A letter to our new alumni from World Link ’19 alum Branislav Nolin (Serbia/IA)
You hadn’t seen your family and friends in a long time, and surely you wanted to, but you were having such an awesome time living the new life you created in just a year. And then, all of a sudden, the schools are closed and you are forced to fly back home at the peak of a pandemic, and unfortunately, way earlier than most of us, you are realizing that your exchange year came to an end. Spending the last days of self-isolation, or just living the old life, but under masks and gloves, you are riding a roller-coaster of mixed emotion: happiness, joyfulness, sadness, boredom, madness, homesickness- all at once.
And while you may be thinking that all of your connections to the US and host community are fading away… Let me pause you for a second, and help you see why your old home is not just an already seen place, but the land of new beginnings and opportunities. This is the story of my alumni journey, all the way from a cozy seat on a transatlantic flight to a year of being an alumnus.
Before stepping on that plane headed towards home, like some of you guys, I worked hard during my exchange year. I spent a lot of energy just to make sure I had a time to remember. Living in a foreign culture taught me much by itself, but taking trips, attending conferences with World Link, participating in the PAL program, and winning the World Link’s trip to New York City taught me even more.
But then, I landed in Serbia and decided to put all of this valuable knowledge aside, rest and enjoy the best- hanging out with my old friends, going to school for the last few days and enjoying the summer. Then, my Reentry came. I met numerous FLEX alumni, and was inspired to join them, and do good deeds in my home community.
In September, all at once, I achieved several goals: becoming a city representative, becoming an alumnus of the month, and organizing, what turned out to be, a big project.
The basic idea of this project was to gather elementary school students from a mainstream school and a school for children with disabilities, and for an afternoon, create a safe zone for them to explore the differences between each other, and try to understand how differences make us stronger. I tried to challenge myself, and by the end, my very first project was a social bridge-building workshop with 40 participants, 12 from the school for children with disabilities, 14 volunteers, 2 school principals, 4 teachers, and professionals who specialized in working with children with disabilities. Being interviewed by TV, newspaper, and a radio journalist, finding myself all over the internet, and being in the top 6 projects in the country was flattering, but not the best part. The best part is the joyfulness you feel when those participants come up to you and tell you how much they enjoyed and that they can’t wait to come back again.
If I say that hard work pays off, I’m not saying anything new, but I’m saying that any effort matters. Starting from August, until today, each month I took the best idea I had, and made it a community project. Thanks to this hard work, I was selected to be a participant at FLEX Camps Workshop in Kyiv, Ukraine just last December, and learned many new skills that will help me in the future. Nonetheless, I also met World Link FLEX friends from back in Iowa, and had the joy of being part of a small World Link alumni reunion.
Sometimes things like school or college come in our way, but this year’s obstacle is unique. It made us look back at our roots and remember why giving back to the community is important. As the schools were out and there was plenty of free time during the national emergency and COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to be helpful and make a change, even if a small one. Going shopping, finding medication, and doing some of the outdoor chores for the elderly was truly a rewarding experience.
For the end, always remember that knowledge has no power if not shared. For myself the true value of having organized a dozen projects, winning a GYSD grant, and preparing to challenge myself with a big-scale project, is enabling others to do the same, if not better. That is the biggest reason why I decided to teach at this year’s Reentry seminar.
If World Link taught you that the exchange year is just the beginning, they were right, but I think that any time is a beginning as long as you have bigger and better ideas and willingness to hold onto in the future.
Wishing you luck in finding the meaning of being an alumni, and exploring the power of skills you were given!