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.

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