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Teen ambassador’s adventures: From South Africa to Turkey

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  • Meet Michael Crews

    Age: 17

    School: Cox Mill High (home base)

    Dream job: Ambassador for the State Department in a Middle Eastern country

    Dream schools: American University or George Washington University

    Language he’d like to learn: Arabic or Persian (he’s brushing up on basic Turkish now).

    Most exciting aspect of Turkey: Learning about its history – and the food.

    Most important rule while living abroad: “Be flexible.”

    He’s involved at home: Michael mentors a third-grader in the Y Readers program through the YMCA, has been involved in Cabarrus County’s teen court for the past four years and was named one of Young Black Men’s 2013 Top 100.


  • Follow Michael in Turkey:

    He’ll post about his experiences on his blog, “The Professional Exchange Student,” at http://professionalexchange.tumblr.com.



Frederica Crews, who lives in Concord, was a New York City police sergeant who lent a helping hand on the streets of Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001.

Now her son, Michael, 17, is preparing to spend 10 months in Turkey through a U.S. Department of State youth ambassador program, which was created post-9/11 in hopes of changing perceptions of America in Muslim-dominant countries.

Michael was a young boy when radical Islamist terrorists attacked, but he sees his youth – and his desire to interact with people on a global level – as a great way to promote the United States abroad.

As one of 65 high school students chosen to study through the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Abroad program, Michael will live with a family in Turkey and attend his final year of high school there. The State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs funds the program.

The Crews moved from New York to Concord in 2006, and Michael’s love affair with travel and foreign relations began when his mother suggested he do something “dynamic” while attending Cox Mill High. His two older sisters attended high school in New York City and had taken advantage of many opportunities, Frederica Crews said.

She had worked as a receptionist part-time for AFS-USA, formerly the American Field Services, in high school. That organization offers international exchange programs in more than 40 countries.

So she suggested Michael think about participating in an exchange program.

“She gave me the idea, and I looked into it,” Michael said.

‘Mr. America’ in South Africa

For most of his junior year, Michael was an exchange student in South Africa, about a half hour west of Cape Town in a township called Mitchell’s Plain.

In his 11 months in Mitchell’s Plain, Michael learned both independence and responsibility. His host parents didn’t give him too many rules, he said.

He was initially surprised when they didn’t set a curfew, but quickly learned it was smartest – and safest – to be home by 4 p.m. The fact that public transportation began shutting down around 5 p.m. was a good indicator, too.

The social aspect of the culture also surprised him. Michael said it was commonplace for strangers to enter his host family’s house without knocking (if the door was open), stay for dinner, leave and never be seen again.

“At first I was a little shocked, but after awhile I got used to it,” he said, adding that his host family had six children and the mother usually kept enough food for 20 people on hand.

Also shocking at first, he said, was noticing that people were treated differently based on their skin color.

People in different places would speak to him in various languages based on his appearance – he considers his skin light black – because groups there each speak their own language. Most of his classmates, he said, were considered “colored,” meaning not of African descent but having skin darker than white people. They liked to try an American accent with him, he said, as well as discussing news about America, and touching his hair.

School was different from school here. He was in a classroom with 45 other students. “There was no individualized attention.” There wasn’t much homework, graded papers, tests or quizzes either. Just end-of-quarter tests.

His teacher couldn’t pronounce his name, so he went by “Mr. America.”

There weren’t any organized sports, but Michael enjoyed playing street soccer every day.

“I feel more self-confident, independent, and I have the ability to adapt to a changing environment,” Michael said.

In November, he used his BlackBerry smartphone to apply for the YES Abroad program, which was tedious on a tiny keypad (especially the essay-writing part). Matters got more complicated after his phone was stolen, but he was able to submit an application on time.

Preparing for Turkey

Michael returned home in January, where it took him about a month to get fully readjusted to American life.

Two months later, he was named one of 120 semifinalists for the YES Abroad program and flew to Washington, D.C., for a three-day selection process. That included two group evaluations, team-building evaluations and a personal interview.

Michael got in, and now he can’t wait for his next adventure in Turkey, and to act as an American ambassador.

His guidance counselor at Cox Mill said Michael is the first in the school to study abroad, and that it’s been exciting to watch.

“I definitely think he is a much savvier person now than before he went,” Lisa Landon said. “I think some of the preconceived notions he had about what it was going to be like were challenged.”

Michael said he and other students will practice diplomacy by example.

“Just my presence and the way I carry myself – I can change the way they think about America and give them a different viewpoint.”

He said there are several orientation trainings, some of which he’s attended already, that touch on an exhaustive list of topics and the best ways to discuss them diplomatically.

He leaves for Turkey Sept. 5 and will return in mid-June. He doesn’t know specifics of the family he’ll be staying with yet, or in what town (it won’t be a major city because most urban homes don’t have the extra space).

Recent political protests there don’t concern him: He said he thought the government has done a good job listening to its people.

And he’s not torn up about missing American high school traditions, like prom or graduation. He said he sees his experience in Turkey as the next step to a career in foreign relations.

“Hopefully I can graduate in Turkey and get a diploma there,” he said. “That would be pretty cool.”

Ruebens: 704-358-5294
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