By Hajar Habbat (YES 2014-2015, Morocco, hosted by IRIS in Ankeny, IA)
February 2020 was marked by much excitement as I prepared to return to the U.S. for the Civic Education Workshop (CEW) as a YES alumna mentor. Throughout CEW week, I felt the presence of 16-year-old me, who was a CEW participant in 2015. Since 2015, I have always wanted to come back and serve as a mentor for the current YES students as they participate in CEW, and I have worked hard to be an exemplary alumna in order to do so. February’s CEW week was a dream come true for me.
Spending time with the 2020 CEW participants made me happy and proud because I saw that the YES spirit is still strong, if not even more powerful than I remember it. The current YES students were so involved, mature, curious, and hardworking – all at such a young age. Given their very busy workshop schedule, I expected to see tired faces. But at the end of each day, their enthusiasm remained strong and evident. During one of my favorite sessions, I spent time telling the participants about my accomplishments as an alumna, and the wonderful questions I received afterward told me how ready and willing these students were to make an impact in the future as alumni themselves.
During CEW, I served with my fellow YES alumni ambassadors Tamba Abdulai (YES ’14) from Sierra Leone and Maria Ana Espinosa, or “Maan,” (YES ’06) from the Philippines. We presented about our YES adventures and alumni experiences to U.S. Congressman and staff, officials from the U.S. Department of State, and the volunteer evaluators at American Councils for International Education.
We shared the work we have been doing in our respective countries since our return home from the YES program and the impact that our host communities continue to make on us in our contributions as alumni. During our meetings on Capitol Hill, we were accompanied by Jim Dykstra, who is a long-time supporter of exchange programs. It was a pleasure to work alongside him and learn how to be an even more effective ambassador for the program.
While I enjoyed every moment of my interactions with a variety of different audiences during CEW, my personal favorite was presenting to the volunteer evaluators at American Councils. I was really impressed to meet the people who choose to sacrifice their time to give students around the world the chance to come to the U.S. as exchange students. Over some delicious falafel, I truly enjoyed my time talking to the volunteers and understanding what drives them to volunteer for the spirit of exchange.
After the Civic Education Workshop, I made my way to NYU School of Medicine, where I work as a research trainee every summer. I had the opportunity to reunite with my lab professor, who is my mentor, and reconnect with my peers in the lab who have become good friends. Being a YES alumna was one of the main reasons that my professor accepted me into his lab as his mentee. He was impressed by the work I was doing in my community in Morocco and therefore invited me to assist with research in his lab. Working with him and my peers in the lab has given me the chance to further advance my academic and professional career, something I would have never been able to achieve had it not been for the privilege of participating in the YES program. I am forever thankful for the opportunities that the YES program has offered me throughout the years and for the powerful young woman from Khemisset YES has made of me. Being a mentor at the Civic Education Workshop was a great experience, and I had a wonderful time doing what I love to do most: being a YES alumna.