Monday, April 30, 2012

New Beginnings...

Two weeks ago, as I sat on my swivelly chair writing the previous post, I had no realistic expectations to write a another one. I expected that it would be the end of my blogging days, and that I would resign to 'ol-fashioned journaling on the off occasion in college. However, I was wrong.

Early last week, I received a voice message on my home phone, which, coincidentally, we barely ever check. As we sat down to dinner, my mom pushed the "play" button to read the new messages. It was one of the YES Abroad staff letting me know that they hadn't received my alternate status acceptance forms and telling me to submit them as soon as possible if I wanted to be considered for the scholarship. After a slight freak-out, I ran upstairs and sent the forms as fast as possible. The only problem: it was eleven o' clock eastern time. I came back downstairs and picked at my dinner begrudgingly, mad at myself for not confirming that they had originally been received by somebody. Being late is not something that I like to do... and my chances to study abroad for a year were in jeopardy!

Fast forward two days. It is Thursday. I spent the day pondering YES, and thinking about the six or so spots that had miraculously opened up. I wished and hoped with all of heart that I would be chosen, but I knew that wishing and hoping weren't going to get me very far at that point.

Right after lunch, as I was about to walk into my French classroom, I heard my phone buzz. I looked at the text, and it was Olivia, another alternate (whose blog you can find in the "helpful links" page), who had written "I GOT INTO TURKEY OMGGG!!!!!," an understandable reaction. I called her quickly and jumped up and down with her in spirit. She deserved the scholarship so much, and finally her hard work had payed off. After the phone call; however, I couldn't help but notice the absence of email in my inbox. I checked my phone discretely and at various intervals during the class period, but to no avail. The sadness started to hit me.

I really thought that I had lost the opportunity. I sat back in my chair and waited for the bell to ring so that I could go home and lay down pensively on my bed. I got a ride home from my friend as always, and as I was nearing my door, I took one last look at my phone. My mom sent me a one-word message reading: "Thailand!!!." I truthfully didn't know what to think. I called her, and as soon as the words escaped her mouth, I started crying. I don't even know why. I am not one to cry at happy occasions, but I was laughing and choking and tears were flowing as I walked in my house. I ran around for a while and then called Olivia. We rejoiced at our luck, and then I was up in my room, laying down on my bed pensively, and reveling at the amazing opportunity that I had just been offered.

I am going to Thailand...

In less than two months, I leave for DC to meet with the fifty-four other YES Abroad scholars who have been chosen for several different countries, and from there I will leave for Thailand. I am incredibly excited for what is to come. In the meantime, I have to finish up school, learn a new language, pack, and say some dreaded goodbyes. But it's all worth it in the end.

Goodbye USA, sa-wat dii kaa Thailand!

*Pardon how long and unnecessary most of the information in this post is!*

Monday, April 16, 2012

Warp Speed Ahead!

"There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have been altered"
-Nelson Mandela

Guess what, world? I have a lot of stuff to talk about. It has been, believe it or not, about ten months since I got back from France. I have undergone periods of sadness, nostalgia, reflection, and just about every emotion in between since July 11, 2011. I am constantly analyzing and changing my opinions about my time in Normandy, and even after almost an entire year has passed, I have continued changing because of it. I can honestly say that exchange was the best thing that has ever happened to me, and because of that, I desperately want to do it again.

Back in 2010, right before I left for exchange, I discovered a program called NSLI-Y (National Security Language Initiative for Youth), and I found out for the first time that you could get a scholarship to do the same sort of thing that I was about to embark on. I kept the idea in the back of my mind during the early months of my exchange, but eventually forgot about it.

Fast forward ten and a half months. After I got back from France, I spent some time thinking about what I wanted to do with my life after high school. I started brainstorming what college I might want to attend, what I wanted to study, and what my long-term goals were going to be. In that process, I realized that I had one more chance to unearth some of the secrets of the world while I was still young, impressionable, and adventurous, and I decided to pursue a gap year. I found the NSLI-Y site and started the application, and along the way I also discovered a similar scholarship program called YES.

This one, short for Youth Exchange and Study, focused on sending students on cross-cultural immersion exchanges in countries with a significant Muslim population. Founded after the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, it aims to promote diplomacy among the United States and Muslim countries. Initially, the program sent teenagers from all over the Middle East, South-East Asia, and Africa to America for a full school year to learn about American culture, but in 2009, the opportunity was extended to American teenagers to study for a year in either Inodnesia, Ghana, Thailand, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mali, Egypt, Turkey, Oman, Malaysia, India, or Morocco. Its mission resonated with me, and I decided to fill out the application and see where it led me.

Lo and behold, a few months later, I was informed that I was a semifinalist for the program, and that I was going to be attending the annual In-Person Selection Event in Denver, Colorado, in late March. I jumped for joy (figuratively--there was a seatbelt around me when I found out), and started packing my bag for Colorado...

Within a few weeks, I was in a beautiful hotel near the Denver Airport, sitting at a round dining table, and greeting all the people I had tried to connect with before the event. We hushed ourselves as a few speakers stood up to talk to us about the great opportunity we had been given. Among others, Allen Evans, the YES IPSE coordinator as well as a head member of another scholarship program (CBYX--which sends people to Germany for a year), gave us some words of advice, and then we ate dinner.

Eating Group B:

Although I was nervous, I could already tell that I had found my people. All of the YES Abroad kids share similar goals and motives in life, and I automatically clique'd with practically everybody I met. With 90 semifinalists at the event, I wasn't able to meet everyone, but I managed to forge some pretty strong bonds with people I did talk to, even though I had met them only days beforehand.

But of course, the selection event was not only there for finding new friends, but also to give us a chance to show our personalities to the selection committee and alumni who would eventually be choosing who got to go abroad the next year. The second day I was there, I had my personal interview and two group evaluations. Surprisingly, I was less intimidated by the interview than I had expected to be, and I thought that it was a good practice for any job interviews that I may have in the future. I was calmer than I had imagined partly because the leg of my chair had literally fallen through a little whole in the floor right as I sat down in the interviewee seat. After a couple laughs, the interview resumed its semi-formal tone, and I was asked a series of questions for a about twenty minutes. The people who interviewed me were friendly and asked me questions that required some thought and self-analysis, which actually made me think about myself in some ways I hadn't previously recognized. Altogether, it was a good experience! I won't go into too many details about the group evaluations, but I can tell you that they were stressful, comical, and confusing all at the same time! I personally thought that the actions that they asked us to perform were hilarious, and I enjoyed both rounds (Sorry about the vagueness, but I don't think that I should disclose that much about it!). Anyhow, even the parts of the weekend that I had initially thought of as being the hardest ended up being quite fun. :)

After that, I spent some time looking at all of the country options at the country tables they had prepared for us. The alumni were super helpful in answering any questions we had about the customs, food, language, and culture of the countries, and the representatives of AFS, iEarn, Amideast, and American Councils also gave us a lot of insight into what the exchange would be like in each place.

By Monday, I don't think that anybody wanted to leave-- everybody had made at least one great friend, and we were all enthralled at the prospect of going abroad at all. Just this morning I was informed that I am an alternate for the program, and I am happy to even have made it this far. I encourage anybody interested in exchange to apply to YES, NSLI-Y, CBYX, or any other program out there that offers it. The time to explore, discover, live, and love is now, but it's up to you to seize the opportunity.