In honor of our 15th anniversary in 2017, Spirit Cultural Exchange launched its first Alumni Awards contest in August. Our goal was to identify and publicize former participants who have gone on to do significant things in their home countries and are/were particularly motivated by their SWT experience.
We received over 90 applications from past participants that have done great things since returning to their home countries. We got a variety of applicants… we heard from participants that now work for the government in their home country, some who became entrepreneurs and others who use their language skills to teach others English. But the one thing they all had in common was the impact the Summer Work and Travel experience had on their future.
After much consideration, we narrowed down our search and selected 11 finalists that we thought best exemplified the impact that the SWT program could have on an individual.
Finalist Bergin Shehu came on the Summer Work & Travel program through Albanian Spring Time in 2008. During his summer in the US, he worked at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois. He was here during the 2008 presidential campaign where he took interest in the debates and how the candidates communicated with the voters in the US compared to in Albania. Read on about how this changed his expectations of how politics could function in his home country and how it impacted his future career.
Can you tell us about your experience at Six Flags on the Work and Travel program?
Albania is an ex-communist country in Eastern Europe in the Balkans that is conservative. When I came to the US, the first impact was to live in a multicultural society with people from different religions and ethnicities, working together. In Illinois I met people from different parts of the world like from Turkey, France, and Asia. It was a great experience.
Can you tell us about one experience that you had or a person that you met in the USA that had an impact on you?
My supervisor, Victor was one of my friends. Some friends were French from Paris, some friends from Turkey, but from the US it was Victor. He was very open-minded, very friendly, and he would speak to me. As a foreigner, it was a great experience to talk with Americans, to know about American culture and society. He and I liked soccer so we had some common thing. We cheered for the same teams. We are still friends.
How do you think your J1 experience on the Work and Travel program changed your perspective on the United States and its people?
When I was in Albania, I watched American movies and listened to American music, but different to learn about the US in your country and another thing to be there... you get to learn and practice the culture.
What impact did the Work and Travel program have on you personally, professionally, or academically?
Personally, it was really my first work experience and it’s a good thing to learn how to work, earn a first paycheck, and be more independent. Academically, it was to live in the US during the elections. Now I am part of the political party and the town hall and involved with campaigning. It impacted me and the way I do political things in my neighborhood and the way I am in touch with people.
What specifically did you take away from the political campaign that you witnessed in the US?
To being in touch with people, to hearing their concerns; it’s a great way to do politics. Not only speak, speak, speak but listening more to others.
Would you say that’s different than how you’ve seen politics in Albania?
Yes, because politicians speak from scripts to the people. People only can hear what they say, they don’t have a voice, but now things are changing even here. It was a good experience to see this with your eyes – not only to read with the books or watch in the media.
How did your J1 experience help you make the world a better place after returning home?
That is a big question! Illinois was a multicultural country and I brought that home with me. I changed in the US. I have become more open-minded. I think this has impacted my friends when I talk to them. This is a change!
Can you please give us some background on what you’ve been doing since returning home from the SWT program?
My two biggest experiences were an internship at the office of the Prime Minister. I read the letters and requests from the people and I was the last step before he read them. I do a small review of what it contains and the Prime Minister reads an extract of the letters.
A big experience was to work for the OSHEE, the operator of the electrical system in Albania, which is a state monopoly. I worked near the office of the administrator; or CEO as stated in America. I do mostly memos about giving legal opinions about different issues.
Today I work as a lawyer. I give different companies legal advice. Last week I represented a company in court.
What have you learned in working there and what skills does it take to be successful as a lawyer?
Being understanding of the problem, understanding the law which will help solve the problem. Knowing the law, knowing the problems, and creating a link between the law and the problem the company has. It’s a tactful thing.
How did the SWT program help you succeed in your position?
It helped me be more organized because it was my first work experience. You wake up in the morning and go to work. It’s small things but it makes you be more organized in your personal life and take the work more seriously.
In your application you said you are part of the National Counsel of Democratic Party so can you give us a little information about what you do for them?
I am part of this party and I work as the secretary of activities. We have done some protests against the corruption. We organized the War on Corruption which is the main one.
How did you get involved with this organization?
This organization is an anti-communist party and I came from an anti-communist family. It’s a family thing, a lot of my friends are part of the party, and I have the same point of view as my friends. I’ve been part of this party from the time of my university. We found an office of this party at the university which gathers youth and involves them in politics. The things that I am involved in now is the opposition party; I like being in that position because corruption is a big problem here. I am involved with this political party and I hope to make some changes because the corruption is a really big problem in Albania.
Why do you think cross-cultural exchange is important?
It’s important because you get to know people from around the world, from different countries, and with different experiences. It’s a great experience to know people from all around the world. It makes you be more open-minded and to see things in a different way. The work exchange program is a great thing because you can work, you can be more independent, and you can have fun with friends from all over the world. So you can do many things from work, to having fun, to visiting some big cities like Chicago or New York for a month.
It’s been a long time since you’ve been on the SWT program. What advice would you give yourself if you could go back and tell yourself something before coming to the US?
My advice for myself is to spend more time visiting places. For example, I visited Chicago and New York, but I’ve never been to L.A. My advice to others is they should try to travel; it’s an experience they can have only once time in a lifetime because you are a student so you don’t have very big preoccupations.