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Ryan's Amazing Adventures in America, Part I

By Ryan O'Leary, CIEE Work & Travel USA 2015 and Graduate Visa USA 2016

Check back next week for Part II of Ryan's story!

Hi there, my name is Ryan O’Leary. I’m from a small rural area named Barryroe in West Cork, Ireland. I spent the summer of 2015 working in Hyannis, Massachusetts on the CIEE Work & Travel USA program. I graduated from University College Cork in 2016 with a Bachelor's degree in Commerce (International) with Hispanic Studies. After completing my studies, I moved to New York City in October 2016 on the J1 Graduate Visa USA program. I worked on the content marketing team at Sprinklr, a New York-based tech start-up.

I moved back to Ireland in November 2017 and, at time of writing, I work as a freelance writer, creating content for Sprinklr and EazyCity, a Cork-based company that offers work and study abroad programs across the world.

Damien  Joseph  Michael and Ryan on Damien's wedding day in March 2016
Ryan (far right) with his brothers Damien, Joseph, and Michael (l-r) at Damien's wedding in West Cork, Ireland

My American adventures of the last few years drew inspiration from my other travels. As part of my college degree, I was required to spend the 2014/15 academic year studying abroad at a university in Spain or Mexico. I chose the University of Alicante in southeastern Spain, and a group of us moved there in late August 2014.

Although I had enjoyed two previous vacations in Spain with friends, this was my first time spending a long period of time abroad. Midway through the year it hit me: I loved seeing new parts of the world. Living abroad for the first time was inspirational.

Growing up in Ireland, especially in the countryside, certain places seem so far away. You get used to your own area and only once you step outside it or go to college do things change. I saw the change in two of my brothers when they visited Boston, Hawaii and New York in the summer of 2008. Upon return they weren’t too different, but I sensed an increased open mindedness. The way they talked joyously about their trip piqued my interest in the United States

The views of home
Ryan's home in Barryroe, Ireland

I had spoken to a number of people over the years who had lived and worked in the US, and they absolutely loved their time there. Plus, like any proper Irish person, I had cousins in Boston! So in early 2015 a group of us made the decision to book our spots on the CIEE Work & Travel USA program. Our destination? After much deliberation, we decided on Cape Cod.

Welcome to Hyannis  July 2015
Hyannis, Cape Cod, Massachusetts

I arrived on Cape Cod on the 4th of July. And it was quite a way to kick off my American adventure: we enjoyed Independence Day fireworks at a nearby beach. The adventure had officially begun.

We had a great time working with local Americans, meeting different people from across the States every day and immersing ourselves in the culture. However, we also had lots of time to play and relax.

Pufferbellies was the local nightclub, hosting Irish nights on Wednesdays. Other than that, we enjoyed a few drinks at local bars like emBargo, Kelly’s on Main, and Torino. And thanks to perfect weather, a few BBQs were also in order throughout the summer. Food-wise we were absolutely spoiled for choice. For its buffalo chicken sandwich alone, DJ’s was one of our favourites. Other than that, there was The Daily Paper for breakfast, Rendezvous Cafe for brunch, and British Beer Company for an unreal dinner. For dessert, there was only one destination: Ben & Jerry’s.

When we weren’t busy working and socializing, we were beaching. Thanks to sensational summertime weather, the beaches were glistening and glorious.

Surfside Beach  Nantucket  July 2015
Surfside Beach, Nantucket

I also paid a first visit to my cousins in West Roxbury, Boston in mid-August. They showed me the finest of Boston and Newport, RI. Upon return to Cape Cod, it was almost time to leave.

Looking back on it, my final destination that summer seems like an omen now. That last destination was New York City. I spent two days and three nights in the Big Apple before flying home, visiting sights such as Central Park, Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall and the Top of the Rockefeller Center. It was a fitting final weekend in America before flying home in late August.

Central Park  November 2016
Central Park, New York

I get nostalgic anytime I talk about my summer in Cape Cod. It seems so long ago now, coming up on three years this summer. It was my first taste of the United States and I very much enjoyed it. From the moment I set foot in the States, I had a good feeling. The locals were great to us. And although Cape Cod took on the moniker of “Cape Cork” due to the sheer volume of Irish folks there, we made many American friends through work and socializing. Some had been to Ireland before and were only delighted to sing its praises. Others have not made the trip across the Atlantic yet but our words of encouragement alone may be enough to book flights!

Being Irish definitely helps on the East Coast, but we were welcomed with open arms and made to feel at home. It was everything I imagined it would be, and then some. As you’ll soon see, it left me wanting much more.

From exchange participant to host: our interview with Suzanna Jemsby

After hearing from CIEE Internship USA participant Soroth San, we wanted to learn about hosting a J-1 intern from the perspective of his school, The Galloway School in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Click here for Part I and Part II of Soroth's story. 

Please introduce yourself.

Suzanna Jemsby: I am Suzanna Jemsby, Head of School at the Galloway School in Atlanta, Gerogia. I’ve been in my role for six years. Interestingly enough, I moved to the United States from Germany 18 years ago on a J-1 visa to work as a high school principal at the Atlanta International School through the Cordell Hull Foundation.

J-1 Intern Soroth San and Suzanna Jemsby, Head of School, The Galloway School

Was this The Galloway School’s first experience hosting a J-1 intern?

SJ: This is the first one in my time. When the request [to host Soroth] came across my desk, I think I responded because I knew J-1 and it was a no-brainer. He’s coming from a part of the world which is hard for us to access and he had a very interesting story. He was coming with knowledge of school leadership, which is also unusual. I thought he could teach us a lot, and he certainly did, and by the same token, he might be able to get something out of his experience with us. We are extremely well-resourced as a school compared to his school system, so he could go back and share some of what he learned with us.

What do you think are some of the key takeaways that Soroth will be able to bring back to his school in Cambodia?

SJ: So much of it was unthinkable in his setting. The U.S. being a highly individualistic society, and Cambodia on a very different part of the spectrum, with an emphasis on group identity and a community approach to things. I think he was blown away that teachers really get to choose much of what they want to teach and when they teach it and how to teach it and what resources they’re going to use. I think he saw the value of what we’re doing. I think he’ll go back and try and disrupt the conversation and bring more of his ideas into the conversation.

[Soroth] looked up to me as this person who could make all these things happen. He feels as if he’s less of a player. He doesn’t even know if he’s going back to be a principal or if he’s going to reassigned to something else, and that would be unthinkable here. The rights of the individual are protected so much more in the States.

The Galloway School, Atlanta, Georgia

How do you think that your school community has been impacted by having Soroth as a part of it for a semester?

SJ: Well, he’s first of all, a very kind human being. He helped people on so many fronts, and on the empathy front first of all. Not everybody is accustomed to dealing with folks who don’t speak English as their first language every day. So it was good for them to remember that piece, and that rapid-fire English with lots of idiomatic phrases isn’t going to work with him.

Soroth also brought to life a part of the world that people don’t know very well. He was involved in an elective with the head of community engagement at the school, and talked about his childhood and interactions with the Khmer Rouge. He brought history alive and brought a face to something that’s very hard for young people to comprehend.

Then of course there’s the piece that he was able to bring in from his schooling experience. Particularly with the younger kids, Soroth was able to impact in a big way. He would share some of what Cambodian kids do at their age. What do P.E. lessons look like? Do they have big fancy gyms to play in? No, they go out with their classroom teacher and perhaps kick a ball around, these kinds of things.

Soroth with a kindergarten class

Soroth mentioned in his post that he had been studying English in school for fifteen years. Coming from a developing country, there may be a sense that in order to advance, you must have a global mindset. How does The Galloway School prepare students for this increasingly globalized world, and how do you think having an international J-1 intern can help advance that?

SJ: I’m a linguist by trade, so it was my first big goal for the school when I arrived six years ago to relook at how we teach languages. I believe it’s a tool; I believe it’s a way to understanding others in the world. It’s not something you learn about in a book and tick off with an AP at the end of grade 12. I think we do kids a disservice if they’re not competent in two languages by the time they finish school. Of course, many kids are getting close to that, but there are also a lot of kids who have decided that they’re not capable of it.

When you think about learning an Asian language in particular, it’s a difficult thing to do. [Soroth] really modeled fearlessness in this respect. He wasn’t always easy to comprehend at the beginning, even for someone who, as I consider myself, a sympathetic listener for people who don’t speak English as their first language. He made tremendous strides.

Do you think your school will host additional J-1 students in the future? Do you think it was an overall positive experience for students and the staff?

SJ: I think it was a positive experience. I’m actually leaving the school at the end of this year so it’s going to be up to the next head. I will make a strong case for doing it though, Soroth was awesome.

His own mother passed away the week of his high school graduation and he missed the ceremony. So we decided to actually have him “graduate” from Galloway. We printed up a certificate, gave him a cap and gown and he walked right through the entire faculty and everybody went crazy. I know he was very taken by this. I know he touched every single person on my faculty and staff in some way, shape, or form.

We had him spend time with every grade at the school so he started with the three-year-olds and we had him advance through the school and he finished with grade twelve. So he went through like a student, although in a condensed time. He went on field trips with the three-year-olds, he did spelling with the sixth graders, he talked about the Khmer Rouge with the seventh graders, shadowed a tenth grader, so he did a bit of everything. I remember saying to him “be everywhere! I want you to make the most of this opportunity.”

Overall it’s been really interesting and I hope the school continues. We all just wanted [Soroth] to have the happiest memories of Galloway and I think he will, there’s no doubt in my mind.

Soroth with students, The Galloway School

"Learn how to learn": Soroth's semester at The Galloway School

By Soroth San, CIEE Internship USA participant, 2017-2018.

See here for Part I of Soroth's story, and come back on Thursday for an interview with Suzanna Jemsby, Head of School of The Galloway School

This year I am an intern at The Galloway School in Atlanta, Georgia, but at home in Cambodia, I was working as a head of school at the capital city of the country. There, the challenges are different: I was encountering a ton of problems with discipline, assessing teachers and non-teaching staff, supporting staff professional skills, and creating a less stressed, collaborative, and friendly environment. I am excited to have an opportunity to look at other parts of the developed world which have gone through and successfully implemented educational philosophies that form an effective and efficient education system that enhances student’ learning and teachers’ skills. The main goal of my internship program is to be able to run a school in an appropriate way by the time I return to Cambodia.

Soroth San cooking
Soroth San

On the first page of my internship objective I was curious to know about the management team. At The Galloway School, I find that the principals for all the programs are independent and flexible. They always install a supportive and friendly environment when giving the commendations as well as recommendations for improvement. As I have noticed, they usually smile and talk openly, share, discuss and pass information on in a respectful and fun manner. As a result, many problems are quickly fixed. I sense lots of pros in regard to these special working attitudes. In this regard, I want to develop my skills and will take back those working practices to Cambodia and implement them among my staff. 

The school philosophy is the upmost guide that shapes the behavior in the working, teaching and learning environment in the school. To illustrate, The Galloway School has its unique philosophy, which is to promote individuality “Figure out who you are and become that person”, “Learn how to learn”, and “The ultimate goal is to help kids become a successful and enlightened individual”. I really love these quotes; they mean so much to me as a school leader. Having said that, I am passionate and committed to fostering these impactful concepts in my school.

Preschool students and their teacher, Gissella Diaz-Williamson

One thing that I really find fascinating is that teachers at Galloway set up their own curriculum. They can decide the content of curriculum as long as it advances the goal of improving kids’ education. Then, at some point at the beginning of school year, all teachers at each grade present an overview of the curriculum to the parents, so they will have some ideas as to what is going on within a whole year. Teachers are well-trained about 4D classroom, which is a deliberate, daring, dynamic and discovery leaning and teaching environment. I had never heard of 4D before, and it was always a question for me. Prior to my training about 4D, I would think of 3D or 4D movies. I kept asking myself “What are they going to do with 4D movies in education “, which sounds ridiculous. Only when I had been trained about it, I realized that it is a new methodology of teaching and learning in a very effective way.

Pre-K Curriculum overview meeting

I tell myself that I am on the right journey of discovering what I really need to improve education quality in my country. For sure, I have to bring back this critical concept for educators in Cambodia.

Some other areas about The Galloway School that I want to bring back to Cambodia is the role of the school librarian. At Galloway, this is not merely the only person to look after the tiny space, but also acts as a teacher librarian that helps in teaching kids and provokes curiosity and love in reading to kids. I also see the effectiveness of the advisory group model, in which there are some advisees and one advisor (4 years in a roll) whose basic role is to motivate, advise, monitor and follow up students’ learning. The idea of supporting teachers is also noted and essential. There are financial limitations at my school in Cambodia so I don’t know what I can achieve, but I will try.

Another lesson I have learned is the importance of parent education. At The Galloway School, there is close interaction between parents and the school, and parents always want to participate in school events and volunteer a lot to help with school work. They even organize events like parties for parents, book club, and teacher appreciation where teachers are made to feel loved and appreciated. Parents might have some points during the day sitting at a dining room or a table discussing the book that kids have learned in class. Or they might have problem regarding technology, kids might go to ask parents. Nevertheless, I don’t think it will work in Cambodian parents. The culture of education is different, and parents are so busy, and often less educated than their children. I hope that in the future, Cambodian society shifts so that parents can be more involved in their kids’ education.


A meeting for parents at The Galloway School

The Galloway School is not only a school but also a family, and a community for many people who feel a sense of love, respect, care and progress for life. I think I will gradually put some good ideas from this school into use in my school in Cambodia. To sum up, I have learned so many things about my host organization. Meantime, I have to give myself a chance to process all of the information and use it in the real world in order for me to tailor my professional skills as well as experiences in enhancing education quality in my home country.


Camp Takajo: Cristian's Life-Changing Summer Facing His Fears

By Cristian Cartenas Montes, 2015, 2016, and 2017 CIEE Camp Exchange USA Participant from Mexico. Check back next week to read Part II of Cristian's story!

Imagine waking up every single morning in a wood cabin surrounded by nature with the most cliché bugle call that can exist in your mind, surrounded by 9 kids full of energy waiting for you to start a new summer camp day with them. Everything seems perfect for these little guys, up until 8:00 AM, when they suddenly realize there’s a huge problem between them and their summertime life-goals: they don't feel like making their beds. This is where your day starts.

Cristian tennis
Cristian on the tennis courts at Camp Takajo

My name is Cristian Cardenas, I’m a Mexican mechanical engineering student and a three-time former camp counselor, and today I want to share with you how being a camp counselor has written a brief but very significant paragraph in the story of my life.

The Call

+1 (207) xxx - xxxx

"Hi, Cristian Cardenas? This is Bob Lewis from Camp Takajo..."

I remember this day perfectly. I was in arts class during the second semester of college when my phone rang. It was a weird number. It started with a +1; I felt like it was going to be another spam call offering me a service or debit card which I would later reject. I was about to hang up when I suddenly remembered that I had applied to work at a summer camp in the U.S. some weeks before. So, I went out of the classroom and answered my first ever English-speaking formal phone call. The first thing I heard was "hi, Cristian Cardenas? This is Bob Lewis from Camp Takajo…"

That was the first time I talked with Bob. On the phone, he seemed to be a nice guy with a strong voice. He told me that he had seen my profile in the CIEE applicant pool and liked it, and that he would like to have me as a tennis counselor at a boys’ summer camp in the state of Maine, called Camp Takajo. We talked for about 45 more minutes, and then I couldn’t believe that I had an offer that gave me the opportunity to spend my summer in the U.S. doing one of the things I’ve always loved: playing tennis. So I bought my single passenger flights to Boston, MA, and in the first week of June 2015, I was leaving Guadalajara for what I didn’t yet know was going to be one of the best experiences of my life.

Sunset from Camp Takajo

The Journey

What was my job going to be like? What was going to be my daily schedule? Who was I going to work and live with? How professional did I have to be at tennis to be a camp counselor? These were only some of the thousand questions that I had on my mind during the flight from Mexico to the U.S. At the beginning, I can’t deny that I was nervous about all these things, but then at some point I decided it was better to relax and just let things flow.

After some long hours, my flight finally landed. I was going to be in Boston for a day before my bus left for Maine the next morning. I remember spending the day walking the streets of Boston. At the beginning, I remember that I was afraid—after all, it was the first time I had traveled by myself to a city to which I’d never been before. I walked, and didn’t know where I was going, or what was I going to find, and this scared me at the beginning. But it didn’t take more than 2 hours for me to discover that I was enjoying it, that the feeling of independence, and liberty started making me feel happy.

The next day I woke up, had a quick breakfast, and took the bus to Maine. I was excited: the day had finally arrived, and I was going get to know the place I’d been thinking of for the last months. I was anxious, but at the same time excited. Finally, after about 5 or 6 hours, I saw that we were in Naples, Maine, and after some minutes I noticed a sign on the road and I knew I had finally arrived.

Takajo Sign
The entrance to Camp Takajo

The Arrival

I remember arriving at camp for the first time. It was a big place, but there seemed to be very few people there at the time. The first person I was looking for was Bob Lewis. It was not very hard for me to find him: when I entered the camp’s office, he welcomed me and introduced me to all the camp directors that were present. After all those days travelling by myself, I felt happy finally getting to know this place and people. Bob also introduced me to the camp’s staff members, and gave me a brief talk on what to expect the next days in camp and how was this going to change when the kids arrived. He also told me that I already had a cabin assigned for me to sleep. After this brief meeting, I went to find my new place in that cabin.


“Bunk Passaconaway.” That was the name of the cabin that I was supposed to find. I could see that there was a set of bunks around the forest with different names. Yosemite, Chichenitza, Ixtacciuatl, Rappahanock, and finally I saw a big bunk almost at the end of the quad that had a plate on it that said Passaconaway. I entered the bunk, carrying my gigantic bag with all my stuff and tennis rackets. When I entered, I found that there were people inside, so I introduced myself, saying that I was Cristian from Mexico, and that I was coming as a tennis counselor. Later on, I discovered that everybody in that bunk was also a tennis counselor. I met two guys from Argentina, who were happy to see that somebody else spoke Spanish, one guy from Ireland that had come to the U.S. for the first time in his life, a tall guy from England with a deep voice and red hair, and the twenty-year-old number 1 French tennis player from Paris, Stephan Bimboum. Meeting these guys was interesting—they all seemed to be like me. Some of them were travelling by themselves to a foreign country for the first time. We spent the first days of camp together and it didn't take long for us to start becoming closer to each other in the days of work.

Cristian and J1 coaches
Cristian and his fellow J-1 Camp Counselors

It took some time for the kids to arrive. It was about one and a half weeks of hard work and preparation for the four hundred and something kids that were going to come in the next days. We as staff received a lot of talks on how to treat kids, how to listen them, how to protect them from dangerous situations, and many other things. We had also received all of their summer belongings and prepared them for the campers’ arrival.

I remember that day, everybody at camp woke up early and waited for the first buses loaded with children from different states all over the country to arrive. The first bus came in, everybody was excited, and Jeff (the camp’s owner) received them very excitedly and welcomed them. When he opened the buses’ doors, kids started running out of them with big smiles on their faces, yelling to their friends. Hugs and smiles were present everywhere and the place started to look very different. The first week it was a big land, with a lot of sports courts and fields, but it only hosted around 100 people. Now, the place seemed to be waking up. Kids were running all over the fields, others were playing with balls and rackets in the courts. The empty bunks that had been quiet for the last ten months started to have some occupants. Some of the veteran counselors had warned me previously that my perspective of camp was going to change completely the day the kids arrived, and I discovered that was very true. That day, everything became different.

Camp Season’s Open!

I’ve described how I lived my experience of camp, since the pre-camp period and all the things I went through before getting there, until the actual beginning of my days at camp. I believe that camp is a life-changing experience, and to understand it, one has to live it. I remember when I was going to go to camp for the first time, I was anxious to know every single detail of what my summer would be like. But when I finally had the opportunity to live it, I discovered that there are things that one must live in order to understand, and that an experience tells one more than thousands of words. I could tell you every single detail of my camp days, all the experiences I lived, the knowledge I gained, the friends I made, and the places I travelled, but I believe that it is a much more enjoyable experience if you live it without knowing what to expect every new day. I lived this experience without asking much, and I can tell you right now, after being a camp counselor for three years, it has definitely been one of the best experiences in my life.

Picnic Tables
Picnic tables at Camp

I also wrote this the way I did, without talking a lot about the rest of my summer, because I think experiences have a very important part: their beginnings. Sometimes we’re afraid to make decisions in life situations. Situations like traveling by ourselves, living in a culture different from ours, leaving home for a long time, or being open to new experiences. This fear is normal, and every human being has it; it's in our blood. I want to encourage you to overcome these fears. Accept that dream job, leave your home for a summer, talk to someone that doesn’t understand your native language, try new food, try that sport you’ve always thought you sucked at, travel to places you’ve never been before with a backpack and little money.

Don’t be afraid to make new friends, never stop trying new things. I want to say that doing this was what made my three summers at camp different from all the other summers of my life. Opening myself like this to the world allowed me to learn things I can’t describe, to make friends in different countries, to travel to places all over the U.S., and to live an experience that changed my life. Living experiences like this feeds your soul, opens your mind, and makes you a different person. I hope reading this helped you with some questions about what being a camp counselor is like—at least for the first part of the experience—but, trust me, you can read hundreds of different stories, watch videos on the internet, and see counselors’ pictures, but you’ll never understand what being a camp counselor is like until you live it. So don't hesitate and go for it, live a dream job for the summer that will change your perspective on the world forever.

Katahdin sign
Cristian at the summit of Mount Katahdin, the tallest peak in the state of Maine


Changemaker in Action: J-1 Exchange Program Inspires Political Career

Bruxelles EP Traineeship

This post originally appeared on the CIEE Alumni Blog 

When we interviewed three-time CIEE Work & Travel USA alumnus and Civic Leadership Summit alumnus Paul Runcan from Romania last year, he was pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and advocacy after his exchange experience convinced him to switch from a career in law to politics. His thoughts were, “…even though practicing law would allow me to help those around me, it would only affect a small number, and mostly one at a time. It would take too long to create real change…” Paul made a commitment to politics in order to be the kind of leader that the future depends on. Having an international exchange experience was the catalyst for change.

“I've had a mild interest in politics and public administration for years now, but I was lacking a... call to action, for lack of a better expression; something to get me going. I was, as most people do, watching corruption spread through the administration, thinking that there wasn’t anything I could ever do about it and that's just the way the world works. Even in law school I had colleagues who were very open about wanting to go into politics because ‘that's where the money was.’ It was really frustrating at the time and in a way contributed to the apathy I had towards politics.

“The Civic Leadership Summit was the first time I actually ran into like-minded people – young adults who still had that drive to change things for the better. It showed me that what I wanted to do wasn't a losing battle, that there are plenty of others out there who wanted the same thing I did – a better tomorrow for themselves and for their community. It inspired me to sort of turn my back to the legal system, which was where I aspired to work in until that point, and instead focus on public policies and politics.”

“I strongly believe that international experiences are one of the big keys to solving many of the problems that plague today's society.

Paul has since graduated from West University of Timi?oara with a master’s degree in public policies and advocacy and completed a comprehensive analysis of tendencies of transparency in the decision-making process in Romania for his thesis. As a part of his work on transparency, he collaboratively published a political map of the distribution power in the Romanian Parliament that has been an excellent resource to help journalists, interest groups, politicians, and the general public understand who holds power and influence in the country. He is now working as an intern with the General-Directorate for the Presidency at the European Parliament in the transparency unit. Aspects of the role include dealing with Parliament’s relations with interest representatives, working on implementing the Parliament’s transparency policy and helping prepare negotiations on its evolution, and helping to manage the Joint Transparency Register run by the Parliament and the Commission. Paul credits his time in the U.S. as a major inspiration to where his career is today, and believes that it’s an experience that can change the world for the better.

Political map snapshot
snapshot of collaborative political map work 

“I strongly believe that international experiences are one of the big keys to solving many of the problems that plague today's society. Racism, bigotry, homophobia, and so many more, these are all the product of fear and a deep lack of understanding of other cultures. Growing up, most of us are used to living in our own private bubble, our comfort zone and almost never have to leave it. It prevents us from seeing the beauty of the world as it actually is, and makes us uncomfortable with everything that we're not familiar with.  To a certain extent, I understand that it's normal to fear what you don't understand. It's part of human nature. But at the same time, it's the 21st century. We can have access to almost any culture with a few clicks of a button, or a 12-hour flight at the longest. It's impossible to get accustomed to people who are different than you if you don't expose yourself to them, and staying in that safe and cozy bubble you call your comfort zone won't ever let you experience the true beauty this diverse world has to offer. I know it's hard to do so, because I've been through it, but my humble piece of advice is this: Get out, seize every opportunity life puts in your path, force yourself out of your comfort zone and explore the world. The only way we'll ever even begin to solve this world's problems is through mutual understanding, and the only way we'll reach mutual understanding is through international experiences. As cheesy as it sounds, we're the future. It's up to us to make sure we leave this place better than we found it.”

What does mutual understanding look like when on an exchange program? Paul experienced it himself on his first visit in the United States through the CIEE Work & Travel USA program. “Before that, all I knew about it [the U.S.] was from TV, books, and the internet. Somehow, I never met someone from the U.S. before that. Obviously, when I first arrived, it was a bit of a culture shock for me. But once that passed, I began understanding American values, the American work ethic, and I think most importantly the American people. Those I ended up working with began to understand me. Most of them were college students – some fresh out of high school, some had never left their home state, and most had never left the U.S. Of course, they knew about the rest of the world, but in the same way I had known about the U.S. – from books and the internet.”

Working closely with Americans was a big part of Paul’s cultural exchange experience. Friendships were made, cultures were shared, and knowledge was transmitted across a multi-cultural group. “We had traditional meals together, we shared stories and life experiences, and a few friends even started learning Romanian and made plans to visit. […] All of us were different, but we were brought together by, if nothing else at first, the fact that we were open to new experiences.” It was first the exposure to people of other cultures in the workplace and housing that laid the groundwork for mutual understanding, then the willingness to share and receptiveness to learning that made understanding happen.

What Paul learned by staying open to new experiences has changed his behavior and will accompany him on future travels around the world as a global citizen. “[Americans] amazed me by how welcoming they could be to a complete stranger from the far side of the planet. Not once while I was there did I ever feel that I didn’t belong there, and the kindness they showed me there, I now do my best to show to everyone around me. In the end, I think that’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in the U.S. – kindness towards others will lead to acceptance, which will bring the world together.”

Find out how you can have a life-changing international experience of your own Visit: https://www.ciee.org/in-the-usa/work/work-travel-usa

Home Away from Home: Noémi's Experience at Mohonk Mountain House

By Noémi Varga, CIEE Work & Travel USA 2017 participant from Slovakia

My name is Noemi. I was born and raised in Slovakia and currently, I am a university student in Budapest, Hungary. My experience with the J-1 exchange program all started with a spur of a moment decision with my best friend. One day after a long day at school and work, we were talking about our summer and we decided to sign up for the Summer Exchange program through Smaller Earth Company. This choice changed my whole world and how I see people around me.


I worked at Mohonk Mountain House during the summer of 2017 in New Paltz, NY. My best friend and I took on this adventure before our last year at university to spend our summer gaining new experiences and meeting people from all around the world. My friend and I are both Communication and Media students at Corvinus University of Budapest. We wanted to develop our communication abilities and expand our social network, and this is what we truly got from this program. We were living on the grounds of the hotel with all of the international staff, who became our friends for life, and we got to experience the American culture through traveling and special programs organized by Mohonk Mountain House.


I was working as a Granary Server during the summer, which gave me the opportunity to work outside and enjoy the main attraction of Mohonk Mountain House: nature. The Granary is the outdoor barbecue restaurant of the House, where our guests could enjoy our daily cookouts and our lobster dinners. The Granary had several stations, and we worked at a different one each day. This changing schedule was the main factor keeping the job more interesting for all of us, as one day you were serving burgers and the other you were scooping ice-cream.


This program helped me grow professionally as well as personally. It has helped me understand people coming from different parts of the world and how their culture is built differently. For me, the biggest culture shock that I encountered is the social acceptance that I experienced from Americans. People are accepting of you however you look, whatever you believe in, and wherever you come from. They are less judgmental and more used to diversity.

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 This probably derives from the fact that the U.S. is built on cultural diversity. It is the melting pot of all kinds of cultures as its population mostly comes from immigration. This acceptance made me realize how much I want the same in my country and in a way this sentiment made me feel at home even if I was thousands of miles away from Hungary and Slovakia. It opened my eyes to how much I truly care about how people perceive each other and how badly it can affect us if someone is judgmental of our religion, skin color, sexuality, etc. The main point that I took with me from this culture shock was to accept everyone around me and to not “judge a book by its cover.”


This was my third time in the U.S. I previously took part in a study exchange program for three weeks in LA and went on a family trip to New York. However, this time it was different, because I got to experience the everyday life of Americans and not just the tourist life. I would say that the best part of these three months were the people I met and got to share all the adventures with. I got to see Niagara Falls, attend an Ed Sheeran concert on my birthday, go to a fashion show during the New York Fashion Week, walk around the Harvard campus, and see the New York City skyline from the Top of the Rock. These are just a few of the amazing moments I got to be a part of during my time in the States, and I hope to gain so many more in the future.

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I can’t wait to go back for the summer of 2018 to get more experiences and to meet more and more people. My biggest hope for the summer of 2018 is to visit Bourbon Street in New Orleans and to visit the campus of NYU, as it is my dream to get in for a graduate writing program in 2019.

All in all, after this summer, I have gained a new home and new family that I will always love. My last and biggest hope for the J-1 visa exchange program is that, once I have a child, they will be able to enjoy the advantages of this program as well. 


The J-1 internship that launched my career: Peter's story

By Peter Sima, 2014 CIEE Internship alumnus

Hello everyone! My name is Peter Sima, and I come from the beautiful country of Slovakia. This small country is located in the very center of Europe, we speak Slovak and pay with Euros. Ever since I was little, I have always been fascinated by US culture, its natural beauty and, of course, heroic blockbuster movies. A few years later, when I was about to graduate from the University of Economics in Bratislava with a degree in International Management, I got an opportunity to sign up for a year-long professional internship program in the U.S. through the Slovak-American foundation and CIEE. I made it through competitive selection process and landed a placement in the online marketing department of one of the world’s leading antivirus companies – ESET. I could not be happier when I got a final confirmation. Or wait, maybe I could – the moment I found out that ESET North America is based out of sunny San Diego!

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Peter Sima, CIEE alumnus and Non Profit Marketing Consultant

American business culture is certainly different from what I was used to in Slovakia. My feeling is that it is, in a sense, more aggressive and more competitive yet also friendlier and more collaborative. I know, it is hard to connect those two worlds together, but what I mean is that US business professionals are very much focused on their career development and the development of their business, working hard utilizing every opportunity that comes by. At the same time they are also laid back, friendly, open and cooperative in relationships with their subordinates or business partners. They make sure people on all levels of corporate hierarchy are competent, motivated and reward for their contribution to overall business success. This was the first impression I had when I started my internship and I pretty much still share the same opinion.

There are a number of things I have learned during my stay in the US. I intentionally did not say “during my internship stay” simply because I think the whole cultural experience outside of work has changed me a lot as well. From professional side I was able to acquire and/or improve my campaign planning, management, web analytics and website optimization skills. Additionally, ESET gave me the opportunity to participate on number of industry-leading conferences and even financed one semester of marketing studies at University of California San Diego.

Besides the improvement of my hard skills and professional qualification I feel that I got much better in number of soft skills as well. I have significantly improved my business English, networking capabilities and, what I consider the most important, also got better in understanding of American business environment. I have learned to think at scale and got the business drive essential for every start-up entrepreneur. Last but not least I have met many outstanding professionals and very friendly people at the same time, who have helped establish myself while in San Diego and continue helping me now in my business with U.S.-based organizations. 

Exploring Google's Silicon Valley campus

During my internship in San Diego, besides managing online marketing campaigns for ESET, I had the opportunity to work with an amazing non-profit organization called Securing Our eCity (SOeC) Foundation. This organization primarily focuses on educating teenagers and senior citizens on the topic of online security. They asked me to help them out with setup and management of Google Ad Grant campaigns, text ads that appear in Google search results. This organization and many other US-based non-profit organizations were at that time receiving free advertising credit worth $10.000/month to showcase their cause online – and I did not even know such a thing existed. 

Soon after I started working on SOeC’s campaigns we were utilizing the entire grant, driving thousands of new website visits and hundreds of subscriptions to webinars and other educational events. When I saw the potential of Ad Grants program for this non-profit organization I started digging deeper. I found out that almost all non- profit organizations are eligible to participate (schools, hospitals and state-run organization are exceptions) and what was even better, Google just opened the program for additional 50+ countries.  

Peter at the ESET office in San Diego

When talking to other organizations I found out that this program is not well recognized and even those, who use it, find it often difficult to use it to larger extent. At this point I got the idea to set up my own consulting business focused on helping non-profits implement and meaningfully use the Ad Grant from Google. I decided to name my business AboveX Digital and created its website. Up until now I have worked with dozens of U.S. as well as European non-profit organizations and managed to get the agency to Google Partner program. None of this would have been possible neither without my internship experience nor without very supportive team at ESET and Securing Our eCity Foundation.   

Just like last few years, I expect 2018 to be quite a busy year. Professionally, I would like to focus on developing the online presence of my agency, create more helpful content and expand our service offering. This will not be possible without hiring new people. I would also like to deepen my cooperation with Google, speak on their events and become sort of an ambassador of Ad Grants program. Lastly I would like to continue delivering high added value to non-profits of all kinds, helping them do even more good in this world, because ultimately, enabling them to fulfill their mission is the most rewarding part of my job. Outside of my job I would like to explore few more countries (South America is up next on my list), attend more conferences and networking events and, when I have some time left, start pursuing MBA degree. 

Peter at a San Diego Chargers game

ExEgypt: How one CIEE Alumnus is Making Change in his Community

By Alaa Mahmoud, 2016 CIEE Access Scholar, Civic Leadership Summit Fellow, and Work & Travel USA participant

Hello everyone! I’m Alaa Mahmoud from Egypt, a CIEE Work & Travel USA and Civic Leadership Summit 2016 (CLS16) alumnus. I’m currently enrolled as a fourth year medical student in Suez Canal University, Egypt.

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Alaa (red shirt, center) with ExEgypt volunteers

 After taking part in the CIEE Work & Travel USA program, participating in CLS16, having the privilege to meet 62 young leaders from all around the world, and getting to know the CIEE staff, I was inspired to launch an organization concerned with environmental and public health issues. While attending the summit, I gained skills that gave me the motivation to create ExEgypt (Exchanging & Empowering Global Youth Potentials & Talents), an initiative involving young children to help create young leaders.

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Alaa with the ExEgypt logo

 Since I came back to Egypt, I started thinking with three of my colleagues about how to build something that would have a good impact and make a difference—not only in our community, but all over the world. Therefore, we figured out that society means everything. It's why we started, how we achieve, and whom we'd like to affect. Our practices are directed toward every human being in the society, starting with children and ending with adults. We aim to increase green areas, raise awareness of pollution and public health, and bring to life the idea of recycling and emphasize its significance. We presented the idea to our university administrators and they completely supported us, made some suggestions, and gave us the motivation to start working on that project inside the university and in our city.

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Professor Aziza Omar, ExEgypt consultant and Vice Dean for Environmental Affairs and Community Service

 Thankfully, many professors offered to volunteer with us and to be supervisors of the project, to make sure it went as we planned. My friends and I were completely responsible for our first green children camp and we organized it using our own money, because we believed in every single step we took. After the great impact of the first camp, many people started asking about our program and how could they help us, either by donation or by volunteering themselves. One touching story is that we got a message from one of the parents thanking us for what we did with their children, and that they started becoming more independent and following a healthier lifestyle because of our camp.

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ExEgypt campers enjoying an interactive activity

 ExEgypt activities include organizing educational camps for children to increase their knowledge of fundamental topics such as healthy lifestyle, first aid, and keeping the environment clean by planting and recycling. ExEgypt encourages college students to volunteer in community services, organize camps and events, and spread awareness on topics that have a global concern and must be given attention, such as gender equality and global warming. ExEgypt also focuses on conducting workshops by professional trainers on important skills—mainly leaderships skills and how to be change makers. We also organize seasonal schools in the winter and summer for international students, conducting a scientific medical program and a social program showing them around Egypt. We’ve created a Facebook event for our ExEgypt Annual Medical Summer School--maybe some of our international friends would like to participate?

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Campers learning about recycling

You can find our Facebook page at this link, where you can have a deeper look at our activities:

You can also check out our video on our first Children Green Camp that we organized, which was free of charge.

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Campers and counselors at Green Camp

ExEgypt aims to be the most influential association concerned with environmental issues and public health. This can be measured by seeing our impact on the upcoming generations' behaviors. We also plan to leave a substantial fingerprint on the environment by restoring more green areas and living in a healthier environment.

I am very thankful for the magnificent chance I got from CIEE, which really influenced me as a person and made me a changemaker.  Thank You to all the CIEE Family! 

The Best Summer of My Life: Irfan's Story, part II

By Irfan Tahir, CIEE Work & Travel USA 2017 Participant from Pakistan

Make sure to read Part I of Irfan's story here.

The summer of 2017 was a summer of intellectual stimulation.

In August, I got selected to participate in the CIEE Civic Leadership Summit to represent my country, Pakistan. The summit’s organizers selected some of the most talented change makers from 40 countries and gave us a chance to share our ideas together during a 3 days event at the American University in Washington D.C. Being a part of this event was one of most exciting yet daunting experiences of my life. Exciting because I was never in a room with so much diversity before in my life. Daunting because every single person was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Every student was full of ideas on how to make the world a better place. I could envision how these students will grow up to become future presidents, prime ministers and CEOs. My team came up with the idea of a start-up called “Lighthouse” which was a pre-college program for students to help them find their passion. Our team won in our group and then we got a chance to represent our group in the final round. This was a huge boost of confidence for me as we had to come up with the idea under limited time and at the same time make it creative. We also had to pitch our idea to random people on campus and ask them if they’d invest in our start up. That was again, a really interesting experience which made me realize that people will always listen if you have something worthwhile to say.

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Irfan with Civic Leadership Summit fellows and CIEE staff in Washington, D.C.


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With CLS friends in front of the White House

 In addition to gaining inspiration from my fellow Work & Travel USA students, I had the fortunate opportunity to interact with a number of Fulbright scholars from Pakistan, who are studying at some of the most prestigious universities in U.S for their masters program on a full scholarship. As this was my last summer before graduation, talking to these scholars (who were friends of a friend) was decisive for me in a number of ways. They provided me with first-hand information about applying for masters programs in the U.S and a lot of valuable advice which is not available on traditional platforms. What added to my positive interaction with them was the fact that many of them had a similar background as me. For example, one of the scholars was conducting his research in biomedical engineering, the same subject I want to pursue my masters in. Or another scholar was from the same exact high school as mine, currently pursuing her masters at Columbia University. Before last summer, I was quite confused on what to do after graduation, but hearing the stories of these Fulbright scholars who have gone through the same road as me helped me a lot in deciding what direction to go in. I live in Turkey so I don’t think it would’ve been possible to meet them anywhere other than the U.S.

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Irfan and his friend from Columbia University at Times Square

The summer of 2017 was the best summer of my life.

An avid soccer (read: football) fan, it’s no surprise that I took the first opportunity I got of buying tickets for the International Champions Cup clash between Barcelona and Juventus at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. The stadium has a capacity of 82,500 seats! All in all, it was an unimaginable atmosphere! To see soccer legends like Messi, Neymar and Buffon play live was absolutely unreal for someone who comes from Pakistan, where professional soccer is basically non-existent.

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Taking it all in at the match

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to have some really amazing summers. However, nothing can top spending my summer in New York City, living with 30 exchange students from all over the world, travelling to more than 10 states in the U.S and making so many of my dreams come true. I will never forget the absolutely enthralling experiences I had. Now that I’m back home, I am profusely emitting positive vibes and I’m super excited to use what I learned during the summer into practice. The interactions I had this summer taught me that there are no limits. No mountain is too high to climb. No ocean too deep. Life, let’s see what you got. I’m ready!

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In Philadelphia living out my “Rocky Balboa” moment!

My Summer of Authentic Cultural Experiences: Irfan's Story, Part I

By Irfan Tahir, CIEE Work & Travel USA Participant from Pakistan

Check back on Thursday for Part II of Irfan's story.

Ever since I left the U.S. as a high school exchange student in 2010, I’ve been searching for an opportunity to return. For those of us who are part of the exchange universe, we understand how rewarding an exchange program can be when compared to being a tourist in a foreign country. The interactions and experiences you have as an exchange student are unparalleled to those of a tourist. This is the main reason why I opted to participate in the CIEE Work & Travel USA program for the summer of 2017. With my job placement at Hampton Jitney in New York, it’s fair to that the program exceeded expectations!

The summer of 2017 was a summer of authentic cultural experiences.

My daily job was that of a trip host person on a bus that ran from Long Island to Manhattan every day, quite similar to a flight attendant. This meant that almost every day I had the good fortune of meeting someone interesting. I met scientists working at leading universities like Harvard or MIT. I met artists, creators, Wall Street investment bankers, immigrants from different countries and a lot of wealthy people travelling daily on our luxury liners. I will forever cherish the conversations we had and the amount of cultural exchange that took place every day between the three-hour bus rides. It was very surprising to me how interested some of the passengers were in finding out more about me. Most of the customers on our first-class bus service were over fifty years old. This meant they brought with them a lifetime of experiences from which I could only benefit. I’d ask about their travels, their first job, their political views or a lot of time we’d end up chatting about music or movies.

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Irfan with Hampton Jitney co-workers

Because of the nature of the job, I was with a different bus driver every day who brought with themselves their own unique life story. I’d always remember one particular driver, Sean. After several trips together, we developed a strong friendship. And one night after finishing our work, he showed me all the places he grew up in New York City and those which meant the most to him. It was moments like these which I think are impossible to experience as a tourist. Living with two Romanian roommates and students from different countries at the same hotel was super fun. We’d organize shopping trips, beach parties, birthday celebrations and travel together on our off days. By the end of the summer, we were really like a family. The CIEE Work & Travel program gave me a chance to have the most authentic cultural experiences and learn more about the American people and those around the world; transparent of any political or religious bias.

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With friends on the Brooklyn Bridge
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Exploring Central Park

The summer of 2017 was a summer of concerts.

This summer, I got a chance to make many of my musical dreams come true. Starting from Pink Floyd and Coldplay to John Mayer and Eric Clapton. But there’s one concert which stood out from the rest…the Global Citizens Festival 2017. The festival’s website defines the event as “an action-rewarded, awareness driven free music festival where fans engage with causes in order to win tickets.” Basically, fans can earn tickets by completing specific community service tasks or attending various social events. The free tickets don’t have any sections reserved to them which is why my friends and I decided to purchase tickets online…I wanted a front row seat to live out my musical dream!

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Irfan and friends at the Global Citizens Festival

One of my personal favorites, Alessia Cara, kicked off the festival with a peppy performance of her hit song ‘Stay’. Followed by The Lumineers, Big Sean, The Killers and Andra Day. Amidst all this greatness, there was one band that triumphed over all others : Green Day. It had been one of my biggest dreams to see them live since many years. Nothing screams nostalgia like Green Day. Their music defined my high school years.

The festival was hosted by a diverse set of celebrities and famous individuals and there were powerful messages of peace, equality and change embedded throughout the performances. Music has been a catalyst of change since many decades; music doesn’t see cast, color or nationality. It can be enjoyed by everyone regardless of where they come from or what their background is. To see this first hand in action was an overwhelming experience.