By Janice Gondal (YES 2017-2018, Pakistan, hosted by AFS in Washington, D.C.)
Imagine going to a place you know nothing about. You start living with a family you never imagined you would meet. You start going to a completely new school that is drastically different than what you’re used to. The way people talk around you changes instantly. When you start living a new life, it’s like being born all over again. You are not familiar with what has become new. All you know is who you are.
Your journey begins with not only discovering the world, but also discovering yourself. This is what exchange means. You leave your comfort zone and start looking at the world from a new point of view. I started this chapter of my life a year ago when I applied for the Kennedy - Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program. After my acceptance, I didn’t even know which corner of the U.S. I was going to end up. My dream took the shape of reality two months ago when I hugged my family goodbye at the Islamabad airport and came to meet my host family at the Manchester-Boston airport. Isn’t it beautiful how life works? I’ve become apart of another family and now I can’t think of my life without them in it. I’ve found siblings on the other side of the world. I feel at home, even though I’m thousands of miles away from home.
When someone asks me about my family, I'm not sure if they mean my family back home, my host family, or my exchange family. People ask which high school I go to but I’m not sure which one to name. This confusion makes life more colorful, and I smile every time I encounter these questions.
As an exchange student, I have moments when I randomly hear a country’s name somewhere in a crowd and shout out, “Oh yes! I have a friend from there.” This journey is creating the best memories. Entering a new school for the first time, I didn’t even know which direction to walk in or who will become my best friend. Within days, however, my confidence grew. I learned to be open-minded. Life has become a roller coaster and every turn is bringing in a new experience. I started pushing myself, trying new things, and learning from every moment of my journey.
But still the question is: why make this decision? Why choose to be an exchange student? How is it helping the world?
Here’s what I believe. The day you leave your country you start seeing the world in a new way. You don’t change yourself, but you change the way you see the world. People don’t see you as a person, but rather see you as a representation of your country and you have the power to represent your country in the best way and to make a change in the world. All I think about is what can I do? I am still in school. I am not a president who can make a change. I am who I am: a 16-year-old girl. However, I believe you don’t need to be an influential person to make this world a better place. All you need is to start making an effort. As an exchange student, you define peace. Aspects of society like religion and culture, are not barriers, but things that bring the world closer. Every big step has its difficulties. I have had moments when I've missed my family, my mom’s food, my bed, and my life back home, but there has not been a single moment in the past two months when I regretted the decision I made to embark on this YES journey.
My exchange reality is even more beautiful than I imagined because imagination only brings bright and happy moments into focus, and reality is a reflection of what you have imagined. You know you’re doing well when you see the proud smiles on your family’s face. Exchange might not be the easiest way, but it is one way the world comes closer. I am Janice Farzam Gondal, a YES exchange student from Pakistan, and I said YES to the world.