William Byrd student Jeremy Slater is spending his senior year studying in Macedonia, a country located in southeast Europe on the Balkan Peninsula.
He has 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.
Students in the YES program serve as youth ambassadors for the United States in various countries, promoting mutual understanding by forming lasting relationships with their host families and communities. They live with host families so that they can experience immersion in the culture.
Slater is 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 is the Kondevi family, which includes the parents, and a son and daughter around Slater’s age.
Here is his latest update about the holiday seasons in Macedonia:
“I am currently on winter break from December 17 through January 8,” shared Slater. “It is three weeks of break, as opposed to the two weeks most schools in the U.S. get. The reason for an extra week is that Christmas here is celebrated January 7 and 8. However, the old Yugoslavic roots have maintained a very secular aspect in Macedonia, and Christmas is not that big of a holiday for most people. The biggest holiday is definitely New Year’s.
“I have been told that the city lights up for three days solid, with parties and events and activities filling the country for an amazingly unforgettable experience,” said Slater. “I have already had multiple people invite me to their New Year’s events, and it seems to me that this holiday is by the far the most exciting in Macedonia!
“In terms of my personal growth, I have finally realized that happiness is only reached when you look around and can appreciate the world around you, feeling an overwhelming sense of contentment in the small things,” he notes. “I think I have found that. It’s been roughly four and a half months now in this country, and my way of living has drastically changed. I don’t think I would’ve been this adventurous, inquisitive, introspective, or open-minded without being pushed to my limits each, and every, moment here. The normalcy, however, that I am finding has brought a new sense of happiness and joy, as it is the daily sights, smells, and sounds that bring me the most excitement and glee.
“The first half of December was crazy to say the least,” says Slater in describing his experiences. “Between finishing college applications, managing school, organizing volunteering activities, handling a social life, and continuing my relationship with my host family, I felt as if I could not catch a breath. The holidays have certainly been a very difficult time, in terms of missing my family and friends back home. However, I always try to stay in the moment as much as possible, in order to prevent myself from getting too depressed or sad.”
One of the volunteer activities he participated in was raising money for donated gifts to go to a local Roma population pre-school. They raised a total of $80, which bought roughly enough presents for 50 children.
“I got to dress up as Santa Claus and it was a very, very memorable experience,” said Slater.
“My host family is taking me to Krushevo again at the beginning of January with the intention of winter fun and ‘to breathe clean air,’” he said. “The smog problem in Skopje is a serious issue that has not really been addressed with the current coalition government. Some days are worse than others, but most of the time, the smog is so bad that it is a health violation and people can barely see Vodno, the famous mountain with the cross on it. It has definitely been one of the hardest things to get accustomed to (can one truly get accustomed to pollution, though?), but it is truly sad to see the Macedonians embarrassed because of the state of their cities. The Macedonians do not like to discuss the pollution problem, because they do not want to cast their country in a negative light. I don’t necessarily believe that the smog should be a reason to not visit the city during the winter time, but I would definitely let people know of the problem.
Slater is maintaining a blog detailing his experiences from his year abroad. Several weeks ago, he shared some insights on autumn, Thanksgiving, and activities with other students in the YES program in Macedonia.
“My YES family, which included many entertaining alumni, all had Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday (the night before Thanksgiving),” said Slater. “The current YES American students were organized to bring our favorite holiday dishes, and they all turned out to be phenomenal!
“Also, I was invited by my American friend from church for a Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday,” added Slater. “I was very happy to share Thanksgiving with my church family, and I was eager to talk to the Macedonians there about what this holiday means for our families. I am so incredibly thankful for the people who have come into my life; this year I have so much to be thankful for. While at my church’s Thanksgiving dinner, I met three Syrian refugees, who are seeking asylum in Skopje. They have journeyed here from Aleppo and it was very, very interesting talking to them about their odyssey.
“I want to thank my two families, my coordinators and directors in D.C., my lovely friends back in the States and abroad for their unending display of love, support, and kindness as this year progresses,” finished Slater. “Being abroad during the holidays is never going to be easy, but being surrounded by an immensity of tenderness has made it so much easier. I am still so in awe for how incredibly blessed I am and I hope that this year continues to get even better.”