I was an "exchange student." But I didn't believe the power of being in an exchange program until last year, when I participated in the U.S. Department of State's Youth Exchange and Study Program, or YES.
After my own experience, I now believe that exchange students can help change some of the assumptions and preconceived ideas in their societies because people are more likely to accept the change from within their society rather than from the outside. That is why I strongly believe that an exchange experience is one of the most powerful ways to promote human beings and help end those centuries' long conflicts that take our focus away from the real problems.
I'd like to share a couple of the hundreds of experiences I had while in the United States that continue to amaze me.
When I came to Rhode Island last year, I was a 16 year-old Moroccan student who did not have much experience outside my own culture. I learned a lot going to school in the United States, but the most important lessons I learned were outside of the classroom. I never thought that I'd travel across the world and be invited to meet an important official of my country, let alone the Ambassador of Morocco. But on October 27th 2008, I went to Brown University, near my host family's home, and spoke with him one on one. It may seem like a small thing, but this experience was the first of a long list of very interesting experiences that will change my life forever. Most of which I never thought I would have.
I was in the U.S. for Election Day. That experience encouraged me to challenge myself and set some goals to my year in the United States. The excitement on that day was incredible. The last thing I expected was to be asked to help. But I was. I volunteered to promote a bond referendum that proposed building a new middle school and update my town's high school's science facilities. Not only did the bond pass, but the man who was in charge, a CEO of a marketing company, become a mentor for me, and we met each month to talk about business and politics.
During my stay I was invited to speak about Islam at the Unitarian Church of my town to 7th and 8th graders. The hour I spent there showed me once more that coming to the United States was the best decision I have ever made. I learned about different religions, which is something I couldn't have done as easily in my country where 98 percent of the community is Muslim. I went several times to different churches and learned about different practices and beliefs and I was able to share my practices and beliefs with others. That year taught me to be more tolerant and I think I helped people understand more about my heritage.
These are just a few of my experiences. There are too many to list. But through all the diverse community service activities, my time at school, with my host family and with new friends, I have I have seen different faces of the United States. From people who live from paycheck to paycheck and fill the lines of soup kitchens, to old people in nursing homes who want nothing but a little bit of attention and care, I was lucky enough to see the true diversity of the world's biggest melting pot.
Being thousands of miles from home was not always easy. Like everything in life, my experience had its ups but also its downs. The hard times helped me grow up and move away from my comfort zone to gain maturity and independence.
Every time I think about my host family, my local coordinator, friends, teachers or fellow volunteers, I cannot help but get emotional. They did so much for me. My host family gave me a place in their hearts and minds. My local coordinator was always there for me whenever I needed her, always making sure that I was adjusting and enjoying my stay here. My teachers and friends have volunteered to help me in the academics and took my situation in consideration whenever I did not understand something that was common knowledge to the other students. The volunteers I worked with tried to make my experience enjoyable and taught me all I needed to know.
I know I was one of the lucky few to live overseas for a year, but I also know that too few people know about my story and those of the thousands of other young people who are part of exchange programs every year. When I came home I felt I had seen America's true face and heart. I knew more than what the news told me and I helped others learn more about my culture.
The lessons I learned will stay with me forever and my belief in cultural exchange will never leave me. This is how we can really learn about others.
An Exchange Student at 17
It almost feels like as if it was just yesterday when I was on my own on a plane not really knowing what to expect but excited for what the future had for me. Now I'm back home with a ton of memories, e-mails to answer, and a lot of stories to share. I don't even know where to start now that I'm writing about my experience of being an exchange student in Appleton, Wisconsin for a whole school year.
Well, I've wanted to be an exchange student my whole high school life. I read about summer programs in a brochure from IFS, and I thought then that living somewhere else for a while and having friends from another country would be the coolest thing in the world. I would be on my own, have my own Indiana Jones adventure, and fulfill my dream of having something different. Pretty soon, at the end of my senior year, Mama and I were applying to IFS and we decided that a whole year would give me so much more immersion and would make the experience so much better. I had meetings in the weekends about rules, how to survive, homesickness, etc. Then I got an email. I had a host family! Next thing I knew, I had a flight booked.
I was so excited and happy and I was telling all my friends about it. I was researching about Wisconsin in books and in the Internet. Compared to what I saw on TV and what I experienced when I traveled to places like Los Angeles, California with my family, Wisconsin was different. It was more of farmland and countryside. I lived in Appleton and its population was around 70,000 and I thought it was a small town compared to our Manila. There was no traffic, they only had one major mall, and everything was in close proximity. I didn't even know what to think of the cold weather. I just brought cotton long-sleeved shirts with me. But when winter came, I needed to get a coat. During the winter, the sun would set at 4pm and it wouldn't go up until around 9. There were days when the temperature would go below freezing and I was wearing around 6 layers of clothing just to keep myself warm. I never even blow-dried my hair before. I had to do it every morning after I took a shower because if I didn't, my hair would FREEZE. The thing I liked best about the cold and the snow was being able to ski. People were so excited for me and telling me all their snow stories (since we don't have it in the Philippines). I have never skied in my life either, so I was excited and proud to learn.
I was placed with the greatest host family in the whole world. They treated me like their own and they are like real family in another part of the world. I had a host mom, a host dad, a brother and sister. Ben would always be sweet and give me hugs and kisses. I loved every minute of it because I never had a younger brother before. It was fun seeing Katie grow up since she started to be a teenager and we would always tell stories in the bathroom we shared. Through e-mails we established that I was going to call them Mom and Dad since I was never used to calling older people by their first names. I felt super loved. They made sure there was tuna in the pantry (since it was my favorite), hugged me when I needed to be hugged, let me stay out late at night with my friends, and even let me have parties in the basement.
I went to an American co-ed public high school and that was a big adjustment coming from an all-girl private Catholic school. The school was new, everyone was different and it was so diverse. I have never met so many kinds of people in just one place. I was scared during the first day of school. I didn't know anyone, I got lost since the school was huge, and people didn't think I knew how to speak in English every time my teachers would say, And here's Elaine she's a foreign exchange student. But pretty soon I started to get comfortable. It was funny how people always got surprised by how good I was at speaking in English. They're like, Wow, you even speak better English than me. I loved answering people's questions like, So, what do you do in the winter? or Where is the Philippines? Isn't that near South America somewhere? or What's it like to have a coconut tree outside your house do you have coconuts everyday? I had the chance to take fun classes like Spanish, photography, and art so I met people with similar interests as me and got to go to field trips. My favorite was going to Chicago to see my favorite painting Starry Night by Van Gogh. I was an honorary member of the International Club and there was even one time I was giving a talk about the Philippines for the school's Global Awareness Week and someone asked me to say something in Filipino. So I said, Magandang Umaga, ang pangalan ko ay Elaine. They thought it was so cool and people started clapping and giving me a standing ovation. Just for saying my name in Tagalog!!!
I made a lot of friends and met so many people. I joined a church youth group, volunteered for a group for teens with cognitive disabilities, an indoor soccer team during winter and the girls track team during spring. Friends took me out to movies, hockey games, restaurants, road trips, rock shows and concerts. Someone even took me to see the Incubus concert! I got to do my first American prank, which was writing on boys cars with lipstick. Everyone was warm, open, and never hesitant in giving hugs. I would say that as much as I missed my family and friends at home, I never really got homesick because I had friends who made sure I was okay. They were all always there for me and helping me with all the adjustments I had to make, like school, getting rides, hanging out, shopping, going to prom, learning slang terms, everything. I will forever remember all the fun times I had with them.
One of the things I had to get used to and eventually enjoyed was how people picked up on my difference. Girls would always tell me how lucky I was to have a year-round tan and ask if I went to tanning salons! I haven't even heard of tanning salons since I got there! Some boys would ask me how I got my hair to be so black. I was shy and surprised by how forward some guys were. Unlike here, guys do not court girls. It's more casual. Eventually, though I got used to it. I realized that guys all over the world are the same. I became excited to be actually hanging out with all these cute boys, getting calls, and going out. Hugging with someone from the opposite sex wasn't even a big deal, and it was something I enjoyed. Going out opened my eyes to more similarities and differences in the American culture. It was one of the times I was so proud of being Filipina. I was different, exotic, and new.
Every month, I met with other exchange students in our area. I made friends with people from Germany, Brazil, the Netherlands, England, Hungary, etc. It was fun when we were together because we saw how language, skin color or height didn't matter. We were all the same. We even got to bond right away because we were all going through the same thing as exchange students so we talked about the differences at home, school, and out countries. I learned so many things about other cultures, and even got to share my own. I remember cooking the adobo for a Christmas party. I was stressed about it but everyone loved it!
Being away for 10 months and living alone in a completely different world has taught me a lot of things. I have grown and my perspective has changed in ways I never would have imagined. I now can say that I am independent, appreciate my family and friends here more, open to new ideas, aggressive, and more confident about myself. Having my own adventure has proven to me that anything is possible and that I can do anything. It was the best time of my life and I will always remember how choosing to go out and discover what the world has in store for me was life-changing and will be something I will always cherish.
Study Abroad Guide