By Reetika Singh (YES 2019-20, India, hosted with AYUSA in Clifton, VA)
It has been exactly 194 days since I have been in the U.S. as a YES student. I keep a count because these are the days that have transformed me into a better version of myself that I did not know existed.
I have found my exchange year to be the biggest challenge I have taken so far; it is something that pushes me out of my comfort zone, motivates me to build relationships, and initiate a conversation. My experience has made me aware of some qualities I wasn’t sure I had and it helped me realize things that are so much bigger than myself. More importantly, it has shown me the power of gratitude and the feeling of belonging, whether it’s among the people who open their hearts and houses to welcome you or among a team where differences in skin color don’t matter, only a shared goal.
As foreign high school students, there are a lot of barriers to “fitting in” that come into play. I have had days where I found myself to be out of place, felt some culture shock, homesickness or just the fear of missing out. But now that I look back on my six months journey, I’m not sure how the older me got though some tough times, or made some decisions but I did it as did so many other YES students. There is something really beautiful about this experience that we don’t often realize when we’re in the moment. But through all the good times and bad times, between all our “what ifs,” when you get the feeling that you belong and that you always have belonged, everything about this experience becomes worth it.
I have been a part of a family here, that I never knew existed but now it feels that I have known them for years and years. I even know what each one prefers with toast in the morning! A place so alien at first, but now it’s a routine that makes me feel so much at home even though it can be a struggle to rush from one classroom to another in the mornings. I share laughter with friends from literally a different side of the world who get every questionable joke of mine and am part of a team that holds me up even during the times I don’t feel like I can compete any longer. I meet people so unique and have experiences that always bring a smile to my face. I belong to a community of givers and I could never imagine how much pride I hold now representing both my host and home countries.
The exchange student experience is not easy but it’s raw, it’s real, and you will look back on this and say “I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.” Because here, as ambassadors of our cultures, and despite all our differences, we belong.