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53 posts categorized "Alumni Voices"

Coming Home: The Journey Begins

"Through my semester in Ghana I found my life’s work at home."

By Erin Ruff (CIEE Study Abroad, Legon, Ghana, 2009)
*This essay was a winner in CIEE's 70th Anniversary Alumni Storytelling Contest.

Just after daybreak in early August I stood in Heathrow’s Terminal Three and stared into the crowd of travelers ready to board the flight to Accra. Bored with the monotony of college life, and a few credits short of a degree in art, I headed across the Atlantic. My intentions were self-serving: to explore, experience, and enjoy another part of the world.

Though only in Ghana for five months, I intended to see every nook and cranny the country had to offer. I did a pretty good job of it. I visited all ten regions in Ghana as well as the neighboring countries of Côte d'Ivoire, Togo, and Benin.

The first month of my stay had come to a close when my study abroad group was called together for a program. I had little patience for these gatherings.  However, this time things were different.

It was at this program that I met Beatrice, a master weaver from the nearby village of Kisseman. Beatrice was a timid lady. She stood before our group and, in her broken English, invited us to her village for weaving lessons. In exchange for weaving lessons she asked if students would help the children in her village with their schoolwork. I was instantly drawn to her. Though she was there to recruit students for a weaving lesson, it was clear where her heart lie. The true purpose of her presence was to solicit help for the children she spoke of. I decided to give it a shot.

Sitting in Beatrice’s compound, I felt little pairs of eyes peering around the corners, curious as to why there was a strange woman at their “Mama Teni’s” house. Children staggered in asking for pieces of torn books to read or pages to scribble pretend school work on. They picked up scraps of elephant grass and mimicked Beatrice’s quick weaving hand to keep themselves busy while they waited for a taste of the meal she prepared each night.

I had never seen anything like it. She was the village mother, accepting anyone that came her way. Some were regulars, others came and went as they were called home to their work.

I began to spend all of my free time in Kisseman. I put the weaving aside and began to teach. Soon, my daily routine consisted of unloading boxes of donated school supplies and preparing our makeshift classroom. The cement flooring became our chairs and desks, the compound tree our roof. The scorching sun served as our clock, letting us know when lessons began and when it was time to go home. Armed with a pencil and paper, the children had their first real classroom experience.

After the first day of lessons, a few children walked me to the local tro-tro (mini-bus) stop. Jennifer, a lively six-year-old, took off running towards a man coming down the hill. Full of excitement she pronounced, “Father, today I have learned!” In that moment, I realized that the work I was doing would carry on far beyond my stay in Ghana. The pride in Jennifer’s voice that day fueled my passion for teaching the kids of Kisseman.

That semester the children wrote their first letter, read their first sentence, and began to shape their lives through education. As word spread throughout the village, the compound filled day after day with more and more children eager to learn. What began with five children turned into lessons for more than 50 students.

Everything I had sought to discover was right there, in the little village of Kisseman, and in the hearts of kids I met. Through my travels in Ghana I found myself. In those five months, I discovered my passion and untapped my potential. But my biggest journey began when I returned home.

December 2009, I arrived back to the United States in a fury, desperate to find a way to hold onto my time in Ghana. I wanted to continue to help ensure the children of Kisseman received the education needed to lead them to a brighter future.

Within a year of my return, Beatrice and I launched Baskets for Education. It began with Beatrice sending small shipments of her handmade Bolga baskets to me to sell. The money raised was used to pay for children’s school fees. The first child on a full scholarship was Sammy, in 2010.

Today, Baskets For Education buys baskets directly from our partner cooperative who pays the highest wages in Bolga. The proceeds from the basket sales support our non-profit organization. The Kisseman Children’s Foundation, established in 2012, provides scholarships for students to attend local schools, as well supplies and daily lessons. To date, the organization has provided 22 students with full scholarships.

It was that program, which I so unwillingly attended, that took me on the adventure of a lifetime. Through my semester in Ghana I found my life’s work at home.

Lessons continue to take place in Kisseman. CIEE Legon provides volunteers each semester through our partnership. The volunteers come from colleges across the U.S. and teach the lessons I once led, this time in our rented classrooms under the guidance of our Program Director, Beatrice’s son Dominic.

Back home in small town America, Ghana has become a familiar name to many in Hagerstown. Local schools aid in filling our cargo shipments with donated supplies, as school children write letters to their friends in Ghana. A mother who attended our recent Egg Hunt fundraising event stated that her six-year-old has a newfound interest in Ghana. The place that I had never heard of before my trip abroad has become a landmark for those around me.

Embracing our roots in Bolga basket weaving, and our heart in education, our journey carries on at The Kisseman Children’s Foundation where I continue to impact children through a means they may have never thought possible: education.

Learn more about Baskets for Education and the Kisseman Children's Foundation.

Winning Photo Entry from CIEE's 70th Anniversary Alumni Storytelling Contest

By Francesca Perticarini (CIEE High School Exchange USA, 2014-2015)
*This photo entry was a winner in CIEE's 70th Anniversary Alumni Storytelling Contest.


1. I'm Ghana

It’s not a quick picture you get of someone when you visit a tourist attraction. “I’m Ghana” is the name of the short film I shot at the top of the Hancock Tower with my host sister, Fatahiya (in the picture), from Ghana. She is one of the best people I’ve met in my life, and thanks to the CIEE program I had the opportunity to listen to her story and learn something from it. The short film had a huge success (it was also shared by, and even now, it still inspires thousands of people from all over the world.


2. Pacific Ocean

My “American grandparents” took this picture of me when I first saw the Pacific Ocean. Touching all of the oceans in the world is on my bucket list, and I was finally able to check off “Pacific Ocean” from the list. For the first time I was able to be so close to the ocean. I live right in front of the sea back in Italy, and I’m not used to seeing something so immense and blue.


3. Reflections

This is probably my favorite picture of all time. My coordinator from CIEE, who quickly became my host mom and my dearest friend, took this picture. She and I got along pretty well and we shared some of our favorite things: waking up early before the sun rises, having espresso in the morning and seeing beauty in nature. We left the house pretty early because everything was covered in fog. We both love nature so we drove around the area and took some pictures. Out of all the pictures we took, this one is the one that I cherish the most because it reminds me of how lucky I was to have her as my mentor.



4 & 5. Old Wild West

These pictures are from the camping trip my host family organized. We spent 10 days camping in the middle of nature and for the first time, I set foot in Wyoming and North Dakota.


6. Leaving Home to Go Back Home

I took a picture of a plane that was flying above my head as a reminder of all the planes I took during my exchange year. Traveling has been my favorite hobby now, and I keep taking planes to visit new places because of the amazing experience I had with CIEE. I will never stop traveling because it would mean to me that I don’t want to learn anymore. The concept of home changes when you are an exchange student. The United States has become my home, although I know I was used to associating the word “home” with my country.


7. Cold Chicago

Chicago has been my very first American home. For the first time, I had the “honor” to live in freezing temperatures and experiencing what it means to live in the snow. I love the skyline and I love it even more when it’s covered in white.


By Safia Dworjack, CIEE Intern

*This post originally appeared on the CIEE Exchange Programs blog

When I learned that I had landed the position to work on an environmental program for the City of San José in California, it was a dream come true.

California is a very appealing state with its beaches and its year-round sunshine. It is also, for an environmentalist like me, the state where innovation and challenges make your everyday job exciting. In the heart of the Silicon Valley, I had the opportunity to attend many conferences and workshops to build my skills and knowledge in the environmental field. I took the opportunity to speak to a conference, This Way to Sustainability, at Chico State University, to present the program I was working on.

Safia 1

With the cohort of young American graduate students in Sustainability

For my job, I engaged local businesses in an energy efficiency program, Step Up and Power Down, to help them reduce their energy consumption. Being so close to the local community and building trust relationships in a culture and a language which were not mine was very rewarding.

I had the chance to work with an awesome young woman 8 hours a day who gave me a deep dive in the American and Vietnamese culture. Thirty percent of the population in San José in Vietnamese, the biggest in the US!

Safia 3

Ready to go out into the field and engage businesses with my colleagues

I was also able to take part in a graduate program in sustainability. There, I was able to meet 30 American students who shared my passion, and also allowed me to discover the challenges and hopes of my generation in this leading country of the United States.

Safia 2
With the Energy Champions for the behavior change campaign I led at City Hall

Finally, I had the honor to be selected for the CIEE I-LEAD program in DC, a 6-day workshop with 58 other J-1 interns from 30 different countries. Through workshops and activities, I was pleased to discover many kind-hearted young people which galvanized me in continuing my work to make a difference in my country.

Back in France, I am proud I did that experience as it made me grow as a person, and gave me professional experience that I already see is making a difference on the job market. If you have any hesitations or legitimate fears to live this experience, I would say go for it as it will be an amazing experience that will make you stronger on so many levels!

Studying Abroad in Tokyo: Moving Forward

This article is part of a series by blog contributor Ria Jagasia, who studied abroad with CIEE in Tokyo, Japan in 2016.

My Facebook memories have let several cringe-worthy posts of mine resurface, but on December 9 this year I saw a very special post that has been my favorite memory thus far – the day I got my official acceptance to the CIEE Study Abroad program in Tokyo. Seeing that it had already been a year made me realize how much has changed since then, especially my language abilities.

Of course, being in Japan means that I had the opportunity to improve my language skills, and I did just that. Before going abroad, I had around a year and a half of Japanese classes, but I felt nervous going to Tokyo without the confidence I needed in my language ability. Living in a homestay was the perfect option for me, since it was a chance to speak in Japanese to native speakers. Even when I wasn’t speaking, I was listening. My listening comprehension, arguably more than my speaking, improved tenfold just because I was surrounded by people who only spoke that language. Coming back to my campus in the U.S., I definitely saw an improvement in my ability to read, write, and speak even in the more advanced material we covered. In addition to improving in those areas, I genuinely began to enjoy using and hearing the language. When I first started taking classes, I wasn’t sure if Japanese was right for me and really only continued it for the sake of my Asian studies major. It was definitely a challenge to pick up a completely new way of writing and speaking, and I wondered if it was really worth the effort. Being in Japan, speaking the language, and experiencing it in the context of daily life in Japan made me realize what a beautiful language it is and how lucky I was to be able to learn it.

Now that I am very far from Japan and in a community where Japanese culture isn’t as prevalent, it is hard to create and share my experiences. I think this has made me less inclined to constantly talk about where I went or what I saw during my time abroad, since it would be hard for people to relate to and, honestly, not everyone wants to hear about it. This is where friends come in – those that went with you, saw the same things as you, and lived the same life as you. I couldn’t have asked for better friends than the ones I made during the program and they have definitely been a part of my moving forward. Being able to relate not only in our common interest in Japan, but in the experiences we had there, makes me grateful that I can still keep in touch with them.

Additionally, cooking has always been a passion of mine and it was wonderful to be able to make some dishes from my Japanese homestay back in my own home. I was able to find ingredients in my local international market and enjoy the familiar tastes again. Sharing the food with my family was also a great way to have them experience my life in Japan. Initially it was hard to talk about my experiences with my family since they were not there with me and couldn’t truly understand. The Japanese food I made became a bridge of sorts as it allowed me to bring up some of the memories I have of eating those foods in Tokyo.

Being in Japan allowed me to explore an entirely new way of living and speaking that I would have never experienced otherwise. For those who are thinking of studying abroad, I would encourage you to take the leap – you will most definitely reap the rewards!

Alumni Voices: Amy Sininger

Video interview with Amy Sininger, CIEE Teach Abroad and CIEE TEFL alumna.

CIEE Alumni Interview: Amy Sininger

My Two Favorite Places to Visit in Tokyo

Even though I spent four months abroad, I wasn’t able to visit every part of Tokyo - let alone many places outside of it. However, I was able to make great memories in the places I did. Here are my two favorite places in Tokyo that anyone travelling to this city should visit:

1) Shibuya


Those who know even a little bit about Tokyo definitely know about Shibuya, one of 23 city wards of Tokyo, and the famous crossing there. Shibuya has a multitude of shopping malls, restaurants, and all things in between. Shibuya station is by far one of the craziest stations in all of Tokyo because of the many lines that run through it given its central location. The crossing itself, which actually isn’t as big as I had imagined it to be, is busy any time of day with people flooding back and forth. Once you exit the station and zig around the mass of people to get to the crossing, the flashing ads will probably catch your attention - that is, if you are looking up. Shibuya has several large screens by the crossing advertising the newest brands or promoting new TV shows or music releases, all accompanied with blasting music. It is hard to escape the pure chaos of this part of town, but there is something not so crazy about it as well. For me, being in similarly crowded areas in the U.S., namely New York City, has always followed with headaches and a wanting to leave. I never felt that way about Shibuya. Maybe because it was so novel to me or that everyone minds their own business to the point where it doesn’t feel as crowded. There is something about the energy that is so exciting, especially at night, where you really feel what the energy in Tokyo is like. I loved to go to Shibuya and try to grab a spot at the Starbucks overlooking the crossing (which is rarely a success) or head out at night to wander around with friends. Shibuya has always been a special place to me, so much so that I have a postcard of it right above my bed. Every time I look at it, I remember all the fond memories I made by myself and with friends. With the Olympics coming up in 2020, the station is undergoing major construction and I can’t imagine more people being there than there already is! Nevertheless, Shibuya is most definitely an icon of Tokyo and its fantastic energy.


2) Harajuku

Tokyo’s colorful and fashionable youth thrive in Harajuku, my second favorite spot in the city. Harajuku is known for the super kawaii (“cute” in Japanese) and super trendy shops that line Takeshita Street, the main attraction in this part of town. My first time here, I was amazed by the crowds that packed Takeshita Street and surprised by some of the costumed people that made their presence very clear out in front of the crowds. You cannot go to Harajuku without noticing the crazy number of crepe stands that always have people waiting to grab a snack. You might think that crepes are quite an odd Japanese dessert, but Harajuku’s sellers have found ways to add a unique spin and make it their own. Crepes in Japan are packed full of ice cream, brownies, and other sweet things that make them very unique.


One of my favorite spots in Harajuku was actually slightly away from the chaos of the stores – the Meiji Jingu (Shrine). Meiji Jingu dates back to the era of Emperor Meiji and was established in 1920 to commemorate his death. The shrine itself is a large area surrounded by traditional Japanese shrine buildings. My favorite part is the walk to the shrine, passing the large Torii gate that symbolizes the entrance of the shrine. The walk to the shrine is a wide road covered by the overarching trees – an image straight out of an old Japanese folktale. Only in Japan would you find such an amazing shrine right next to the bustling shopping crowds in Harajuku.


My ultimate spot in Harajuku, and definitely in my top places that I would like to go back to, is the Nescafé Café. Nescafé, known of course for their coffee and coffee machines, has their own physical café in Harajuku. Inside is a modern environment with calm music, large windows, and a beautifully designed interior. Not to mention, the coffee and food are amazing! The café is also a technological experience – ordering happens on an iPad and the very kind servers bring your food out to you. The big chairs and sofas make it a great study place – my friends and I took advantage of this on several weekends! The best part is the central area which has a selection of Nescafé coffees and coffee machines where you can make yourself a cup. I had never been in a café like this and really miss studying and chatting with my friends there. I really hope I get a chance to open a café inspired by this spot someday!


By: Ria Jagasia (CIEE Study Abroad, Tokyo, Japan, 2016)

Alumni Voices: the 2016 IIE Summit on Generation Study Abroad

Meeting the Host Family

While applying for the program, I had my doubts about living with a host family, as I had never had any experience like it. What if I didn’t get along with them? What would happen if I couldn’t speak with them because of the language barrier? So many of these thoughts were running through my head and I considered staying in the dorm, but then I had a realization. I wasn’t moving halfway across the world to be in a familiar environment, I was going to put myself out there and try something new. Living with a host family was the answer.

All the students in my program gathered in a room, separated only by a wall from the room full of host parents. I could feel the anticipation, nervousness, and excitement buzzing through both rooms as we were called out, one by one, to meet our new parents. I met the other student who was going to be living with me and we both went to see our host mom who had come to pick us up. I remember seeing her for the first time and already having a good feeling. I introduced myself with what I had rehearsed multiple times and then we headed out to take our family picture and go to the train station. The first moments were only what could be described as an awkward happiness of sorts. There wasn’t much talking as we made our way through the hustle and bustle of all the new families to take the Chuo line (one of the most central train lines in the city) towards Yokohama, the city that I would grow deeply fond of. We hopped on the next line to go all the way to my home station and made the short walking trip to the house itself. The house was deceptively small but had so many rooms, leaving my new host sister and me with a floor to ourselves. The first dinner late that night was admittedly rough as I wanted to say so much, but could only manage a “arigato gozaimasu” (“thank you”). We had delicious homemade tempura, (an assortment of panko-coated, fried vegetables), and then got a house tour to show us where everything was before retiring to bed. I remember feeling so at home that night and excited to see what the future days would bring.

The first nights at dinner were filled with delicious food and fun conversations over geography books that my host dad had collected over the years. I got to show them where my hometown of Nashville was and explain to them, as best as I could, what it was famous for – namely country music. I also showed them where in India my family was from and was surprised to learn from my host dad that Mumbai, where my parents grew up, was sister cities with Yokohama! That connection remains with me today and I still think it was fate that mine and my host family’s paths intertwined. Over the course of my stay there, I saw my language skills improve tremendously and I began to enjoy my life in Japan so much more. Whether it be walking to and from my home station, dinner with my host mom while watching the most hilarious Japanese television programs, or wandering around Yokohama, I realized that leaving would be so much harder than I had expected.

I learned so much from my time in Yokohama with my family, not only through improving my language skills, but through learning how to appreciate people from other cultures, especially those that are willing to learn about yours. My host family had so many students pass through their house over the years but they were still so curious to learn about my hometown and the culture I grew up in. I received a much greater sense of appreciation for Japanese culture and Japanese people by living with a host family; my experience in Tokyo would not have been as fulfilling without the homestay experience. When other students in my program would go back to the dorm, I got to go back to a family and continue to learn about Japanese culture, exploring why it meant so much to me. I wish there were more kind and generous people like them and I wish, more than anything, that I could go back ‘home’ to Japan.

Yokohama tower view
Tower view of Yokohama.

by Ria Jagasia (CIEE Study Abroad, Tokyo, Japan, 2016)

Top 3 Foods for a Summer in Tokyo

Tokyo is a wonderful city for a foodie, and even more so during the summer when the best way to escape the heat is through food. There are a multitude of foods that I enjoyed during my stay, but my top three during the summer were cold soba, kakigori, and ume juice.

1. Soba


While ramen tends to come to people’s minds first when thinking of Japanese cuisine, soba is equally as popular. Soba, or buckwheat noodles, can be served cold or hot, cold being preferred in the summer. My favorite soba experience was in Ginza, the high-end shopping district in Tokyo. Since my friend from out-of-town was visiting, I wanted to take her for a traditional Japanese meal and found a restaurant in the Edo-Tokyo museum that we were exploring. I ordered zaru soba which came in a platter with a mentsuyu (dipping sauce) and some sliced green onions. Atop the zaru soba is some shredded nori, which is a popular seaweed. The combination of the crispy nori, smooth noodles dipped in mentsuyu, and the crunch of the green onions makes for an amazing lunch. While food in Ginza tends to be priced higher, there are many noodle shops around Tokyo that provide a filling meal for a couple of dollars.

2. Kakigori


Kakigori is another popular summer go-to. While the Japanese name may seem unfamiliar, it is known to many as ‘shaved ice’. Those living in the United States may think of shaved ice as a carnival food served in a cup or cone drizzled with a sweet flavored syrup. People living in East Asia may think of the larger Korean patbinsgu, meaning ‘red beans with ice’, usually decorated with a variety of fresh fruits, sweet rice cakes, and condensed milk. Kakigori finds a middle ground between these two by adopting the shape of the classic American round shaved ice while incorporating flavors and toppings found in patbingsu, those familiar to the Asian palate. My favorite kakigori was actually in an okonomiyaki (savory pancakes filled with cabbage and meat) shop in Asakusa, Tokyo called Sometaro. Okonomiyaki are these delicious savory pancakes filled with cabbage and meat. I visited Sometaro a handful of times and could not leave without having one of their kakigori. While these may not be the most elaborate kakigori you could find in Tokyo, it was just as delicious. They had two popular varieties, one topped with anko (sweetened red beans) and another topped with green tea syrup. Both include a sweet condensed milk and are served in small bowls.

3. Ume Juice

Ume juice

Lastly, ume (plum) juice had to be one of the most memorable drinks I tried while staying in Japan. During the rainy season in the summer, ume-flavored foods are found everywhere as this is the time of the year when they are ripe. Ume juice is made by placing unripe ume and sugar together in a jar, allowing for the extraction of the plum juice. My host mom made her own plum juice and I had no idea what to expect when I tried it, but a little bit of the juice packs a punch! It is highly concentrated but very smooth and sweet. Mixing in a few cubes of ice makes it the perfect drink for the summer and something I wish I could make here in the U.S., but I am sure no plum I could find back home would match the flavor of the Japanese variety. Another widespread use of ume is in alcohol. Umeshu, or a plum liqueur, can be found in the city’s izakayas (bars) and is readily consumed during the peak of the rainy season. Like the juice, it is heavily concentrated and full of flavor.

These are only a few of the many amazing delicacies found in Tokyo. With a plethora of restaurants serving both traditional Japanese food and food from around the world, it was impossible to see, let alone eat, everything in four months! I hope that my next trip back will allow for new dining experiences and tasting more of the food that defines Japan.

By: Ria Jagasia (CIEE Study Abroad, Tokyo, Japan, 2016)

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.