YES Programs



Beyond Expectations: A Journey Through the YES Program

Group photo smiling in front of a Christmas tree, holding up a YES flag

By Vânia Nicole Mahoque (2017-2018, Mozambique, placed by PAX in Neenah, WI)

Being chosen for the YES program was like stepping into a dream. My expectations of the United States, built from books and movies, slowly crumbled as I connected with program alumni, heard their stories, and allowed their diverse stories to reshape my vision of what awaited me. At first, it was daunting to realize that my initial idea was merely a fragment of a larger puzzle. Yet, I embraced this realization, fastening my seatbelt as the thrill of countless possibilities ahead intensified.

Being hosted by the Zwaskas in Neenah, Wisconsin, was an absolute blessing. Their kindness wasn't just a lesson in selflessness; it also sparked my creativity in unexpected ways. Beyond that, I jumped at every chance to volunteer – at the church, the local library, sports events, and wherever else help was needed. Those experiences added up to over 100 hours of community service. What started as a simple act of kindness evolved into something profound, a joyful giving without expecting anything in return.

Vania and her host parents at the airport holding a Welcome Home sign
Vania's host family welcoming her at the airport

The essence of my exchange year lay in two precious treasures: the profound fulfillment found in volunteering, and the invaluable bonds formed with fellow exchange students and classmates that enriched my days. I shared many aspects of my Mozambican culture that were unknown to a majority of people, and soaked in theirs, embracing our differences with an open heart.

The warmth from my host family, school and church showed a side of the American people far more beautiful than the one I had read about, and I eagerly absorbed it, weaving it into my own character. All this taught me to have an open mind, to be curious, to learn and teach. The program helped me break preconceived stereotypes, and develop a spirit of teamwork and leadership, the latter being enhanced by my participation in the Civic Education Workshop in Washington D.C.

Vania wearing a Santa hat stands at a table with a box full of toys
Collecting Christmas gifts for underprivileged children

As my exchange year ended, transformation set in. My experience had been so different from what I initially envisioned yet so much more fulfilling. My perspective shifted from a 'period' to a 'comma,' hungry for more experiences. Now, as I major in architecture and physical planning, and through my work in interior and fashion design, I see the YES program's impact in the way I interact with the people around me, the way I conduct my business, and the personal values I live by every day.

And as a YES program alumna in Mozambique, I’ve had the chance to share with young students the life lessons that I learned in my 10-month adventure, hoping to enrich their journeys in the U.S.