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, Tugba Bademci, came from Turkey to participate in the Summer Work Travel program in 2008. She now uses the English language skills she gained from her program in her work as an English teacher and as a volunteer at the Turkish Lady Bug project. Learn more about her story below!
Can you tell us about your experience in Wyoming at Grand Teton Lodge Company?
In 2008, when I was studying at university, I worked as a busser and lived there for 3 months. It was a great experience because I met lots of people from Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Jamaica. We are still friends today.
The first week, I couldn’t speak English or understand what I was saying. In Turkey, I was studying English language and literature. It’s my job but I had never been exposed to any native speakers. After one week I started speaking and understanding English. You can see now that I can speak English thanks to that program!
Can you tell us about an experience you had or a person you met in the US that made an impression on you?
On September 11th, we were in New York and were searching for hotels. I was with two of my friends and all the hotels were full. We were afraid. A woman came to us and asked “What’s your problem?” We explained we were going back to our country but had three days in New York and all hotels were full. She found a hotel for us, made reservations, and then she explained she was pregnant and expecting three girls. It was great for me and I have never forgotten her.
Can you tell us how you think your J1 experience changed your perspective on the US and its people?
Before going there I just lived in two cities in Turkey. I had never been to any foreign country. America is a dream country for us. Going there was perfect for me. Before going I couldn’t believe that American people are hospitable. Everyone was cheerful, they want to help you, and they want to speak with you. The people always encourage me and teach me English.
Before I left, I just knew Turkish people. But during my program I met American, Jamaican, Ukrainian, and Bulgarian people and we are still friends. This experience enhanced my perspective and changed my lifestyle! Today I am a good teacher, good mother, and a qualified person thanks to the Work and Travel program.
You mentioned on your application how it’s not likely for Turkish people to get jobs when they’re 19 years old, but you got a job and made sure your grades were okay to go on the program. Can you tell us what made you want to work so hard to come to the US?
In Turkey, an 18 year old girl cannot go abroad. One day I went to my father and said I want to go to the US. He told me if I had money I can go so then I started working. I collected money and then went to my father with the money. My mom got angry and said to my father to say no. My father said I promise her if she had money, she could go. So then they let me.
In USA, a lot of Turkish guys were shocked when they saw me and wondered how my family let me go. But they encouraged me and I felt their support.
Can you tell us the impact that the program had on your professional career?
There is a school here, which is run by the government that can choose their own teachers. The headmaster called me and asked me, “Can you speak English?” I am an English teacher but in Turkey, English teachers can’t speak English fluently as they don’t have any abroad experience. I said I lived in US, I joined the Work and Travel program and can speak English like my mother tongue. He accepted me and I was chosen for the Project School.
English is the love of my life! I really love my job and want to share my abroad experience with my students. I went to the US and it still has impact on my life. I wanted my students to go abroad and I applied for a program and we won. In March I am going abroad with ten of my students.
I volunteer for the Turkish Lady Bug project, an assembly composed of volunteer young people who give free personal development seminars to children in need. The students are 10-20 years old and live in different regions in Turkey. I have given personal development seminars to more than 7,000 people sharing my Work and Travel and life experiences. I think different from most of the Turkish people because I had a different experience from them.
Are there specific skills that you learned on the program that you bring to your everyday life?
Traveling. Before going there, traveling is just a hobby. Now I want to travel everywhere. Traveling doesn’t mean just visiting attractions. Now I wonder in the streets, I meet the people, and I speak to them. Traveling is different after the Work and Travel program.
Why are cross-cultural exchange programs important to you?
I’m a teacher and I want to share everything with my students. I teach not just English, but I teach American and British culture to them. They are living in a small city and if I don’t share everything with them, they will die in that small city. I enhance their perspective and encourage them to go to university. I’m model of that – everyone in my school wants my experience.
Why do you think the White House should reconsider canceling the J-1 program?
For students living in Turkey, America is a dream country. Without J-1 programs we couldn’t go there. It’s impossible! Getting a visa is really difficult, the currency is really high here, and America is a very expensive country. So if they don’t keep the J-1 program, no students can come to America and have an experience like that.
What advice do you have for people considering coming on the J-1 program?
For eight years I have advised lots of students about this program. So I would say every student needs to go there to work and experience new cultures. Working conditions in Turkey and in America is very different, the education system is different, tolerance in America is very high and tolerance in Turkey is not so high. So it is good for them to be able to see these differences.
What are your plans for the future?
I believe that I’m leader and I’ll touch lots of students and teachers. In my city I founded a project and I have 600 volunteer teachers that I communicate with. I want to go the International Youth Conference and be able to share my experience with my students, colleagues, and my Turkish Lady Bug volunteers.