Editor's note: In March, American Councils is featuring profiles of alumnae in different stages of their careers. They are studying and working in different fields, but they all got their start through an exchange program and they're all headed for success.
Angela Gjekanovikj isn’t an ambassador yet, but she’s been practicing for years.
She was only a teenager when she traveled from Skopje, Macedonia, to Bakersfield, California, to start her academic year abroad with the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program.
“It was the moment I stepped out of the plane I started sharing Macedonia,” she said with a laugh, during a recent phone interview. “In Macedonia we kiss (three times), and I kissed all of them.”
Her host parents and host sister, armed with flowers and a welcome sign, took the greeting in stride.
During her exchange year, Angela participated in nearly every extracurricular activity offered at her high school: key club, drama club, improv, Future Farmers of America, color-guard, track and field, in addition to dedicating numerous volunteer hours at the library and other charitable events.
She traded cultural lessons with her classmates, teaching them the “oro,” a traditional Macedonian dance, while they taught her the “Dougie.” She was also part of the inaugural Civic Education Week in Washington D.C., which affords select exchange students the opportunity to learn about the government and meet with officials from their host states. Her involvement helped refine her future goals, which before her exchange year had been unclear.
“I honestly didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life,” she said. “I was in high school to study economics, but once I was on the YES program, I knew I wanted to work with people.”
Someday, she’d like to become an ambassador or diplomat, she added.
Angela returned to Macedonia with a desire to “experience the world more,” so she looked for more opportunities to learn and grow. She continued volunteering and helped build the relatively young YES alumni network in Macedonia. She later studied international business at Perrotis College in Greece, using her YES experience and volunteer hours to apply for a scholarship.
Her accomplishments and studies earned her a Fulbright scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in political science, which she recently completed at the University of Missouri. Up next, she has several entrepreneurial ventures in mind, including some ideas to help fellow YES alumni.
“The YES alumni community is more like a family in a way, here in Macedonia, but also abroad,” she said. “We have similar mindsets.”
Semra is part of that family. Semra went on the YES program the same year as Angela, but the two women have shared a friendship since childhood.
Semra works for the Network of Associations of Local Authoriities of South-East Europe, specifically on gender equality projects with UN Women. She credits YES with setting her and Angela on their current paths.
“I think we would have been volunteers and active (anyway),” Semra said. “But I don’t think we would have such initiative as leaders, and not together, and not with such a great network.”
She wasn’t surprised to hear Angela’s career ambitions.
“For someone to be an ambassador, you really have to know how to connect with people and build bridges and she’s great at that,” Semra said.
About the YES Program
Congress established the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program in October 2002 in response to the events of September 11, 2001. The program is funded through the U.S. Department of State and sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) to provide scholarships for high school students from countries with significant Muslim populations to spend up to one academic year in the United States.
Students live with American host families, attend high school, engage in activities to learn about U.S. society and values, acquire leadership skills, and help educate Americans about their countries and cultures.