By Parita Patel (YES 2015-2016, India, placed by FLAG in Grand Rapids, MI)
When I first read the email asking for YES alumni to apply to be mentors for the Civic Education Workshop (CEW), I applied immediately, but cautiously. I didn’t want to get my hopes up because of the ongoing pandemic.
Even when I received the official invite from American Councils, I did not let myself get too excited. Until I was in the cab to the airport, it didn’t hit me that I was going back to the U.S. I felt overwhelmed and slightly in shock because I hadn’t let myself believe that it would happen. But it did, and I am grateful for it.
During CEW, I was one of three YES alumni mentors, along with Ugur from Turkey and Ali from Tanzania. We interacted with the current exchange students and participated in their sessions. One of my favorite parts was an alumni session where the three of us each led three back-to-back, 25-minute sessions with students. I talked about my YES year and how it impacted me. The students asked me questions about my favorite part of YES, how I handled religious differences, things I would have changed about my year, things I learned, mistakes I made, taking a gap year going back, and much more. As I answered, I saw them taking my words seriously. I realized that my answers helped them shape their expectations for going back home. I tried to keep my answers honest yet encouraged them to figure out their own way as everyone’s situation is different.
It is only because of YES that I can speak so candidly in a room full of students from so many diverse cultures who were strangers to me, and yet manage to communicate and articulate my thoughts without any hesitation or fear of judgement. Thanks to YES, I became a lot more confident and open to people and their varying opinions.
Another aspect of the YES alumni CEW role was having meetings in the offices of Senators and Representatives from our host states of Michigan, Texas, and Iowa. Iowa Senator Joni Ernst sat down with us for 30 minutes and listened to our stories and then shared her experience of going on exchange to Ukraine. We also presented to the State Department officials about how YES has impacted us. After the presentation, they asked us questions.
After the workshop, the students were sad about leaving, but I was eagerly awaiting a visit to Michigan to see my host family. I had imagined our reunion so many times that I didn't even know what to expect. We had kept in touch over the years through video calls and social media, but it still wasn’t the same. Sometimes my year with them feels like a dream. I was the closest to Katelyn, my host sister, and sometimes I still have dreams that I am with her, which always end up being bittersweet when I wake up.
Those dreams became reality when Katelyn “stole” me from my host mom at the airport, and I went to stay with her for a few days. She got out of the car to come hug me, cracked a joke and laughed – the same laugh that I had heard countless times. Then I understood what reconnecting with loved ones truly feels like. It feels like those old ratty PJs you lose in the back of the closet, find after several years, and then begin to wear again because they are so comfortable.
YES is truly a lifelong exchange. The bonds I developed during my exchange have lasted all these years, and I hope they last forever. We changed so much in the last six years, but at the same time, we have not changed at all in the sense that we still feel like family. There was so much to catch up on! Those two days with Katelyn, I didn’t get any sleep as we would stay up late talking. Then she dropped me off at my host mom’s. When I hugged my host mom, Jen, it felt like coming home. We went to Sam’s Club to stock up on groceries and she told me to get anything I wanted, and I did. Into the shopping cart went the Chips Ahoy cookies, Reese’s Pieces, and Pop Tarts. I realized that there are not many people I accept things from this easily – just my natural family and my host family.
I cooked Indian food for her and my brother. When we ate out, they still got all vegetarian stuff so we could share. It’s these little things they do that still grip my heart. One of the days I was in Michigan, I also got to meet my welcome family. My “welcome host mom,” Jeana, made tacos for me, and my sister Esther gave me a big box of cookies from their bakery. “Are you still the cookie monster that we remember?” she asked. Yes, yes I am. I met Esther’s daughter, Eisa, who is nine months old. When Esther introduced me to Eisa, her words, “Eisa, this is Auntie Parita,” melted my heart.
The last few days in DC with the YES students and then with my host family were some of the best days in my life. I am very thankful to the YES program and its staff, the U.S. Department of State, American Councils, AFS India, and FLAG for my YES year, all the opportunities I have received, and how much I have grown by being associated with this program.