By Romasini Sivam (YES 2019-2020, Malaysia, placed with AIFS in Woodhull, NY)
I clearly remember the morning of National Selection Camp when my brother drove me to the venue and I couldn’t have been any more nervous. That timid girl had no idea what to expect from this, but one thing was certain: she had to do all she could to show that she was worthy of this life-changing scholarship. Fast forward to a few weeks later—I would never forget that evening when I came home to an e-mail saying that I was a finalist of the YES Program! I sat on the floor in disbelief and burst into tears. I had always wanted to go on an exchange since I was 14 and everything about the life of an exchange student seemed intriguing to me. I had to pinch myself to make sure that it was in fact a reality that that same girl was actually about to embark on a whole new life-altering journey to the United States!
In the States, I was hosted in a small town called Woodhull in New York that was much more rural than I had anticipated. My host family lived in a beautiful cabin that was surrounded by the woods that just had a unique touch of heavenliness. Coming from Seremban where everything was nearby and accessible, it was amusingly hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that this place was so rural to the extent that it was normal to travel one hour just to go get dinner or buy groceries!
Just like most of the exchange students from the equatorial region, my first time in snow was definitely an unforgettable experience. Something about the numbing discomfort of the New York -20°C weather was oddly ecstatic. My host family would have such a great laugh watching me shivering even with layers of clothing every time I stepped foot out of the house. Going sledding down the hill outside the house and skiing for the first time left me in a state of euphoria. Ice skating on the other hand probably will never be my cup of tea for all the falling and body aches it gave me.
I was always fascinated by the thought of experiencing an American high school. I tried to eliminate any existing stereotypes I had in my head based on movies and books. Luckily for me, even on my first day, I was welcomed by the kindest teachers and nicest students who helped me around my way in school. I signed up for the Drama Club, Softball Team, Red Cross Club, and any other given opportunity to meet and interact with more people.
Something that I will forever be thankful for this exchange is the doors it opened for me to meet and befriend some of the best ever people from all over the world. Exchange students were surprisingly easy to click with, for after all we were in the same boat together and were intensely interested in intercultural sharing. I learned so much about Luxembourg, Spain, Tunisia, Germany, Indonesia, and many other countries. It was immensely hard to end my exchange knowing that the odds of all of us being together again were pretty slim.
About 3 months into my exchange, things started to go haywire when the coronavirus was rapidly taking over the world. So many plans that we had made with friends and Spring Break were canceled. The journey of almost all the exchange students in the country came to an abrupt end. It was heartbreaking as most of us were not mentally prepared to leave yet, but we knew it was for the best. I had my last day in school, last bus ride, last softball practice, and last goodbyes to my teachers and friends without quite knowing that was it.
Back in my home country, during the quarantine period, I took time to sit back and reflect on everything life had given me from this wonderful journey. I started appreciating what I had done rather than sulking on the big events that I was missing out on. That’s when I realized that what was more precious were the little moments such as the late-night conversations with my host father, game nights and random road trips with my host family, and even binge-watching Netflix with my host sister. Most importantly, I learned that life can be full of surprises and it is vital to live in the moment and cherish the little things, and never ever take anything for granted.
Everyone has a uniquely crafted exchange journey and I will forever be grateful for the phenomenal experience I had. This gave me so many first times that I would’ve never imagined myself doing. If someone had told me a year ago that I was capable of having all these in my life, I would have never believed it. I will always be in debt to the YES Program for making this a dream come true.