YES Programs



Bonds Beyond Borders

Sefeda Lazaj 20 with her host family in Tirana Albania 1
Sefeda Lazaj 20 with her host family in the US 1

By Sefeda Lazaj (YES 2019-2020, Albania, placed by Aspect in Broomfield, CO)

Four years ago, I hopped on a plane and began my journey as an exchange student with the YES Program in 2019 – 2020, an experience which, many years later, I still consider to be the best year of my life. While I was preparing to embark on my exchange journey and live with a host family, waves of nervousness washed over me.

The idea of immersing myself in a new culture, far from the familiar comfort of home, filled me with excitement and anxiety. The unknown, the questions about fitting in, adapting to different customs, and building connections with my host family circulated in my mind. "Will I be able to bridge the gaps between our worlds? What if I struggle to communicate effectively?" Living in an unfamiliar environment triggered a sense of vulnerability in me.

Yet, beneath the worry lay a more profound curiosity and willingness to embrace this unique experience, hoping that the challenges would pave the way for personal growth and meaningful connections.

And they did.

Sefeda Lazaj 20 with her host family in Tirana Albania 2

As soon as I set foot in the U.S., my host mom, Susan, and Rebecca, the other exchange students from Italy with whom I would share my room throughout my exchange year, welcomed me with open arms. They had prepared a big welcoming poster with my name, surrounded by star-shaped and heart-shaped drawings and stickers. As a detail-oriented person, the vibrant colors and thoughtful decorations immediately made me think of the time and effort they had invested in creating a special welcome for me, realizing how long it must've taken them to arrange each element on the poster carefully. The poster wasn't just a decoration to me; it was a heartfelt gesture representing their effort to make me feel genuinely loved.

As I spent more time with my host family, every worry I had before the exchange disappeared. Each family member went out of their way to make me feel like a cherished member of their home. Their patience in helping me learn about American culture and the never-ending support in overcoming language barriers transformed my initial nervousness into a genuine sense of belonging, of being part of their family.

We shared laughter, inside jokes, and countless memorable moments that quickly integrated me into their family dynamic. Whether it was helping us with homework, participating in family dinners, or supporting one another through numerous activities, the bond we formed bridged the gaps between our worlds, which I was initially worried about. In their kindness, my host family not only helped me overcome these worries but also became the foundation upon which I had the chance to build lasting friendships and make unforgettable memories that year, friendships and memories that continue to last to this day.

Sefeda Lazaj 20 with her host family in the US 2

This year, the bond with my host family came full circle when my host mom, Susan, and Rebecca, my fellow exchange students from Italy, decided to visit me in Tirana. From November 30 to December 3, my "second home" was in my primary home, turning my ordinary days into extraordinary memories. It was a truly special experience to welcome them to my homeland and reciprocate some of the warmth and hospitality they had shown me during my exchange year. During their visit, I had the pleasure of showing them around and introducing them to the culture and rich history of the city and Albania.

One of our notable stops was "Bunk'Art 2," a museum that sheds light on the Communist-era persecution, reminding us of the country's historical struggles. Exploring the city together, we visited Tirana Castle, where we shared stories that transported us back to the moments we had shared during my exchange year.

Their visit represented a reunion filled with joy and familiarity, highlighting the nature of the connection we had built years ago, which remains as strong as ever. As I observed Susan and Rebecca occasionally, I couldn't help but pause and reflect on how much they had influenced my life. In those moments, I silently wondered if they truly understood the depth of their importance to me. Their warmth, guidance, and support played an important role in shaping me into who I am today. Watching them walk through the familiar streets of Albania, I realized that my bond with them transcends time and distance and that they will always be considered my second home.