I arrived in Resen, Macedonia in a cab I paid too much for. I stood on the side of the road and called my host teacher from my new cell phone. I had only spoken to Maja twice, but I recognized the smile in her voice through the windshield of her red Volkswagon. My two under-twenty-five-kilo suitcases filled the backseat. I reached for a seatbelt that wasn’t there. Maja’s mother, Sonja, met us in their front yard and gave me the kind of hug I remember when I am asked to summarize my year in Macedonia.
My official Fulbright assignment was to assist in high school English classes. In the fall, I taught with Maja at the high school in Resen. My assignment moved to a music high school in Bitola for the spring. Throughout the year, I also spent two or three days a week at a junior high school in a village outside of Bitola, helping facilitate the pilot of an embassy-sponsored project called the Dreams and Friendship Exchange—a virtual exchange program that promotes English language learning and interethnic, intercultural understanding through partnering students in Macedonia and America.
I remember climbing a small mountain to get to the military-building-turned-high-school where I taught in a bathroom-turned-classroom. I remember the predictably unpredictable commute to Bitola. The bus driver might stop the bus to chat with a friend. The police might stop the car and question the passengers. The cab driver might choose a more lucrative opportunity. I would find another way home.
As part of the Dreams and Friendship Exchange, participants in Macedonia and Florida explored monthly themes. We began the year discussing topics like My School, My Community and My Country, and moved towards more abstract concepts like My Rights and My Dreams. Each theme was paired with a Langston Hughes poem to inspire conversation, critical thinking and creativity. During the course of the month, students interacted via a private social media site and online classes. The group in Macedonia also created video podcasts documenting their process. My time was mostly spent developing and executing collaborative projects and maintaining the Dreams and Friendship blog.
I remember Class 9A writing a poem about sushi for their friends in Florida. Students from 7B investigated the powerful musicality of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s rhetoric. I remember the inspired Blues songs—“Have Me a Boat,” “Baby I Know English,” “Lawd, I’m Proud of Myself.” Viktorija and Marija discovered they are poets. Dimitri engaged his desire to act and direct.
Since I had planned to study virtual exchanges as part of my grant, participating in the Dreams and Friendship Exchange was a tailor-made opportunity. I was fortunate to learn about program structure and logistics. I faced the challenges of coordinating between two different educational systems. Most importantly, I observed the effectiveness of connecting students through creative collaboration.
Arjan lit up at the opportunity to share his cultural traditions with his peers from different backgrounds. He translated the entire Dreams and Friendship Celebration into Albanian. At the celebration, we presented our work from the year to the students’ families and the Bitola community. We were honored to have Ambassador Jess Baily attend. In the context of recent unrest in the northern part of the country, he concluded his comments, “I can’t think of a better way to end the week than to be among you, among dreams and among friendship.”
Through my work as Fulbright ETA, I learned virtual exchanges are a viable and exciting way to promote mutual understanding. They can be simple, yet powerful. Moving forward, I will continue to build the skills and seek out professional experiences that will eventually allow me to produce a virtual exchange connecting children around the world through music. My Fulbright experience validated this long-time goal and gave it the taste of attainability. This sense of the possible is among my most cherished souvenirs.
Maja and I waited outside Goran’s apartment in Skopje at 2 a.m. We loaded my two slightly-over-twenty-five-kilo suitcases into the trunk. I got into the backseat with Macey, and we drove away. Maja and I had found Macey Ela Musich Ivkovska Jones in a dumpster on our way home from school. As we carried her away, the people who lived in the house nearby said with astonishment, “That cat is going to America.”
As part of the Dreams and Friendship Exchange, students participated in the Dream Flag Project, which is an annual project that inspires children around the world to dream out loud through poetry. In this video, students in Bistrica, Macedonia read their dream poems.