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YFU Blog - Recent stories about Youth for Understanding

Filtering by Tag: russia

Make an Impact - One Ripple at a Time

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Hello, my name is Olga Smolenchuk. I am an Atlas Corps Fellow  from Russia serving at Youth For Understanding.

I strongly believe that change starts with individual actions, which start the ripples that leads to major impact.

A great example is my own story. When I was in seventh grade, my teacher took me by the hand and transferred me to an advanced class. She believed that I could achieve more. Thanks to her action, I am here today, participating alongside some of the most impressive nonprofit leaders from across the world and serving in one the oldest international exchange organizations, Youth For Understanding.

Coming from a small coal-mining town in Siberia, it is difficult for kids to dream big. Yet, this teacher taught me to think bigger and to challenge myself to do more.

Right before embarking onto my journey as an Atlas Corps Fellow, I returned to that very same classroom with that same inspirational teacher to talk to the current seventh graders about dreaming big and working hard for their dreams. When I was their age, I could not have even imagined that one day I would in the United States and speaking at the State Department. Now, look, here I am. I plan on returning to that school after my Fellowship to share more with these young students and to inspire them to dream even bigger.

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It is important that we never quit dreaming because we can always achieve more. It is the same with civil society—civil society starts with educated youth that are not afraid to dream big. Just looking around this room, I see 80+ individuals who continue to have big visions and inspire one another to also believe in their abilities to forward positive change. It may seem overwhelming to try to solve all the major social issues of the world—we may seem insignificant as individuals. It is as a network that we are going to achieve results.

Russia is a great example. Russia is a country with more than 200 nationalities spread across a vast geographic region. While it is difficult to target the entire country, we can start with youth from small towns like Belovo. They can be a positive force in their own communities, which when united with efforts in the towns of other Fellow countries, will create the ripple effect that leads to major impact.

Dr. Rachel Andresen, who was the founder of Youth for Understanding, visited Amsterdam in 1948. There, she saw the streetlights illuminating the city for the first time after World War II. She was very touched and vowed to do everything she could with her life “so that the lights would never go out again.”

I also vow to light up the kids in my home town with the energy I get during this professional exchange, so that the lights will never go out again. 

First Hand Gap Year Experience

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Nikole Hampton Photo 2 - Graduation“Most kids from my hometown either went straight to work or straight to college.” This may have been true for many students in Harrisville, Michigan, but Nikole Hampton wanted more after she graduated in 2008, so she decided to take a gap year between high school and college to attend high school in Sweden. “It was the best experience of my life and forever changed me for the better,” Nikole says of her year. She had been unsure of her future plans, but she was sure of one thing: she was looking for the adventure of a lifetime and she got it.

“My parents were more in support of me going to college immediately, until they looked into gap year programs with me and realized that I was really motivated to do this. I deferred my acceptance to the University of Michigan, so they were happy to know I didn’t lose this opportunity either, and then they really started to support me.” Nikole got the best of both worlds with her gap year. She was able to take a giant leap out of her comfort zone and find out what she was made of, then attend college the following year.

Nikole Hampton Photo 3 - Art ClassNikole lived with a host family outside of Stockholm and attended Nacka Gymnasium as a third year (or a senior). In Sweden, students attend school until they are around 19 years old, which meant that her classmates were the same age, which was very important to Nikole. Despite the fact that she was the same age as most of her classmates, Swedish school took some getting used to. “Swedish high school is set up more like American colleges, with weekly schedules and classes that met twice per week.  We also had the majority of classes with our ‘class,’ or about 20-30 students studying the same track.  Mine was social science and art, so that is what my classes were mostly about except for our electives.” Her classmates quickly became her closest friends. “We were like a family!” She also made friends with kids on her track team and became close with her host sister who often invited her to hang out with her friends even though they went to different schools.

One of the best memories she has was the vacation she took with her host family. “My favorite was going on a road trip with my host family and skiing! It was so beautiful and we got to spend a lot of quality time together, cooking and playing cards and such.  School and life gets crazy busy sometimes, so it was relaxing to have some time off and just spend time with each other. And be in the outdoors of course!” It is times like these that really characterize an exchange. Although Nikole’s family’s English was near perfect, eventually they only spoke Swedish to her so she could practice. “They helped me with homework and taught me lots of words before school even started! They also got me a library card too, and I spent a lot of time reading which was another good way to learn a language.”

Nikole Hampton Photo 1 - Family VacationNot only did she get the opportunity to bond with her host family, but she was also able to bond with her natural family as well! “I visited family that lived in the south of Sweden and got to learn more about my heritage and experience a very different region. I also had some family living in the Stockholm area, so I met up with them occasionally too!”

Because Nikole joined her class during their last year of school, she was able to graduate with them! “Graduation was completely different than in the U.S. We had what was called an ‘utspring’ at school after an assembly, where they called out each class and we ran out of school and looked for a poster of us that our families secretly made (I realize this sounds strange...). Then our family put presents and letters on necklaces around our necks and we went home with them, changed out of our nice clothes, and then met up with our class again on a giant flat-bed truck that went all around Stockholm and blasted music.  After that, we go home again, and our families and friends were all over for a dinner and such in honor of the new graduate.”

Nikole Hampton Photo 5 - Class PhotoNikole took a risk and challenged herself and it paid off immensely. She learned a new language, made incredible friends, even ate reindeer! Now, she is finishing up a bachelor’s degree in social work at the University of Michigan. As a graduation present to herself, she is traveling back to Sweden this summer to visit her friends and host family, that she hasn’t seen in four years, to relive all of the wonderful memories she had there. This experience for her was unforgettable and transformative. She came back from Sweden motivated, confident and ready to continue with the ideas that ignited her passion for social issues while abroad.

Written by Zoe ColtonQuotes from Nikole Hampton

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