Aaron Brazelton was only 15-years-old when he traveled abroad for the first time with the Serbia Youth Leadership Program in 2007. Aaron, now a junior at the University of Alabama, speaks movingly of his experience and the profound impact the program continues to have on his personal and professional growth. Of his exchange, Aaron says: “I had the opportunity to travel as a delegate for the Serbia Youth Leadership Program. I truly believe this program fundamentally changed me for the better. Prior to the program, I was not active in my school, or my community, and had no concept of cultural appreciation or respect. The Serbia Youth Leadership Program challenged me to step outside of my comfort zone and appreciate people for who they are.”
Aaron founded, and leads, the Heritage Panel, a partnership of the YWCA of Central Alabama and the University of Alabama. The program promotes understanding and fosters an atmosphere of inclusion through a year-long training and discussion program for high school students and educators. Motivated by his experiences in Serbia and enthusiasm for the Heritage Panel, Aaron created an exchange program for his university. After his own life-changing exchange, Aaron is committed to building cross-cultural experiences that connect other young Americans with their Serbian peers. The University of Alabama’s Serbia Fellowship Experience aims to build bridges between Serbian and American youth through discussion and interaction. The fellowship targets student leaders from the university to help mold their perspectives of international social justice through intercultural communication, dialogue, and a host family placement. The University of Alabama’s senior leadership was so impressed with Aaron’s ability to initiate a project of this magnitude, and implement it while maintaining a stellar academic record, that they have pledged support and funding for the fellowship. In May, 14 American fellows will travel to Serbia to work with Serbian university students on creating projects designed to promote equality in the U.S. and in Serbia. The U.S. Embassy Belgrade has been a vital, active supporter of Aaron’s new initiative, and the embassy will host the fellows for a briefing this summer.
Convinced that mutual understanding begins at a young age, Aaron will also be implementing a year-long virtual exchange program between elementary schools in Blace, Serbia and Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Through regular Skype chats, Serbian children will have an opportunity to practice English and American children will have the opportunity to look outside of their community and gain an appreciation for Serbia and Serbian culture. “The Serbia Youth Leadership Program offered me the opportunity to stand up and make a difference,” says Aaron, “It gave me the opportunity to look past myself and to appreciate those around me. It gave me the opportunity to be a leader and to pass that mentality to others. It gave me an opportunity that I would never have had otherwise.” Through Aaron’s tireless efforts, he is giving his university colleagues and community an unforgettable exchange experience and legacy that will last a lifetime.
Each month, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ (ECA) Alumni Affairs Division, which supports alumni as they build on their exchange experiences, recognizes one outstanding alumnus or alumna. Aaron Brazelton is this month’s outstanding alumnus, and his work will be recognized throughout February on the International Exchange Alumni website, ECA’s official website which serves more than one million Department-sponsored exchange alumni worldwide.