William Byrd senior Jeremy Slater is returning on June 15 from a year of studying abroad in Macedonia.
He received a full scholarship through the United States Department of State Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Abroad (YES) program, one of only 65 students chosen from across the United States.
He and other students in the YES program served as youth ambassadors for the United States in several countries, promoting mutual understanding by forming lasting relationships while immersed with their host families and communities.
Macedonia is located in southeast Europe on the Balkan Peninsula. Slater has been living in the capital city of Skopje and studying at the private NOVA International School, a college preparatory school offering AP and International Baccalaureate classes taught in English. His host family has been the Kondevi family, which includes the parents, and a son and daughter around Slater’s age.
Although Slater won’t be back in Vinton until after his William Byrd classmates have graduated on June 9, he will be participating in the graduation ceremonies via Skype, giving one of the valedictorian addresses to the Class of 2017.
Here is his latest update from abroad:
“Since the last time we have talked, I graduated, participated in a traditional Macedonian prom (Matura), held a ‘Trivia Night’ for Global Youth Service Day with 35 people, traveled all over the country with my program, experienced an Orthodox Easter, decided on a college (#EmoryUniversity2021), presented my senior thesis to a panel and received distinctions, received two awards for community service and leadership from my school, went to Greece, hung out with all of the incredible people I have met, and, of course, drank lots of coffee,” says Slater.
“Graduation was very exciting,” he notes. “I wasn’t really looking forward to it, because I had already accepted my final year at Byrd as the finale to my high school career; however, when I put on the gown the day of, I realized that this was my time to be proud of all of my accomplishments. I surprisingly received two awards: a Citizenship Award for genuine positive attitudes and community service and a U.S. Presidential Silver Seal Award for my adaptability during times of unusual circumstances. It was very fun and I was happy my host family got to come.”
He went on to describe his Easter in Macedonia.
“For Easter, the big church in the city center has a midnight service where the Archbishop comes and holds a service with loud overhead speakers,” Slater said. “Thousands of people come and all the roads are closed. You buy candles from street vendors, which are meant for prayers for good health of family members. Another European tradition is the dyed hard-boiled eggs. It is tradition to see which egg will ‘last’ the longest by tapping it on each other’s eggs. It is a fun time, and very different customs from what I was used to for Easter.
“Macedonian ‘Matura’ is a very important time for graduating seniors,” he continues. “Families hold large gatherings to commemorate their child’s hard work, and it involves lots of food, drink, dancing, and laughter. The schools also hold Maturi for their senior classes. I went with two of my best friends, Tina Kolekjevska and Mimi Kostova. It was genuinely the most fun night of my life.
“It is tradition to go to a Balkan ‘Kafana,’ which is essentially a large restaurant with a dance floor; then after that ends around 1 a.m., the class ventured to a rented-out disco where we stayed until approximately 5 a.m.” he explained. “From the disco, it is Skopje tradition to go to the top of Vodno Mountain and watch the sunrise. It was the prettiest sunrise– being able to watch it with my best friends here in this stunning country. After the sunrise, the class (or the ones remaining) then ventured to the school, which, keep in mind, is still going because it is a regular school day, and a traditional Macedonian band called ‘trubachi’ comes and plays loud Balkan music in front of the school while the graduated seniors dance for around an hour. Now I assume this sounds very strange, but it honestly was one of the most beautiful, altruistically Balkan, and exciting times of my life. I will always remember it.
“My program paid for my group to have two weekend trips to both Eastern and Western Macedonia,’ said Slater. “We rented this really funny van with a driver named Stole, and we trekked around to the most gorgeous places in this country. “
During this journey, Slater says one of his treasured memories is jumping on top of a mountain called “Galichica” which, from the top, you can see both Prespa and Ohrid Lakes. “It was so windy, but nonetheless, a memory I will forever hold dear to my heart.
“The trips were completely paid for, and because I am the only guy in the group, I always got an entire room on my own,” Slater said. “Needless to say, it was two consecutive weekends of luxury! I am so thankful and grateful for this program, and I truly hope more people will become aware of its benefits not only for the community and larger world, but for the self and its growth.”
Slater describes an event he hosted for Global Youth Service Day at a local café. “The event was a ‘Trivia Night’ and it included topics about community service, volunteerism, global politics, world leaders, and, of course, pop culture. Surprisingly, 35 people turned out and I was excited to have so many people there to support my event, aimed at creating a conversation on the benefits and needs of community service within the youth of today.”
At the time of this update, Slater said, “I have 15 days left now and that thought makes me uncomfortable. I do not know what to think. Am I happy? Am I sad? Of course, I am. But it is ultimately a lot more complicated than that. It is weird to know that my life here, my journey here, and my existence here will terminate in just two weeks. I know that my work, presence, and relationships I have forged in Macedonia will continue to have ripples long after I leave, because do we ever truly leave a place? I don’t believe I will ever leave this place, for a small portion of my heart will forever lay within the cracks of this developing and intriguing country.
“Though I am so excited to see my friends and family and start a new chapter at university, I have become so happy in the present moment– and it is now my daunting challenge to maintain happiness within the present wherever I may go,” said Slater. “There is a Portuguese word ‘saudade,’ which essentially means nostalgia for the present. It is the knowledge that this life will never return, but my happiness, contentment, and genuine joy for the act of living is within the present moment. I feel a sense of longing already for this place, from all its delicious desserts and all of its downfalls, and I will forever thank this experience for its life-changing and formative qualities.”