Discovering New Life Abroad and Learning to Give Back

Ekaterina Perezhogina from Russia shares through writing and a very creative video on how her exchange experience in the United States taught her to keep an open mind and not be afraid of stepping outside her comfort zone.

The plane rapidly took off and headed into the clear sky as I was full of emotions because I could not predict the upcoming experiences. They could be good or bad, sad or funny, but surely unforgettable. I had been awarded with a wonderful opportunity: as a Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX) finalist, I earned the chance to study in an American high school for a year and explore American culture, while living with a host family! Who could even predict that I would get an opportunity to jump into a new life in America, a country that I had only seen from TV screens and glossy magazines?

Continue reading below or watch Ekaterina’s story here!

I realized this journey will not be an easy one, but coming with no high expectations I adapted to my new surroundings, eventually, turning this experience into the best one ever. My new family opened their doors, welcoming me with surprises and warmth. The scent of cooked turkey and the Russian soup, which we made together with my host dad, marked the celebration of Thanksgiving. Driving to Michigan to get a Christmas tree was an unforgettable adventure.

When the winter was over, I realized it was the time to give back. I discovered I loved doing presentations about my country for children in elementary school; they were the best audience I had ever encountered: always curious and honest. That is how I got an idea to work with children when I go back home. I wish there were more exchange programs so that students would dare to learn about other people’s lives. These students will discover their own talents, realize that they can come up with a multitude of solutions for one problem, and consider other people’s opinions if they take a first step and appreciate what they observe and learn.

Ekaterina presenting about Russia at an elementary school
Ekaterina presenting about Russia at an elementary school

Soon my wonderful exchange year had come to an end. The first days of being back in my home country were exciting but tough. The same town, good old friends, my own room also the same: nothing has changed but me.  I felt that I had to readapt and overcome the initial loneliness. But I reminded myself that it is only a new start and I should remember everything I learned during this exchange year. Inspired by my volunteering experience in America, I tried to find an organization, which provides support for needy children in local orphanages and nearby villages. Luckily, I found a woman who shares my interests and we drove for two hours to visit a poor family that lived in a small house in the countryside. We gathered the school supplies, three bags of shirts, pants and school uniforms from recent school graduates and brought it to a little boy, whose eyes were full of surprise and curiosity. “We wish you the best school year ever, Vova,” I added. I am sure that it is only the beginning of our larger work with children.

For the first time in my life I realized the importance of keeping an open mind, leaving your comfort zone and adapting to new surroundings. I had not known before that being flexible and curious can open a world of new possibilities and connections. If someone told me in the beginning that this experience would change my life and help me become more mature I would not have believed it. Now I have come to understand that experiencing different lifestyles is an essential part of growing up and becoming a versatile person. This experience inspires me to keep exploring new horizons.

Ekaterina studies chemistry at the College of Lake County outside Chicago, Illinois. 

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