchange programs is that we shouldn’t be afraid of dreaming impossible dreams. Just dream big and then follow your dreams! We just never know where they can bring us to.

The big dream I dream now is to come back to Portland with my art exhibition and to bring joy to CIEE through my artwork as a gratitude for the priceless joy CIEE helped me get while I was in the U.S. And to make my dream even more impossible, I dream to have Jackie Evancho sing at the opening ceremony of this exhibition! Dream BIG!

Alisa also shared with us a video about her exploration of painting and art:

Thinking about having an American adventure of your own? Visit the Work & Travel USA website to learn more!
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May Alum of the Month: Maxim Strelnikov

From Study Abroad to the Peace Corps: One Alum’s Story

Meet our April Alum of the Month, Julia Shafer. Julia is a CIEE Seville LA alum who is currently in her second year of service with the Peace Corps. We asked Julia to tell us more about her transition from study abroad to living and working abroad through the Peace Corps. Here is her story:

Salama! My name is Julia Shafer. I graduated from the University of Virginia in 2012 with a degree in foreign affairs. While I loved studying in Charlottesville, one of my favorite semesters in college was when I studied abroad with CIEE in the liberal arts program in Seville, Spain. I studied abroad to emerge myself in a different culture and improve my Spanish. My time spent studying abroad really prepared me to join the Peace Corps. I learned how to adapt to a new language and culture through living with a host family and taking all of my classes in Spanish. I also learned how to live outside of my comfort zone away from family and friends. The skills I gained from studying abroad have really come in handy during my Peace Corps service.

I am currently a second year Education Volunteer in Madagascar with the Peace Corps. I live in a town about 60 miles south of the capital, Antananarivo, in the chilly highlands. I teach English to kids of all ages, from tiny primary school kids up through adults, at a private school and at the local English center. Outside of teaching English, I have been working on organizing a GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) camp to help empower young girls in my community to become leaders. The camp will be for one week in April in the capital. Some of the girls that will be attending the camp have never left our small town before so it is going to be an exciting week. Outside of teaching and the GLOW camp, life is very laid back in my town. I spend a lot of time talking with people at the market, helping my friend at her soup shop, and exploring the big red island. If you ever get a chance, put Madagascar on your must-visit list. Yes, there are plenty of lemurs, but there is also so much more to see.

My two years of service with the Peace Corps is quickly coming to an end (hard to believe). I will be leaving Madagascar in August of this year. While I am unsure what my immediate future holds when I return to the United States, I eventually would like to get a masters in school counseling to continue working with kids and help them better navigate their future. Then eventually I might work abroad again in an international school as a counselor.”

If you have questions about studying in Seville or joining the Peace Corps, feel free to connect with Julia on Facebook or Instagram @juleshafer.



Alum of the Month: Stephanie Fodor

Meet March’s Alum of the Month, Stephanie Fodor. Stephanie participated in CIEE’s Tokyo, Japan study abroad program in her junior year of college. She is an accomplished actress and entrepreneur that has recently appeared on the hit NBC television show, “Grimm.”

Why did you decide to study abroad in Tokyo with CIEE?
I was born and raised in Kailua, O’ahu, Hawaii, and grew up surrounded by a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. I was always fascinated by Japan and I loved the food—my friends would come to school with homemade bentos or sushi boxes! I began studying Japanese in seventh grade, fell in love with the language, and decided that I would visit Japan one day. It took me until my junior year of college to get there, but I did it!

When it came time to choose a city, Tokyo seemed like the perfect combination of it all—full of history and important cultural sites, urban energy, many dining and entertainment options, and accessibility to smaller cities for day trips. I chose CIEE over other programs because we’d get to do a homestay and take classes with local students at Sophia University. I was so excited to stay with a Japanese family and be among Japanese classmates. It made my experience so much richer and authentic, and helped me immensely with my language skills.

IMG_0454What skills did you learn through study abroad that you utilize today?
My study abroad experience was truly one of the very best decisions of my life. I remember being nervous and scared when I left Hawaii and travelled alone internationally for the first time. I was excited, but I also didn’t know what I was in for! Studying abroad taught me to be independent, get out of my comfort zone, take risks, and welcome the unknown. Not only did my language skills improve, but my awareness of the world around me expanded and I developed a more mature outlook on life. Studying abroad boosted my confidence in so many ways and made me realize that I could do anything I set my mind to!

Did your study abroad experience change your life in any way? Stephanie2
Yes, it literally changed my life. I met Jimmy the first day of my Tokyo program. He was already there doing the one year program when I arrived for the spring semester. As it turned out, we began dating during that time. Fast-forward several years later and we ended up getting married! I also made some lifelong friends from my CIEE program; a group of us regularly stay in touch, and we’ve been to each other’s weddings and do group trips when we can. Also, I had such a kind, wonderful host family. It’s been many years since my program but we keep in touch on Facebook!

What type of acting/performances have you appeared in over the years?
I’ve been acting professionally since I was eight years old. I’ve had the great opportunity to act and perform in a wide variety of projects such as commercials, plays and musicals, film, television, voice-over, and even video game motion capture! It’s always been a big part of my life, but I also believed in being a well-rounded person with a variety of interests. To that end, I decided against going to London to study drama and instead went to Tokyo to study international relations.

Describe some of your entrepreneurial pursuits.
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, even when I was young, and I’ve loved being my own boss. In Japan, I taught English privately on a weekly basis to a few regular students. It was a great situation, as it allowed me to interact with Japanese locals and have my own little tutoring business! Being an actor requires you to be an entrepreneur, as you are your product—you need to market and sell yourself to industry buyers who will hire you! Jimmy and I also recently launched our own e-commerce business,, where we sell luxe bedding, bed sheets, and home goods that are 100% Made in USA.

What was it like to be on Grimm?
Doing Grimm was a dream come true. It was very exciting to book this role because the character goes through so many emotions in a short amount of time. I was on location in Portland for several days and had the best time working with the cast and crew. Everyone was kind, friendly, and a true pro at their job. I had the best time working on this show. The best part is that family and friends all over the world got to watch the episode. It’s fun that I was able to entertain them on the telly.


What do you have planned for the future?
Acting opportunities and Authenticity 50 are keeping me very busy! We hope to expand A50 into a popular Made in America brand, and I hope to be on your TV screens more as well! I guess I should say, ‘stay tuned’?

Any advice for prospective study abroad students?
DO IT! It changed my life. Literally. I met my husband through studying abroad! I’m not saying you’ll find your spouse through this but you will learn, grow, and mature in so many ways. I encourage everyone to study in another country—get out of your comfort zone, meet new people, learn a new language, and immerse yourself in a new culture. I promise it will change you in so many positive and amazing ways.