For starters, Serbian isn’t exactly the most popular language course taken at Shawnee Mission Wonderful. Also, the country is brand new, just recently separated from Yugoslavia and became its own country in 2003. And, most of all, Serbia is nearly 5,600 miles away from the United States.
Some students take trips to England to see the funny-looking guards with the big black hats, and ride on those double-decker buses. The Amigos program sends students to Central American countries to carry out service projects and live with host families. Serbia, on the other hand, isn’t the most commonly-visited country for foreign exchange students.
Ask Sophomore Lauren Brown why anyone would go to Serbia, and she’ll give you all the reasons in the world.
“Lots of people wouldn’t have Serbia on their bucket list to visit, but I’ve been researching it and it’s actually a really neat place,” Lauren said. “This is really nerdy but I think the architecture is really pretty; it’s a new city, but it’s older looking. Also, we’ll travel on trains to Hungary and back, and between the two is really gorgeous, with all the rolling hills you could imagine.”
Lauren’s interest in visiting central Europe was sparked the day Chaffee relayed a message he received in an email that day. The Shawnee Mission Social Studies Chair, who is also Lauren’s mother, Debbie Brown, sent him information on The Youth Leadership Program with Central Europe (YLPCE), who was sending a group of 52 students from across the country to Serbia and Hungary. Chaffee mentioned the program in passing, neither him nor Debbie expecting anyone to respond as strongly as Lauren did. Against both of their initial thoughts, Lauren went home that night begging her mother for more information.
“When [Lauren] came home and said ‘Mom, Mr. Chaffee put this up on the bulletin board,’ and I’m just going ‘No way!’ First of all, I was like, of all the emails a teacher could open up, he puts out this one.”
YLPCE is a national program that works towards bringing together high school kids that possess leadership potential; their goal is to make ties with other countries through service projects. First, in late July, the American students will make their two-week trip to Serbia and Hungary to build leadership skills; quickly following, their Serbian coworkers will make the trip to the United States.
“I know [Lauren] will make the most of her experience in all of its aspects,” Chaffee said. “Working with a group of unfamiliar people; being away from home; coping with new and, perhaps, strange customs and languages; appreciating new vistas and villages and cities; being slightly changed by a new phase of her life.”
After spending hours finishing her application and completing four extensive essays over winter break, Lauren was “called back” to interview two of the YLPCE chairs, and was officially accepted nearly a month later. She will live in Serbia and Hungary for two weeks with a host family.
“I was extremely excited [when I got accepted] because all of my hard work paid off and that they had seen me as a good candidate for the program,” Lauren said. “That was basically a huge compliment because it was such a selective process.”
One of the things that drew Lauren to YLPCE in the first place was her love for international relations and being exposed to new cultures. She plans to major in international relations in college and hopefully study abroad while doing so.
“I’ve always been interested in international relations and I’ve always thought that’d be a good career path for me,” Lauren said. “I’ve always been interested in languages and communicating with other people that aren’t necessarily like me. But I really haven’t had opportunities to use those skills with people from different countries.”
According to Debbie, one of Lauren’s biggest strengths is adapting to new situations and communicating with people she doesn’t know well, both of which will come in handy on her trip to a whole other continent.
“I just like the whole idea of being some place that not very many people will get the opportunity to be in,” Lauren said. “Just being out of my element is something that most people would be nervous for but I’m excited to be challenged in that area.”
Though Debbie is grateful and excited that Lauren is getting the opportunity to learn new cultures, languages and lifestyles, what she wants the most is for Lauren to gain a wide perspective.
“I really want her to learn about what the world is like outside of Kansas City, Prairie Village, or ‘Perfect Village’ that we have,” Debbie said. “We see everything through the eyes of the United States. I want her to see things through the eyes of another country.”
Despite all the benefits and the excitement from the trip this summer, there are a few negatives. In addition to the 18-hour flight she will have to sit through, Lauren will miss getting her favorite lemonade and waffle fries from Chik-Fil-A with her friends on the weekends. She’ll be leaving her group of close friends behind to have end-of-the-summer parties and comparing their newly-received school schedules for common classes, both of which she will be missing out on. Also, in the back of her mind, she is worried about making solid relationships with the people she will be working with.
“I’m hoping to build relationships with the people that I’m going with and that will have commonalities,” Lauren said. “I really hope that we as American teens represent our country well because I’m sure they have all these predetermined opinions about what life in America’s like.”
But the anticipation outweighs her fears. In the end, Lauren believes this will be the experience of a lifetime.
“I’ll gain so much of a more globalized perspective and viewpoint, and I’ve always wanted that,” Brown said. “You don’t really gain that unless you go abroad and see these places. And I’m excited for that.”