By Kumar Diwesh (YES 2017-2018, Pakistan, hosted by CIEE in Lexington, VA)
Exchange is tumultuous. The road traveled by an exchange student is uneven; full of ups and downs that challenge an individual to search for their strength and determination in order to overcome obstacles and setbacks. The trials and tribulations of an exchange year shape you into a different person. Different is good. It means you've grown, you've become independent, you've learned new things about yourself, people, other cultures, etc. And for what it’s worth, every exchange student that I know wouldn’t trade their year for the world. Its a feeling of triumph that has to be lived in order to be felt.
It’s been four weeks since I've left my family and friends, my hometown, and everything I've ever called mine, and embarked on this journey. This is a lifelong dream for so many of my peers, and for me, it has become a reality. I had mixed emotions upon arriving in Lexington. The town is vastly different from my home in Pakistan. Nevertheless, I was there to experience a different life and with that comes a different lifestyle. For those reasons, I continued to move forward in my journey with an open mind and intellectual acquisitiveness. After all, exchange isn't always easy, but its worth it. I knew there would be challenges along the way and I refused to succumb to defeat so easily.
I went from living in a city with a population of 11 million to this small town of 7,000 people. I can't help but admire and take in all the natural beauty that surrounds Lexington. In fact, hiking is my new favorite activity. I have worked on trails, helped move 500 pound rocks, and climbed the steepest hike in Virginia! I will always remember and cherish the feeling of reaching the top and thinking, "I did it!"
In spite of my hiking feats do you know what I consider my greatest achievement so far? Volunteering at the local animal shelter. You see, when I was really young a dog bit me and ever since then, I’ve tried my hardest to stay away from them. After overcoming my fear, I have come to the conclusion that dogs are the next best thing after chocolate.
Every time you experience something new, you think 'this is the best thing that could happen to me', and before you know it, you find yourself immersed in another adventure and that becomes the new 'best thing.' My favorite trip has been to New York City. Standing atop the Empire State Building and taking in all the nooks and crannies of Manhattan left me awestruck. The tall buildings, the sun glistening off the glass buildings, the serenity...all of it is absolutely flawless. And to top it all off, we ended the day by going to a Broadway show and eating dinner at the Hard Rock Café in Times Square. The next morning, we woke up and visited the Statue of Liberty! What can I say...? The whole trip was nothing short of a paradise.
An exchange year is going to have its fair share of ups and downs. I've had some really fun and exciting adventures but I've also had periods where I've felt sad, too. If I'm being honest, mornings were the biggest obstacle for me. I didn't look forward to school the next day, I felt homesick, and lonely. I had no idea that making friends was going to be so difficult. My loneliness made me feel like a flower left in a dark room searching for any glimpse of sunlight.
Fortunately, I found that sunshine. I went on a tour of Virginia's capital in Richmond and witnessed the most beautiful view of a sunset. Ironic, isn’t it? As I saw the last view rays of sun disappear in the dusk, I realized something: after every dusk, there is dawn. For every problem, there is a solution. After this revelation, I promised to look towards a new dawn in the darkest of times. I needed to change my attitude and my expectations. I promised to greet every classmate of mine and start a conversation with the person sitting beside me at the lunch table even if I hadn’t seen them before. And voila, two weeks later I made some great friends. And the fact that my lunch squad asked me to accompany them to homecoming just proves my point.
My situation changed completely when I left my shyness at home in the mornings and went to school. Feeling homesick is normal and understandable. If you're still feeling lonely, I would strongly encourage you to step outside your comfort zones. It's not easy, but its worth it. Saying "Hello" to someone doesn't require much effort and one conversation could turn into a beautiful friendship. Just do it.