By Dame Sakho (YES 2014-2015, Senegal, hosted by PAX in Dewar, OK)
I was only 15 years old when my father came home announcing that I had been selected as one of the finalists of YES program. Beyond the excitement of going to the U.S. for a school year and the joy of being selected out of more than 150 candidates, my imagination ran wild thinking about how I would handle living in an American family and going to an American high school. After a 15 day English camp organized by the program, along with multiple PDO sessions, I started feeling comfortable communicating in English, a third language for me. Finally, after a three day orientation in Washington, DC, a whole new adventure in my life started when I got to meet the Caldwells in Dewar, Oklahoma.
Starting with a warmhearted welcome, the Caldwells quickly helped me fit into their family and made me feel important. There were some challenges at first, like getting used to family rules such as having a bedtime, doing chores, a limit on internet usage, and being the oldest sibling. I respected the Caldwells’ values, and living with them was fun and helped me understand the American way of life. Getting along with the Caldwells came naturally to me, and, after just a short time, I felt like I'd always lived there.
At first, I was a little worried about school and the obstacles I thought I would face studying with American students. I also worried about being on the same page with my teachers because, where I come from, teachers are less familiar with their pupils. However, the smiles and support I received from my classmates gave me the courage to interact with everyone and helped me understand more in class.
Having to be responsible for my own personal needs and budget my monthly stipend made me more mature and independent. With two other exchange students, Laith from Saudi Arabia and Jaseem from Kuwait, I was able to explore the amazing places of Oklahoma. Joining the basketball team and being a member of Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America made me better understand America’s diversity, and I did a lot of community service through these activities. Being an ambassador for my country, getting good grades at school, doing community service, and making presentations about my country and culture made me proud of what I had accomplished.
Spending ten months in the U.S. as an exchange student of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program is a life-changing experience. It doesn't matter whether you are placed in a big city or the countryside, with a traditional or non-traditional host family, or go to a big school or a small one. The fact is you will experience what American culture truly is. And you will know American culture even more when you go back to your country and begin giving back to your community.
Returning to my country after 270 days of having another view of the world made me more mature and gave me the courage to stand as leader in my home community. I did my best to share every positive idea I had to make projects with great impact a reality. I was awarded Alumni of the Year for Senegal in 2015-2016. Moreover, I was selected in 2016 to serve as an assistant teacher at the English camp for YES finalists, which was an honor for me. It was special because two other alumni were on the team: Azima from Pakistan and Yashodan from India, as well as a YES Abroad student, Jason.
Today, I am a high school senior and looking forward to attending college to study medicine. As a young ambassador of my country, I give the best of myself to help create a better understanding of differences in culture, education, and religion. It is with that perspective that I will teach the new YES finalists as an Alumni Instructor at the DC Orientations in August. I'm so excited to share my experience, set the course for arriving YES students to have the best exchange year possible, and develop my skills as a future leader.