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.
Daria Shlyapugina is a finalist from Russia who spent her Summer Work and Travel experience in New Mexico in 2012. She used her English language skills to help her obtain a Marketing Specialist job where she translated texts between Russian and English. Read more to hear how her SWT experience impacted her and influenced her view on cultural exchange!
Can you tell us about your experience at the Sands restaurant?
When I came there I was a busgirl for a month or so because I was afraid of speaking English. Then I became a bit braver and said “I’m ready”, and was able to try out waitressing. I was always chatting with people and became closer with all of the guys inside. Sometimes I was left all alone as the only waitress and the customers would say something in Spanish. So I had to learn some Spanish words.
It was great fun! All the time, even when it was very busy! I got closer with another girl and we became great friends. Still now, we chat sometimes and she’s waiting for me to come there again.
How do you think that your Work and Travel experience changed your perspective on the US and its people?
I always thought that Americans were not so easy to contact or to chat with. In Russia there is a superstition that if you see a smiling man that means he is foolish. It was so unusual to see everyone smiling and saying, “hi, how are you?” That was so surprising because no one says “how are you?” if you don’t know them.
Another thing that surprised me was the easy attitude towards life. You live, you work, you have something to eat, a place to live, and you’re supposed to be happy.
Lastly, it taught me that I shouldn’t care as much about how I look. Maybe I have freckles, gray hair, or some disadvantage to my appearance or character. I always will find people who will love me the way I am. I think this is a special feature of Americans to care less about not so important things like your appearance or money. Just be the way you are and that’s enough!
Can you tell us about a person who made an impression on you during the time in the US?
When I first arrived to the airport I didn’t book a bus ticket to my employer and I lost my job offer. I was all alone and I didn’t know where to go. A lady at the airport saw that I was lost and told me where to go. Once I got off the bus, I was at McDonalds and since I didn’t have my job offer, I didn’t know where to go or who to call. A husband and wife talked to the McDonalds staff and found out how far I had to go and how I could get there. These were the first people I talked to in America and they really made a difference.
Can you give us some background on what you have been doing since returning from your SWT program?
First I worked as a Kindergarten teacher. There was a special program for the kids where you only speak English. I worked about a year as a teacher and then after I graduated, I worked as a marketing specialist.
My biggest experience was as an internet marketing specialist for one international company. I adapted Russian to English and English to Russian with clients and partners. I was the only person in the whole company who was responsible for English.
What have you learned in working at your current job and what skills does it take for you to be successful?
My biggest skill is writing text in any direction - any article that needs editing or adapting for regular people. For example, if someone had cancer, not many doctors would be able to explain what is happening in a way that is easy to understand. My task is to find out what people need to know and how to explain it to them in simple words.
Why do you think cross-cultural exchange is important?
I adore traveling and I think it is important for people to know other cultures. That opens your mind to the wideness of the universe. It gives you something new in your mind and life. Sometimes it changes something in your character, behavior, or attitudes.
People are closed in their one little box of stereotypes, and you just have to break it. Cross-cultural exchange not just helps you; it makes you!
The current US White House Administration is considering canceling or reducing J1 programs. Why do you think they should reconsider this?
I think the program of “Buy American, Hire American” is like racism. Our jobs as waitresses, housekeepers and sellers will not replace Americans. Going abroad for young people is not just a big experience. It’s an opportunity to see something more than their country, stereotypes, and traditions.
If they close it, it will be really hard. Especially the language, it is very difficult to learn English being in your home country without the opportunity to speak with a native. When you are inside the USA, you have to speak it!
It’s been 5 years since you came to the US on the SWT program. What would you tell yourself before coming to the US if you could go back in time?
My biggest advice is to buy tickets in advance and my second is to keep all important documents in one place.
I would advise myself to speak more, not be afraid of anything, and to absorb all the languages – not only English. I would also tell myself to visit more places and teach people Russian.