PRAGUE – If you’d asked me six months ago if I would fly to a different country to stay with a whole organization, none of whom I’d ever met, I’d have laughed and said no. My introverted personality would never have allowed it.
But when the editor at Youth Journalism International, Jackie Majerus, emailed me asking if I wanted to take part in YJI’s second annual Global Conference, I thought she had sent it to the wrong person.
Having only joined this organization in February, the thought of going abroad with a new group of people, whom I’d only met on Zoom, felt a universe away from possible. But there was the invitation, and I found myself intrigued.
It was only after seeing she’d addressed me personally in the email that I processed the pleasant surprise.
When I applied to YJI, shortly after the first Global Conference in Istanbul last year, the main feature that drew my attention to it was the opportunities that arose from it.
The students had their voices heard through their articles. They had the chance to work collaboratively with each other – and make friends along the way. They could become more culturally enriched by the international aspect of YJI and receive top journalism tips from professionals.
This conference, in Prague, struck me as the greatest opportunity of them all, and I had to seize it.
It was only when the plane landed and I was through immigration at the airport that it dawned on me that this was a huge step. I had never been abroad without my family and rarely traveled alone. Now I was about to spend nearly a week with more than 20 people I’d never met before.
To say I was apprehensive would have been an understatement. It wasn’t just the not-knowing, it was the feeling of being new and, I suppose you could say, an outsider.
But I found that after a day, the shyness had mostly disappeared and I was beginning to feel more at home.
It wasn’t just the welcoming and friendly atmosphere, people wanted to talk and get to know more about me. As someone who finds it hard to socialize with new people, especially so many, this made the transition much easier.
Random acts of kindness like sharing clothes, cooking for each other and taking the fastest showers in the world so everyone else could have a (short) hot shower really represented a key part of YJI: friendship.
Suddenly, it felt natural to be around all these new people and I noticed a gradual change in me. I was laughing constantly, posing for photos and selfies, always either listening or contributing to conversations and I was loving it.
Whether it was with Anjola Fashawe explaining the Meghan and Harry situation to anyone who lived outside the UK (apparently that was all anyone was interested in hearing about the British monarchy) or exchanging funny stories from our schools, the talk was never boring.
I also realized that you don’t have to have the loudest voice in the room to be heard at YJI, which is so important in a society which favors extroverts.
This included a huge amount of cultural understanding that I gained in more formal seminars. Several conference leaders, including alumni Shaina Zurlin, Cassie Lloyd Perrin and Arooj Khalid, gave us talks about work/life balance and making connections, knowing your values and climate change.
The climate change talk stood out to me particularly because other students began to share stories about how their hometowns had been affected by global warming.
While we in the UK have experienced slightly hotter summers, it was nothing compared to the Bangladesh floods that Usraat Fahmidah described.
Within the talk, I learned more about Arooj’s impressive and inspiring life and everything she had accomplished so far. Something I loved about her talk was how empowered everyone felt afterward.
In a group of predominantly women, that sense of empowerment lasted as we discussed current affairs, feminism and literature. All of these were further enriched by the international perspectives we received.
So yes, the conference taught me skills about journalism, travel writing and how to navigate an airport.
But when I stepped off the return plane at Manchester airport, admiring the henna given to me by Arooj, flicking through the hundreds of photos I had of the sites/food/friends, it was a newly found confidence in myself that was my ultimate take away from the experience.
Gemma Christie is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International from the U.K. She wrote this commentary.
Anne van Mill is a Senior Photographer with Youth Journalism International from the Netherlands. She contributed two photos to this piece.
Lyat Melese is a Correspondent with Youth Journalism International from the United States. She contributed one photo.
Mary Majerus-Collins is an Associate Editor with Youth Journalism International from the United States. She contributed one photo.