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. After hearing more about their stories and successes, one finalist’s journey stood out to us.
We are enthusiastic to announce that Lidiia Kozhevnikova is Spirit's 2017 Grand Prize Alumni Award recipient! She came on Spirit’s program in 2008 and 2010 through our Ukrainian partner agency, USEC. Since returning home, she has graduated with degrees in English, Linguistics, Economics and Business. She has gone on to co-found Joy of the Childhood, an organization which helps Ukrainian youth and uses her photography skills to make an impact on social issues.
Lidiia is planning to use her Grand Prize award as a donation to her NGO, Joy of the Childhood, to help her support youth in Ukraine. Read on to learn more about her inspiring story and stay tuned in the future as we continue to follow her professional development!
Summer Work Travel experience
Lidiia’s cultural exchange journey began in 2008 when she came to the United States on Spirit’s Summer Work and Travel program.
“The first time was working at Noah’s Ark in the Wisconsin Dells and I was 19. It was my first travel experience without my parents so I had to work and earn money to pay for food, fun, and to arrange where I lived. Being a teenager, it is not common in Ukraine that you could pay for yourself.”
Because of the positive experience she had during her time working in the Dells, she decided to join the program again in 2010.
“My first experience was very good. That’s why two years later I decided to repeat it again. I was working at the McDonald’s as a cashier and it was also a great experience because I had even more communication. Our McDonald’s was one of the busiest in New York because it is situated near Niagara Falls, so many buses with tourists stopped every day.”
Not only did Lidiia improve her English language skills and gain valuable work experience, she also got to meet Americans from all walks of life and people from around the world.
“Before coming to the US I didn’t know about America a lot. I knew some stereotypes about American people and that’s all. So everything for me was new. I was a sponge collecting all the information. And after, I shared this with my society. I like different cultures and am a very tolerant person. I am very much into diversity. This experience was very interesting because I got to know new people.”
Bringing her experience back to Ukraine
After returning home from the SWT program, Lidiia resumed her studies and began volunteering in a local orphanage. Although these visits were emotional she wanted to further her impact and decided to co-found an NGO, Joy of the Childhood. The organization aims to provide support for orphans, kids in poverty and kids who need immediate treatment or surgery.
“We go to orphanages to play with kids and to make creative workshops. We make them feel like someone needs them in this world and they are not alone. There are people who could share their not so positive childhood and could bring happiness to their lives.”
Joy of the Childhood became a registered organization in February 2011, and is funded through a number of grants from organizations like the Ukrainian Women’s Foundation and the European Youth Foundation.
Besides making a difference in orphanages, Joy of the Childhood hosts different programs and trainings to educate youth. Their goal is to help them become more open towards people of other nationalities and people with differences.
For one program, they collaborated with a local school for children with disabilities to coordinate an intercultural camp experience. The students were introduced to different experiences and cultures from around the world.
“We had 5 days and 5 cultures: Africa, America, Europe, Asia and Ukraine, since a lot of people don’t know about their own Ukrainian culture. We tried to engage our kids to learn more about different cultures. We listened to their music, explained their traditions and brought in traditional costumes. We did all this to help the kids to understand the variety of different people and nations. We did this so they would be more inclusive of diversity and accept differences.”
Another program educated young people on the importance of contraceptives.
“We invited a Gynecologist to different schools and the doctor shared information with the young girls and boys and gave contraceptives to them in order to avoid abortions and unwanted pregnancies. We did this campaign at different schools and universities in our city.”
Combining a passion for social work and photography
In addition to being an advocate for social issues and youth in Ukraine, Lidiia is also is an established photographer. Her photography career began in 2008 after she returned home from her first SWT program. She received a refund when filing her US taxes and decided to put the money towards her first DSLR camera and photography lessons.
Her photography skills are an asset to her work at the Joy of the Childhood. A recent program offered youth from across Ukraine the opportunity to develop their art and design skills while learning about breaking stereotypes that may be present in different regions and to have a conversation about them.
Throughout the week the attendees were able to make movies to portray their thoughts on different stereotypes in a visual way.
“Nowadays people are very interested in visual studies. In one of the training sessions, we created a stop motion video which shows how you can avoid stereotypes. Many people are interested in how to do the stop motion video because they have never done it before.”
“We had another session where they made a short movie which showed some conflicting situations and how they could avoid it. Everything was done by the participants: they hired actors, made the scenarios, the video, and did the editing. Afterwards, we presented in an art gallery and we invited people to see the video and make discussions.”
As a result of Lidiia’s ability to incorporate her artistic skills into her organization’s programs, they were incredibly popular among the participants. For this specific program, they received over 300 applications.
Opening minds through photography
Besides using photography as a tool in her organization, she also uses her talent to shed light on social issues that impact Ukraine. She hopes that her photographs showcased in exhibitions and online on her website will help raise awareness of the issues and inspire people to take action.
One of her exhibitions called “Food Mood” documented food waste, a prevalent problem in Ukraine.
“I learned that in some countries it is a shame to waste food. I started to notice how much food we are wasting every day in Ukraine. I started to tell people, ‘do you know that in Indonesia it is very impolite to not finish food, it is disrespectful to other countries that don’t have food.’ Not many people understand, so the pictures I take resonate with people and they start to think about it. I hope they change something and share it with other people.”
Continuing professional development and cultural exchange
Due to her impressive accomplishments in the social work and photography fields, in 2016 Lidiia got the opportunity to attend the Ship for World Youth Leaders program run by the Japanese government. She was one of the 12 Ukrainian delegates among over 250 participants from 10 countries.
During the 45 day program, participants learned about leadership and intercultural skills. They traveled to various islands to learn about different cultures and people. The stops included: Japan, New Zealand, Soloman Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu.
Lidiia said the biggest value was learning from the different people.
“We visited New Zealand, the people are very open about diversity, they do not care who you are, about your nationality or your sexual orientation or disability. This was new to me because in Ukraine it is rare when people with disabilities or other sexual orientations could get a normal job.”
Not only did Lidiia learn from other cultures, but she was able to represent her own as well.
“It was a diplomatic job because we were representatives of Ukraine. Unfortunately, not a lot of people know about Ukraine. We have a lot more to share with people besides the fact that it is a conflict country, that we are poor and have a lot of corruption. We felt like we did a good job because after this program people from Japan, New Zealand and Canada have visited our country and we are happy with that.”
Cultural exchange makes for a better world
It should be no surprise by now that Lidiia is an avid supporter of cultural exchange. She has seen the benefit of exploring other countries, meeting different kinds of people and embracing her own Ukrainian roots. Her perspective is one that Spirit tries to promote through our programs.
“I think cross cultural exchange is important because we have to learn from each other and realize that each culture is beautiful. If you knew a little bit more about different traditions and different cultures you could understand more about the people”
“Every time I visit a new country, I try to bring something good from my society. I try to learn from them, and I try to share with them things about my own country and culture. I think if everyone shared this perspective we could have a very beautiful world and everyone could be a brother and sister. We would reduce the number of wars and conflicts and create a better place for everyone.”
We couldn’t agree with Lidiia more! We are proud of her accomplishments and can’t wait to see what she does in the future. She exemplifies what we were looking for in a Spirit alumni and we hope that the grand prize award helps her continue making an impact in her country and worldwide.