Cross-Cultural Connections Inspire Student's Lifelong Passion for Intercultural Exchange and Learning

Pj 2 014 Participants From 3 Countries

By Trey S.

iEARN Photojournalism 2.014: Heritage, Hunger and Security Program in 2013-2014

During my sophomore year of high school, back in 2013, my principal started a photojournalism club. With an interest in photography, I decided to go to the first meeting and the club quickly became a highlight of my week. Later that year, my peers and I participated in a special iEARN program called Photojournalism 2.014: Heritage, Hunger and Food Security, which was funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. Over the course of several months, we spent time photographing, writing, and talking about food. We discussed its cultural significance, food insecurity at home and abroad, and local and regional food systems. We took pictures at restaurants, grocery stores, school, and in our own homes and shared them with students in Pakistan and Tajikistan who were doing the same thing. It was incredibly neat to participate in this project because we were able to share stories and learn from people our own age. These photographs, taken by other students, provided a very unique look into Pakistani and Tajik culture and people’s relationship to food. 

Photojournalism 2 014 U S Class Making Pizza 3

I really enjoyed exchanging photos online, but not once did I think I would ever meet the people behind the cameras. So when I was offered the opportunity to travel to Tajikistan for the culminating event and meet those very people, I didn’t think twice before saying yes. 

I’d describe my experience on the program as a wonderful whirlwind because I spent a total of four days on the ground in Tajikistan. During those 96 hours, we attended workshops, shared our experiences with the project, discussed the importance of international collaboration, and met Susan M. Elliott, the US Ambassador to Tajikistan at the time. 

Photjournalism 2 014 Tajikistan Group Presentations
Photjournalism 2 014 Tajikistan Photo Exhibition
Photjournalism 2 014 Tajikistan U S  Group

However, when I think about those four days, there are three specific moments that I will always cherish and that have impacted me in immense ways--and somehow they all involve dancing. 

On the first night of the program, all of us celebrated Pakistan’s Independence Day together. Our group essentially took over a local restaurant with our celebration, and the Pakistani team set up a whole program full of singing, dancing, and an abundance of green and white. I remember a group of us joyfully dancing around the tables and waving mini Pakistani flags we had been given.

A few days later, I chatted with two of the teachers Seema and Umair. I thanked them for that night and for generously letting us all join in the celebration. They said to me, “you are welcome in Pakistan at any time.” Then Umair said, "Please share this love you experienced here with other Americans. Let them know that we, Pakistani Muslims, are not dangerous.” My heart broke as he said this and I promised him that I would.

Photjournalism 2 014 Tajikistan Trey Pakistani Teacher

On the second-to-last night of our time together in Tajikistan, a big celebration of the program was held in the hotel. Everyone dressed up and there was an abundance of delicious food. There were also a number of performances by our various school groups. My fellow Americans and I decided to share the quintessential party dance: the Cha Cha Slide. The dance proved its propensity for unity that night as we quickly got everyone to join in. As I was sliding to the left and right, I had a massive smile on my face. I experienced this immense rush of gratitude as I thought about where I was and what I was doing. I was performing the Cha Cha Slide, in Tajikistan, with people who were perfect strangers just two days ago, but whom I already loved like family. The deep sense of camaraderie and connection I felt was unparalleled. In that moment, something clicked and I knew that I wanted my life to be filled with moments like that night.

Photjournalism 2 014 Tajikistan Tradition Tajik Meal
Photjournalism 2 014 Tajikistan Dancing

The American team’s flight out of Dushanbe was at 5:40 AM on August 18th. Partially because we figured it would be easier to stay awake, but in large part due to the fact we didn’t want to say goodbye, virtually all of the students decided to stay up together. I fondly remember chatting with more than a dozen other teenagers about little stuff like homework and the weather, but also about complex topics like politics, religion, and the hopes and dreams we have for our countries, our societies, and the world. It was so easy to sit there and talk for hours. We sang a few more songs and, of course, danced a few more dances, and the whole time I could not stop smiling. Once again, I found myself feeling deeply connected to people I had met only four days prior. People I had learned from, laughed with, and whom I now loved.

Photojournalism 2 014 New Friends

Following the iEARN Photojournalism program

I always say my passion for cross-cultural collaboration and international education was cultivated in my high school. For four years, I attended the Center for Global Studies, an interdistrict magnet school dedicated to raising students to become active global citizens. After graduating from high school in 2016, I attended Colgate University, where I majored in anthropology and minored in peace and conflict studies and women’s studies. During my time at Colgate, I was privileged to have had many opportunities that contributed to my development as a person, a global citizen, and a life-long learner.

My first year, I was selected for a global leadership scholars program and spent two semesters studying the origins and significance of the World Wars and their ongoing global influence today. I traveled with my cohort to France, Belgium, Germany, and Russia and was able to see and analyze many of the long-standing effects of the wars firsthand.

During my sophomore year I took a course that looked at how gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, and citizenship status create identity-based communities in the various districts of the city of San Francisco, U.S. and, along with my class, traveled to San Francisco to see firsthand what we had researched.

Through the School for International Training (SIT), I spent the spring of my junior year living and learning in villages, cities, and communities in Java and Bali, Indonesia. That summer, I returned to Indonesia to study Indonesian through the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program. In addition to trying to attain my goal of fluency in Indonesian, I also formed relationships with people and places that will always be a part of me. 

Future Plans

This March, I was the recipient of a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) Award to Indonesia but, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program has unfortunately been cancelled for the 2020-2021 academic year. As a result, I was given the opportunity to be considered for reassignment and where should I be reassigned to but Tajikistan! Upon hearing of this change, I immediately messaged Khudoyberdi, a friend I made during the iEARN program. We’ve exchanged messages over the years but haven’t seen each other since 2014. He currently volunteers at the American Space in Bokhtar and I am immensely excited to reconnect with him in January. 

Photjournalism 2 014 Tajikistan Trey Khuyoberdi

It has been six years since I participated in the iEARN Photojournalism project and a lot has changed. I have graduated from high school and college. I have traveled and learned a lot more about the world. At the same time though, my passion for helping and collaborating with people is as strong as ever. When I think about my future and where I imagine myself in the world, I see myself doing on the ground, community-based work with local communities. I think of those days dancing in Dushanbe with such fondness and I continue to find myself irrevocably drawn to moments like those, which evoke my intellectual curiosity and warm my heart.