By Okan Altan, CIEE Work & Travel USA 2014 and 2017 Participant
Hello! My name is Okan Altan. I decided to join the Work & Travel USA program after my 1st year of Mechanical Engineering studies at Gazi University, in Ankara, Turkey. Me and my friend wanted to join the Work & Travel USA program that year (2014) to work and travel together. We were hired to work for Busch Gardens Water Country USA in Williamsburg, VA. On the plane from Turkey to Virginia I was dreaming of what my program might be like. Before I got to the United States, I was looking forward to meeting many new people from different cultures in a new country. I was very curious about the United States and American culture. When my friend and I arrived, our manager showed us the provided housing and told us about the lounge area, a place where people hung out and enjoyed exchanging their culture during their free time. This tip he gave helped us to meet new people and learn about the American lifestyle...it also helped me meet my future wife!
My wife’s name is Aleksandra Sternal (she goes by Ola) . She is from Poland and we met on 14th of July 2014 in this very lounge. We were together to celebrate my Turkish friend’s birthday party. As my manager had told me before, in this lounge people meet with each other and exchange culture. Ola was teaching traditional Polish folk dance with her Polish friends to everyone and that is when she first held my hand. After the dancing, we met and talked a lot about our studies because she was studying Materials Engineering in Poland, which is similar to what I was studying. We had a lot to talk about (and today we are both Engineers). The description of romance in the U.S. is unbelieveable and unforgetable. We met in Virginia and we had our first dinner date at an American restaurant. After our jobs ended, we met in Miami Beach during our travel period. Although we couldn’t do it perfectly, we were able to communicate in English completely. We improved our language skills to have a better relationship. In the begining we didn’t know each others languages. Today we talk at home in English, Polish, and Turkish.
The summer of 2017 I traveled on the program a second time, but this time with Ola who was my girlfriend at the time. We worked at Valleyfair Amusement Park in Shakopee, Minnesota. It was a great experience to work alongside Ola in this atmosphere. We learned a lot about each other that summer and about how to work together in work and in life. We did a road trip after our jobs ended. We drove 25,000 miles and visited Chicago, Los Angeles and many National and State parks. Life was like a dream for me and Ola that summer.
The first summer we met, we couldn’t understand that we were from different countries because we had so much in common. But we understood it when she came to Turkey for the first time. In the summer of 2015, Ola and her Polish friend came to Turkey. They came as part of their trip where they visited the European friends they made the summer before in America. My friends and I prepared a travel plan for Ola and her friend which included Ankara, Izmir, and Istanbul over 15 days. Ola came and stayed in Ballıkpınar, Ankara (my village) with my family and best friends. During this time we saw that many habits are similar between both of our families. For example, I am a Tatar (a nation of people which used to live in Ukraine during the Ottoman Empire). Historically, Tatars and Polish people had big border between Turks and Europe so they exchanged culture in this time. When we decided to marry, Ola’s family supported us but my family did not. For my family, no one of my generation had married and moved out of Turkey to live in another country. We still have a problem with my father’s father because of what I do in my life. The wedding was in Poland. It was in my wife’s village; Rojewo. It was her dream to have wedding there cause the place is one of the best in Poland: Dwór Bieśadny Rojewo. From my family 35 people came from Turkey for the wedding.
Being a participant on the Work & Travel USA programm is a real life challenge. I lived without my parents for the first time. It was a great experience to work and earn money for the first time, for travelling, my accomodation, my new clothing. The most important part of joining this program to me is to meet as many new people as you can. Participants should meet and exchange ideas with all people including Americans. I met an American friend in 2014 in Virginia and in 2017 he helped me to plan my roadtrip with Ola; we stayed in touch all those years later. After your program ends, people who you met in U.S. become friends to call and talk to, or even friends to visit. I am so glad for the people I met. My favorite memories of my time in the U.S. are the road trips I took driving from New York to Key West and from Chicago to Los Angeles. In each state there were many places and attractions to discover but my favorite place was Sedona, Arizona. After a long trip on the way back to Minneapolis, Ola and I planned to visit that town and it was awesome. Sliding rocks, red mountains, incredible paths to walk. I felt like we were in heaven. We sliced the huge sweet mango and honey melons which we bought from a small grocery on the way to Sequia National Park, California. My time in the U.S. was worth every penny spent.
For more information on the CIEE Work & Travel USA program, please visit our website.