By Geerthanaa Santhiran (YES '16 Malaysia, hosted with AFS in Bristol, WI)
Like most YES experiences, it starts with an email and a link for an application. I remember being ecstatic about the opportunity to volunteer for the YES19 Pre-Departure Orientation (PDO) and quickly filling in the google form. These facilitators are chosen from a pool of alumni from previous YES classes who have been through their own unique journeys of studying abroad in America.
The alumni take PDOs very seriously as it is the gateway to develop an open mind and heart among the 40 students who are about to embark on their own unique, life changing exchange experiences. This is where we inculcate the responsibilities YES students have as ambassadors of Malaysia and the program. The Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (KL-YES) program was established with the foundation that youth exchange is a key component to building bridges between citizens of the U.S. and countries around the world. PDO is where we as alumni can impart advice and guidance on how our Malaysian youth ambassadors can make the most out of their 6 months in the U.S. It’s also a valuable platform for alumni to develop our leadership and organizational skills as well as learn from the students and our fellow peers.
Personally, these students have worked hard to get this scholarship, from attending rigorous state level interviews to national selection camp. I was one of their facilitators during national selection camp where around 100 plus students from all over Malaysia gathered for activities and interviews. I have seen their potential first hand and know of these students’ intelligence and hearts of gold. I wanted to see how much they have grown since the last time I saw them many months ago. So, I was over the moon when I received another email in December affirming that I would be one of the facilitators for the YES’ 19 PDO.
Firstly, all good facilitators know that painstaking behind the scenes preparation is key to a successful orientation. Generally, our task as facilitators was to do lesson session outlines (LSO), basically lesson plans, for the sessions assigned to us. We worked in pairs in a way where the more experienced volunteers guided the junior ones. On our second online meeting, we explained our LSOs to each other and gave each other feedback on how to improve.
Our mentors did an excellent job on commenting on our google docs to make sure we came up with clearer instructions and gave our activities deeper thought and care. LSOs have become an integral part of our orientations over the years as it’s a great way to plan so we can maximize our limited time with the students to give them the maximum impact of information as well as be able to run sessions even if a facilitator is sick or can’t make it or as reference and documentation for future facilitators to improve on.
Finally, the weekend of the camp arrived. In the afternoon, the 40 students piled in with their heavy luggage. Parents were briefed on how the process of sending their children to the US was going to pan out. Then, parents bid farewell to their children, many planning to meet their children in the airport in a few days.
The next day, we taught them intercultural learning concepts to help them better understand different types of cultures and prepared for the adjustment cycle they were going to traverse. We also had a session where the students presented on current affairs, and feedback was given so that they can improve their presentation content and technique for when they speak and present about Malaysia in the US.
Overall, it was beautiful to see the YES19 batch become more comfortable with each other and more self-confident as well as letting their personalities shine as the days passed. But alas, all good things come to an end. No need to dwindle on sadness though, because for the students, this was just their beginning.
Throughout the orientation, I was hit by waves of nostalgia, all my experiences in the US flooding back to the surface. I just wanted to jump in a suitcase and go along with them. Seeing these young students, all nervous and excited with untapped potential, reminded me of myself and my batchmates. There were many moments where I was holding back tears. It was overwhelming, but in a good way, like I got another chance to relive all my happy moments. I still can’t believe I’m a facilitator now. I used to look up to my facilitators and be inspired by them. I’m just grateful I can give these students what my facilitators gave me--strength and support. Being a facilitator can be exhausting, but when you see a student’s face light up with confidence when they finally understand the knowledge that allows them to let go of fear and live their best lives, all your hard work is worth it.
I don’t think we ever get over such life-changing experiences such as going on an exchange when you are a teen, but I realized that volunteering to make it possible for others is an act of healing and digesting all that you have learnt and gained from your time abroad. Every year you discover more about your time abroad and how it has impacted the way you think and act now. It is surreal and magical and sometimes I want to force all my form 4 and 5 juniors in secondary school to apply for an exchange. It really does make you grow, be independent, explore who you are as an individual and be a global citizen. As I look around and smile, laugh and hug my fellow volunteers’ goodbye, I am struck with the realization that my exchange didn’t just give me a family halfway across the ocean but also in my backyard. Smart, kind, passionate individuals I am proud to call my friends. I can’t imagine a world where we walk past each other on a street as strangers. Personally, for me, the YES alumni are a huge reason readjustment is possible. For when you miss your host community, you remember that the YES alumni are family, waiting for you, with open arms.