By Gurmeet Kumar (YES 2022-2023, Pakistan, placed by Aspect in Buckeye, AZ)
The day I got the mail confirming my selection for the YES program was the happiest day of my life. I never imagined that day would be a start in changing my life completely. The excitement of learning new things, experiencing a whole new culture, and exploring a whole new country overcame my fear of traveling 9,000 miles from home, and adapting to an entirely new community.
I faced a lot of challenges at first, including trying to adjust to my host community, making friends at school, and dealing with homesickness. Those challenges did slow me a little bit, but I never let them stop me. I gave everything time, and slowly I started making friends by joining various clubs at school, I got better at English, and I also dealt with my homesickness. After a while, I adjusted so well that it started to feel like home.
From my first day of high school, I had a goal of engaging in as many school activities as possible. I joined a number of clubs, including the Chess Club, the Yearbook Club, and Culture Club, and I also got inducted into the National Honors Society. In the fall, I ran cross country, which was also an amazing experience for me as it was my first time doing it. One of my favorite activities was going to football and basketball home games with friends and, of course, going to homecoming and Prom.
My next main goal was to improve my public speaking and presentation skills, and teach others about my country and culture. Thanks to International Education Week (IEW), I did twelve presentations for over 300 students and teachers in my high school. I brought a lot of souvenirs and gifts to distribute, and I cooked traditional Pakistani food for my friends to try (they loved it so much that they were asking for the recipe). In one of my presentations, I almost had an hour-long Q&A session because everyone had so many great questions for me, and they were so curious about how the people are, how is the cuisine, sports, and basically, how life is in my home country. In the end, they all made a Pakistani flag and signed it as a gift for me. Overall, It was a great success in teaching everyone about my home country!
Another objective I had was to engage myself in community service. From the start of my exchange, I had completed more than 100 hours of community service by volunteering at blood drives, school activities, tutoring, food drives, basketball concessions, fundraisers, by helping neighbors, and much more. It was one of the best and most fun experiences of my exchange year, and I am planning on continuing this upon returning back to my home country.
Another one of my goals was to explore new places and try different activities. Other than my host state, I got to visit Nevada, Alabama, and Florida, and I explored the beauty and culture of those states. I also got to see the beauty of Arizona like Antelope Canyon, the Grand Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, and many other places. I also got the opportunity to go to a winter camp with my youth group in Prescott, AZ, and I got to visit various universities through school field trips.
I always had a dream of celebrating American holidays in a traditional American way. I got to experience Halloween by dressing up and going trick or treating; having a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with my family; lighting fireworks on New Year's, and going for an Easter egg hunt. Christmas was my favorite holiday because of its jolliness, and I got to decorate my own Christmas tree in my room and build various gingerbread houses. I also got to introduce my friends and family to the holidays celebrated in Pakistan.
I could never have done this without the support of my host family and community. They supported me at every moment, helped me go through everything, and made sure my exchange year was going well at every moment. I am so glad that I now have two families on each side of the world.
This wasn’t just a year in my life, it was life in a year. I am so glad that I made the decision to participate in an exchange year. I didn’t only gain experiences, but I also experienced a significant amount of professional and personal growth. I didn’t realize when time started to go by so fast, and the moment to say goodbyes came. On my day of departure, everyone reminded me of the quote,
“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened."
Thanks to the YES program for this wonderful once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of making me a better version of myself. I am looking forward to being an active YES alumnus and applying all of the learnings and experiences I gained from my exchange year to bring positive change in my home community.