Developing Social Awareness through CIEE Work & Travel USA

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Work Exchanges

By Zoser Teto Maximus, 2018 CIEE Work & Travel USA participant and 2018 Civic Leadership Summit fellow

I am Zoser Maximus from Upper Egypt. I was brought up in a small community that is limited to diversity of thoughts, religions, or accents. My upbringing in such an environment affected my mindset. Being part of a community where there are limited relations with the outside world and not having travelled abroad made me dread this experience. Two years ago I tried to discover different cultures in my country, mainly by reading about Ethnic groups in Egypt like Nubians, Amazighs and Arabs.  I was amazed by their traditions and their languages. For example, Nubian language is one of the oldest languages in history, but one which cannot be written nor learnt. After going to Nubia, some words were stuck in my mind and I became able to communicate with those friendly native people to whom I owe the perspectives I had gained during my stay in Nubia. That encouraged me to engage in a whole new experience in an attempt to challenge the dread of going outside my bubble. I was finally able to open myself up to the world. The next step was to travel to the most diverse place with colleagues from all over the world with CIEE Work & Travel USA. 

Before travelling to the U.S., I had some questions in my mind such as: Can I find a common ground with people there despite our different backgrounds? How can I deal with people I know nothing about? Would the language be a barrier and prevent me from being social? And even whether the English I had learned is the same English other people speak or not. But what happened made me realize that it wasn’t as complicated as I thought.  It turned out that the human interactions that I found myself part of were very spontaneous and friendly.  

I learned to deal with a misunderstanding that may lead to a conflict, which is a step towards building peace. Being friendly is a part of being professional. I had a conflict with a housing manager where I lived.  I tried to resolve the issue but wasn’t successful.  With the help of CIEE and my HR manager the misunderstanding was resolved.  I was able to talk with the housing manager again afterwards.  In that conversation, the housing manager apologized and acknowledged the mistake and that the assumptions made about me that weren’t correct.  I think it was a learning experience for the manager and for me about interacting with people from different cultures.  I was glad to have the support of my HR manager and of CIEE to help me through this situation.   


Photo for blog post Developing Social Awareness through CIEE Work & Travel USA
Zoser with Work & Travel USA colleagues
Photo for blog post Developing Social Awareness through CIEE Work & Travel USA
Zoser hiking with his Turkish roommate and coworker during their Work & Travel USA program

During the summer I was selected to participate in the Civic Leadership Summit.  There I learned how to establish goals and actions to positively impact the future of my community. I had the opportunity to analyze the problems I see in my community and how to search for a solution.  One of the highlights of the event was meeting the former Ambassador of the United States, Johnny Young. We talked about his career and he told me that his first international experience was in Lebanon in a similar conference to the one we were at in Washington. That was what motivated him and led him to what he is now. And he heard my ideas and thoughts and encouraged me to keep up what I am doing. 


Photo for blog post Developing Social Awareness through CIEE Work & Travel USA
Zoser alongside CIEE Board Member and Ambassador Johnny Young (Ret.)

The most precious reward from participating at this event was being able to talk to people from all over the world, expressing ourselves freely and discovering the common ground. This world is much bigger than I thought.  But we’re not alone. People have problems like ours and even more complicated ones. And they pick themselves up each time! That’s what I concluded after a long talk with a friend from China about the cultures and characteristics of our two countries.  We envisioned establishing a small project which would enable us to make use of our ideas and resources from two totally different places.  So, it’s not only about my country anymore, it’s the whole world being involved. After coming back from the Civic Leadership Summit, I started looking at my community with more intention and responsibility. 

During the Summit we were asked to identify the problem in our community and think of an innovative way to address it. My team worked to come up with a solution to stop female genital mutilation, still common in my country. The “Girl Rising” session gave me an idea of using films to build awareness about the issue.  I remember meeting Dr. Mina El Naggar, a physician and filmmaker, who told me about MedFest, a medically-themed educational film forum that he founded.  The theme for 2018 MedFest was women’s health and  I was the most excited for the idea of organizing the film festival in my town, Minya, in Upper Egypt. 

Having formed a team of 12 students who are passionate about spreading the knowledge about  women's problems in our community, we managed to organize the film forum with an audience of 280 people - 70% were medical students, and 30 % filmmakers and public audience. We had the presence of a specialized pannel in filmmaking, a gynecology specialist, and a psychologist in order to have discussions about the topics of women health and FGM. With great feedback and having a space for girls to express themselves, this opportunity represented the first step to an annual Medfest in Minya.


Photo for blog post Developing Social Awareness through CIEE Work & Travel USA
The Medfest Minya team and panel

Before travelling, I used to get myself involved in my community to see what kind of problems we have, so I could jot down some ideas on my notebook and later develop them into concrete examples of contributing to the well-being of my community. Although I was noting down all the ideas that I thought to be solutions, sometimes I started to lose faith in them. I started feeling disappointed, thinking that this whole thing is worthless. I thought to myself, “Stop doing this. This cannot happen.”  

But I’ve learned that there remains a glimmer of hope and that the tools to fulfill my own dream weren’t far-fetched after all. Having a core team in my country that is enthusiastic, socially aware, and passionate about filmmaking helps. It is the beginning of something revolutionary. My experience in the United States has shown me that there is nothing ‘little’ or worthless and every great thing started small. My ideas, which I used to consider little, are actually steps forward to something really important. Even if they aren’t mature enough or well-organized, just working on ideas directs me to the way I should take. And this is the real benefit of living in such a huge community like the United States. You get the chance to explore yourself whereupon you find yourself more confident, clear, and closer to your real purpose in life.  After my experience with CIEE and the Civic Leadership Summit, I am more socially aware. I believe that my ideas to address community issues are concrete and can be accomplished one day.

For more information about Civic Leadership Summit, please visit our website.

For more information on the CIEE Work & Travel USA program, click here.