Tag Archives: students

Continuing Cultural Exchange in Chicago

by Erin Kelly
October 31 2010

Hello everyone – yes, I still exist! It took me a little while to adjust to life back in Chicago, but now I can say that I finally feel settled in. It’s strange when I think about our trip – it almost feels like it was a completely different life. In a way, it was: living out of a suitcase, constantly on the move, and being slapped with culture shock again and again is very different from living in one apartment and going to the same job everyday. But, for me, that’s exactly what I need right now. Stability is something that I actually craved this summer. People might call me crazy but I love me some order and routine. That’s not to say that there haven’t been any changes.

I started a new job this month at the Center for Cultural Interchange – a nonprofit organization that facilitates cultural exchange programs for young people, mainly for high school students. I work in the Academic Year Programs department, which works with inbound foreign high school students coming to study and live in the U.S. You might think: “Wow! That job sounds perfect for you and makes so much sense, given your experience this summer.” And I would reply: “You’re right!” I’m very excited to be working there, and I feel fortunate that I am able to work in a field that I actually care about. I believe that it’s so important for everyone to have some kind of experience abroad, especially for young people, for it is through cultural exchange that we can learn to understand and respect others and ourselves. That is certainly something that I learned this summer.

Although my job is mostly administrative, behind-the-scenes work, I got to meet some of the kids last week when a group of them visited Chicago. They were all from different countries, thus forced to use English as their common language. It struck me then that not only were they learning about life in the U.S., they were also learning about many other countries through their fellow members of the program. How cool is that? They were great kids and fascinating to talk to. I loved hearing them talk about how school in the U.S. was so different from their schools at home (aka a lot easier), what they thought of the fall season and American football games, how far off their perceptions of what the U.S. would be like were from reality. It took me back to talking with the boys on the farm in Argentina. I said to myself, this is why I am working here. I hope that there will be many more moments like that to come.

I want to thank everyone who has donated so far to our project on Kickstarter. Your donations mean so much to us, and we couldn’t do this without you! I hope that those who have not so far will consider contributing as well – or at least spreading the word to everyone you know.

Thank you again, and Happy Halloween everybody!

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Changing Perspectives in Russia

by Erin Kelly
June 21 2010

One of the first things we noticed after arriving in Moscow was the poor quality of services for pedestrians. Sidewalks are bumpy with very high curbs, there are no elevators in the metro stations, and if you’re lucky enough to find a ramp, it’s extremely narrow, steep and slippery (we could barely roll our luggage up the one at the high-end Hilton Hotel). These are the kinds of obstacles that Yulia Simonova and other disabled people face everyday in Moscow and Russia in general.

Yulia Simonova

Yulia is the Project Coordinator for the Regional Society of Disabled People – Perspektiva, an organization that works to improve the conditions and raise awareness about the rights of disabled people in Russia. The conditions for disabled people in Russia are terrible – not many handicap-accesible areas, hardly any programs for the blind and deaf, few schools that accept disabled kids, etc. The mentality among the Russian people focuses on the masses, not on the individual. There are so many people in the country (10 million in Moscow alone) that problems affecting even a few thousand people don’t matter. Disabled people are invisible and the government can’t be bothered with implementing services for such a small group in the scheme of things.

Yulia broke her back after a tragic gymnastics accident at the age of ten, and has been in a wheelchair ever since. She was forced to be home-schooled because the schools were not handicap-accessible at that time, and she began to lose hope in ever being able to lead a normal, happy life. She gradually met other people in wheelchairs and learned that they do in fact lead very diverse and active lives, changing her perspective on the possibilities for disabled people. After finishing school, she became a trained activist for people with disabilities through Perspektiva, and has been working for the organization ever since.

Yulia works on the development of inclusive education, traveling to schools and training students, parents and administrators about people with disabilities. She meets with many children, both with and without disabilities, talking to them about all of the activities that she does and showing them how disabled people can, in fact, lead normal lives. The impact of such education is obvious – she recalled how one boy, who was not disabled, came up to her afterwards and said that he now wants to be friends with disabled kids and help them. Many parents become involved in creating awareness as well. And though progress is slow, it is there – there are now 80 inclusive schools in Moscow, which accept disabled children.

Yulia’s story and Perspektiva’s mission are perfect examples of what creating awareness can accomplish. And that is the main goal of our project as well – to create awareness about individuals who are fighting for their beliefs, following their passions and making progress, one day at a time.

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The Ones Who Stayed

by Erin Kelly
January 30 2010

It is one thing to travel abroad, whether for vacation, studying at a university or doing a research project. But it is quite another thing to decide to stay abroad based on what you have experienced and start a project that you are passionate about because you feel that it is what you are meant to do, because you just want to help in whatever way you can.

Ariane Kirtley is an example of one who stayed. As a Fulbright Scholar, Ariane traveled to the pastoral region of the Azawak, Niger’s most remote and abandoned region. In the Azawak, she found people literally dying of thirst because they had no access to water. She had never before witnessed an area with so few resources and infrastructure. As a result of her experience there, Ariane has devoted her life to improving the living conditions of this region by founding Amman Imman: Water is Life, whose mission is to build permanent water sources, thereby significantly improving the lives of 500,000 adults and children among one of the most vulnerable populations in the world.

James Woodward is another such person. In April 2007, he embarked on a journey around the world with a friend, James Harrison, with the simple aim of seeing as much of the world as possible in four months. At the time, the two of them had been coordinating a homeless hostel in Kings Cross, Sydney, for three years and had loved every minute of it, so they decided to do six weeks of volunteering at a few orphanages in Africa. They spent the time at St. Otiep’s orphanage in Kayole, a slum of the area surrounding Nairobi, where they helped teach the children and used the money they had planned for future traveling to buy some resources that the orphanage was lacking. But after they returned to Australia, they learned that the director of the orphanage had kicked the children out onto the streets. Shocked, they moved the children to small village about an hour out of Nairobi called Mang’u, where they rented a small house and started the Familia Moja Children’s Centre. Now, their organization, Kickstart Kids International, runs several programs in Africa and aims to enable kids from advantaged countries to help “kickstart” the lives of kids who effectively have nothing.

Have other stories to share about cross-cultural volunteers like these? We’re still searching for people, particularly in Australia and Europe! Please let us know at erinmkelly87@gmail.com and gail@kellymooney.com.

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