Alumna Turns Pain to Purpose
Earl Spencer presents young woman from Bangladesh with the Diana Legacy Award

Efforts earn Bangladeshi prestigious Diana Award

It’s been over eight years since I returned from the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program, and so much has changed in that time! To this day, I utilize the skills I developed during my exchange year in Cheboygan, Michigan. PAX, my Community Coordinator Linda Workman, my host family the Reinhouts, and my school (Cheboygan Area High School), created different community service opportunities for me during my stay and that is truly when I discovered the community development space. I ended up doing 460 hours of community service and received the President’s Volunteer Service Award (Gold) signed by President Barack Obama.

Upon my return, I became very actively involved with the YES alumni community in my home country, Bangladesh, and later was elected as an Executive Committee Member of the YES Alumni Bangladesh Association. The collective effort of the YES Bangladesh community led to us receiving the Alumni Excellence Award during the 2013 State Alumni General Assembly. In 2014, I was selected to be an Alumni Instructor for the YES orientation in Washington, D.C. to be on the other side of things for the incoming scholars. It was one of the best summers I have ever had, teaching the YES “kids” how to excel during their exchange year, yelling at them not to take selfies in the middle of the road, enjoying their enthusiasm for the White House, pushing them to wake up at 3 a.m. to catch a flight to their host family, and dancing like crazy during culture nights! Most importantly, it was a mirror reflection of my own experiences just a couple of years earlier!

That same year, my mother passed away from diarrhea. This tremendous loss made me realize the critical role water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) can play in saving lives from preventable diseases like diarrhea, cholera, neglected tropical diseases, COVID-19, and many more. I did not want anyone else to lose their loved ones due to lack of awareness–a regret that will haunt me all my life. I turned my pain into my passion and life purpose, and decided to raise awareness about clean water and sanitation among marginalized communities. Now, I have my own global non-profit organization, Awareness 360, that empowers young people in 23 countries and has benefited over 150,000 people. Last year, because of my WASH activism, I had the honor of becoming the first Bangladeshi to be awarded with the prestigious Diana Legacy Award.

I am still involved with the YES community in some capacity. In 2018, I was invited to the iEARN 2018 conference in Virginia as a keynote speaker to share my journey. No matter where life leads me, I will always remain grounded and be grateful to PAX and everyone related to my exchange year for shaping me into who I am today.

—Shomy (YES 2011/12, Bangladesh), hosted by the Reinhout family (MI)