By Aita Diakhate, YES 2010-2011, Senegal, hosted by AYUSA in Lowell, MA
On August 3, 2010, my exchange journey was starting as I was leaving Senegal for a life-changing exchange year in the U.S. As I was leaving, I had mixed feelings of excitement and anxiousness. It’s not because I wasn’t well prepared for the adventure that I was about to start, but rather because I was afraid of the unknown.
I enjoyed every moment of my exchange year with its ups and downs. Looking back, I would like to share five pieces of advice for a successful exchange year, from my perspective.
1. Make the most out of your year abroad.
Yes, from day one to the last day, every single moment. Bad ones and good ones are equally important. The year will pass by before you even realize it, so you need to make the most out of it. All the memories you will make will be for life, so have fun, make new friends, be open, try new things, and don't be shy. Spend time with your host family and consider them your own family--because they actually are.
2. Say YES to new experiences.
Don’t forget that the purpose of your year is to share your culture but also to learn your host country’s culture. Therefore, it’s very important to try and discover as many things as possible. Be open to new experiences. Even if they seem strange to you, chances are that you will end up liking them, and if not, at least you tried.
This actually happened to me with food. Before going to the US, I did not like cheese. Once there, I, naturally, told my host mom that I don’t eat it. She asked me which kind of cheese I did not like because there are many different types. Little did I know that there were many cheese types because we only had one type in my home country. Then my host mom asked me to try them and see. What happened is that I ended up being the biggest cheese fan ever. So before saying no, just try!
3. Don’t be afraid to be different.
Your difference in culture, habits, and all the interesting new things that you will tell people about your country are actually your assets for a great exchange year. Being different is totally fine in this case and it is the added value that makes you important. It will help you have discussions and get to know people interested in your country. It is also an opportunity for you to share valuable information about your country.
You are going to meet new people who have different cultures, lifestyles, opinions, and so on. So you will have to cope with all this without losing who you are and your own culture, tradition, and values. It is very important to keep your identity. Remember, you are on an exchange program, meaning you give and get. You will learn, but also teach people about your country, culture, and traditions. Be open-minded and always seek out the best in every situation.
In my home country there is a way of saying “yes” that consists of making a sound with your mouth. One day my host mother was asking me about something and to say “yes,” I actually did that sound without thinking about it. She noticed and asked what that meant. I explained to her the meaning of it and she found it so special that whenever we went to a family reunion or event she would call me and ask me to do the sound and explain it to others, who actually would try to do it, too. It was great! So share as much as possible.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
You are not expected to know everything, so don’t be afraid to ask questions. There is no silly question. ”How,” “what,” “why,” and “when,” will be your best allies during your exchange year.
I once took the wrong bus home from school. As soon as I got in the bus, I noticed that the people around me were different from the ones I usually saw. Then, a few minutes after the bus left the school, I saw that it was taking a different route. So, I just went to the driver and told him that I took the wrong bus. He asked me where I was going and after dropping everybody else off, he kindly brought me to the bus station and showed me which bus to take.
5. Don’t be shy! Take the initiative.
Don’t be so shy that you forget to take the initiative and take the first step. It is important to approach people instead of just sitting and waiting for them to reach out to you, because they usually won’t do it. Don’t overdo it or force things, but try! If you take the first step and tell your story, people will become interested, and they are more likely to invite you to their table the following day and introduce you to other friends. That’s how you get many new ones.
As a very shy person, integrating into my host family and high school was really hard for me. Communication has always been a big issue for me. At first, this prevented me from fully taking advantage of my exchange year since I had no friends and did not bond with my host family right away. To solve this issue, I decided to push myself to interact more with my host family by asking questions about the U.S., helping with chores, and spending more time with them. I also started approaching people at school; for example, at lunch time I would join a group and engage in a conversation with them in the most natural way. I ended up having great relationships with my host family and friends at school.