By Maria Ana Espinosa (YES 2005-2006, Philippines, hosted by AFS in South Bend, IN)
Serving as a YES alumna mentor at the 2020 Civic Education Workshop in February was an amazing chance to give back to the program that has changed the course of my life forever. I read about the experiences of past CEW alumni mentors, and I was convinced that this was an opportunity that I could not let pass me by. So I applied, and when I got the news that I was selected, I was more than grateful and vowed to make the most of my experience.
During CEW, I was excited to spend time with the current YES scholars and talk to them about my advocacy work on gender equality. I was so pleased to see that these young people were passionate about making the most out of their exchange year and doing great work when they return to their home countries. I had the privilege of meeting several U.S. Congressional staff members to discuss the long-term benefits of the YES program rooted in my own personal experience. I also enjoyed presenting to U.S. State Department officials and the volunteers at American Councils for International Education.
As if the Civic Education Workshop wasn’t amazing enough, I had the chance to go back to my second home in South Bend, Indiana to see my host family after the workshop.
My host parents have loved and supported me since I came to live in their home in 2005. Fifteen years have passed since then, but it felt like I was there only yesterday when I returned. They gave me a giant hug the moment they saw me at the airport, as if making up for all the hugs missed in the years we were apart.
As we drove home, I noticed that the city had undergone so many changes, but nothing had changed in the love I received from my host family. Aside from spending time with my host parents, I also enjoyed reuniting with my host aunt, grandma, and niece.
My visit to South Bend was a testament to all the strong bonds that are created during one’s YES year. My friend Christina flew more than 1,000 miles to South Bend from her home in Austin, Texas to see me again after fifteen years. Christina was one of my closest friends during my exchange year, and we have kept in constant communication ever since.
I also had the opportunity to visit a Filipino professor, Dr. Diane Desierto, at the University of Notre Dame. Dr. Desierto teaches human rights law, and she encouraged me to pursue further studies in human rights law so that I can be an even better advocate for gender equality.
My experience of returning to the U.S. and participating in CEW coincided with the global onset of the coronavirus pandemic. I feel very lucky that I got this experience right before much of the world went on lock down during the weeks after. I feel additionally grateful to be chosen because there are so many YES alumni who are doing great work around the globe – all their stories should be heard by the youngest generations of YES scholars.
Thank you to American Councils for International Education and U.S. Department of State for this opportunity. Rest assured that I will continue to work towards gender equality and carry in my heart the lessons that my YES year taught me.