By Lama Alnasser (YES 2009-2010, Saudi Arabia, placed with AFS-USA in New Lothrop, MI)
With everyday distractions, we often forget the wonderful things in our lives. Sometimes we fall into darkness. You should take time to reflect on the things you are most grateful for. Appreciate life's adventures and look forward to learning what is coming your way. Let me take you back to an experience that shaped the person I am today.
I was 15 years old when I first learned about the YES program. To be honest, the idea of leaving my home and school for a long time seemed crazy. Back then I was shy, young, and scared of new experiences. However, I did not allow this feeling to overwhelm me. I taught myself not to be afraid and decided to apply for the YES program. Once admitted to the program, the YES staff in Saudi Arabia taught me leadership skills, the importance of cultural exchange, and how to be a great ambassador to my country. I was tasked with a major responsibility.
I left for the U.S. thinking that I would find big cities and high buildings, however, I was placed on a farm. My host family consisted of two married parents, four children, and a big dog — which is common in American families. The oldest child was eight years old. I never had to set my alarm because the children woke me up every morning. Being from Riyadh, the small town of New Lothrop was a very different setting from what I was used to. Most of the houses in the small town were made of wood. My host family taught me about their family traditions and American culture. They also held me when I cried and helped me when things were tough. We laughed a lot! They gave me advice about friendships — which weren’t always easy to make in a new country. We celebrated holidays and birthdays together. My host family has hosted eleven exchange students from different countries. They have opened their eyes to a world that really isn’t as big as everyone thinks. They have broken down walls between religions and cultures.
Now fast forward to my first day of American public school. Unlike in Riyadh, the bus did not stop at my house and I had to walk fifteen minutes to the bus stop every morning — even when it was snowing. The schools in America are very different from those in Saudi Arabia. I never knew that I could be good at sports. I joined the soccer team, and a football team for girls called powderpuff. I also joined cross country, the drama club, and the bowling team. Joining these clubs increased my social skills and satisfied my curiosity. It turned out that I was good at sports! I won 2nd place in a district running competition! On the weekends, I spent my time with Americans and other exchange students from different countries. I have learned to be more patient and kind, and not judgmental towards other cultures.
As a YES exchange student, we had to do community service, which was new to me. In my home community, the youth have resources to do community service, but they mostly do not use them because there is not enough motivation to act. I wanted to perform community service in an American community, so I joined Habitat for Humanity. We helped build houses for families in unfortunate situations. In the program, you met the family that you were building the house for and listened to their needs. I helped build a house for a family by painting and sawing wood. The sweat and hard work that I put into this service served the good cause of providing a family with shelter.
My exchange year was full of laughter, happiness, and a few tears. However, I found the courage and strength to get through. I learned that giving up isn’t an option. My YES experience allowed me to become stronger and more ambitious. I continued to be active in my community and I enjoy being part of my YES alumni association now that I'm back in Saudi Arabia. In December 2018, I attended an alumni youth conference at the U.S. embassy with two other alumni. We wanted to motivate the youth in our society to utilize their energy to empower the unfortunate. I think it is important to not waste your time looking for opportunities, and instead create them.
As time goes by, my passion for making a change continues to grow. A month ago, I attended a workshop about inclusivity, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. There were participants with disabilities, and I was paired with a visually impaired boy. I was amazed by how independent he was. He never asked for my assistance. I was surprised when I learned that he was the only blind student at his university, and at the top of his class. From this workshop, I learned how to advocate for people with disabilities. I am committed to standing with them.
Being young has its privileges. We have the opportunity to create our own opportunities and experiences from scratch. The YES experience has empowered me. At the end of the day, we are all just people and we all have a story to tell.