By Madhi Hallal (YES 2016-2017, Lebanon, placed by PAX in Rochester, NH)
“Congratulations, you are now alumni of the YES program…YES never ends!” Washington DC, June 9th, 2018, and these were the words upon which the 15th YES Cohort sealed a remarkable year of fostering cultural exchange in the states. Back then my thoughts were all over the place between catching up with friends that I haven’t seen for 10 months, saying goodbyes, and processing the experience. I did not have the time to think about being an alumnus; it was an area of uncertainty, but if one thing he has learned during his exchange year, it is how to navigate uncertainty and grow through it. Although it seemed like YES was ending, I had a feeling that this was only the start of a momentous endeavor.
After I returned to Lebanon, a series of challenges awaited such as re-adjusting to the Lebanese culture, catching up on the academic material that I missed while abroad, and applying to colleges. It was hectic and daunting, however, that significantly changed when I got introduced to the YES alumni community in Lebanon. There was plenty to learn from hundreds of fellow alumni from diverse backgrounds, different generations, and vast areas of expertise that have already been in my position. They displayed a great deal of insights that helped him in navigating the obstacles of the upcoming year. The entire network presented itself as a support net. Not only did the alumni community possess individuals of valuable mentoring capabilities, but it also carried out projects and events, capitalizing on the marvelous and manifold skills of its members, to give back and contribute to the betterment of the local communities in Lebanon.
The alumni association in Lebanon was the perfect place to continue pursuing my personal mission. While in the states, community service was a consistent aspect of his exchange experience, and I always sought out volunteering opportunities. As a fresh alumnus at that time, the role that was most suitable for him was a volunteering one, because I was still exploring the structure and the dynamics of the alumni network and its members. From July 2018 until January 2020, I embarked on a continuous flow of engagement and being an active alumnus of the community. I made tons of new friends and connections, formed a wealth of memories, and, most importantly, learned how to be a better human being. During this period, I took part, mainly as logistical support, and marketing, of countless networking and community service events including blood drives, food donations and distribution, orphanage visits, field days, YES promotional videos, retreats, Thanksgiving dinners, and many more. He established a cherished connection with alumni; this community became like a family for me.
On January 14th, 2020, I was elected as a board member of the Lebanese YES alumni community being the representative of the South region. The YES program and the alumni association enriched his life through the experiences, challenges, and successes as they always served when it mattered the most, especially in getting accepted into one of the best scholarships in the MENA region, MEPI Tomorrow’s Leaders. I wanted to give back, empower as I was empowered, and had a goal as a board member that met those aspirations: progress of the Lebanese local communities by enabling Lebanese YES alumni with developmental capacities. I commenced his plan with great momentum through holding two regional gatherings for alumni to voice their thoughts, expectations, needs, and to draft a blueprint of events and objectives for the upcoming year. On top of that, I designed and initiated two support programs targeted towards the new and returning alumni, Mentorship and MentorBac. Both programs complement each other to create an unwavering source of support for the returning alumni, thus contributing to a smooth transition back to the country. Everything was unfolding as planned, until March of 2020.
Lebanon grappled with the spread of COVID, chaos reigned, and the entire framework for alumni got foiled; there was no contingency plan for such an unexpected scenario. Regardless of the turmoil, my determination to continue practicing the responsibilities of a board member did not falter. To secure a healthy, supportive, and engaging environment for the alumni community, I organized virtual game nights, webinars, and discussions. These actions soothed the tension and maintained the momentum of the association. I did my absolute best given the circumstances and resources within control, nevertheless, some matters, simply, cannot be controlled.
Lebanon’s upheavals reached the depths of despair in August of 2020 with the Beirut port explosion accident. Overwhelmed by a series of uncontrollable and unfortunate incidents, the entire nation came to a halt and with it the Lebanese alumni network. The entire nation needed to recover and reassemble the pieces of shattered hopes and dreams. Although it mandates months or even years, to never give up in face of suffering, to never yield without fighting for one’s aspirations, and to rebel against the unfavorable circumstances with steady and noble deeds; that is what I vowed upon myself.
February 18th, 2023, this date marked the return of the YES alumni community in Lebanon after a two-year hiatus. Much has changed, except for one thing, the commitment that I made to myself. Throughout the two gaps, I indulged in diverse set of experiences where I picked up insightful understanding of leadership, ethics, and policy making. Although it was not deliberate, it felt like I had been preparing for this exact moment, the upcoming YES alumni elections. The opportunity presented itself at the perfect timing; I was more than ready to take the prime leadership position as the President of the YES alumni network in Lebanon. To redeem the untapped potential of 2020 board, I ran for presidency with the same mission and vision, spreading positive and social change within and beyond the Lebanese alumni community by empowering the network to lead a sustainable impact on local communities. I had assembled the fragments of his personal ambitions, and it was about time to do the same for my country.
Now, I proudly serve as the President of the YES alumni association in Lebanon. “The journey so far has been, at the very least, arduous, but that, so far from discouraging, only adds to the depth and value of a once in a lifetime experience.” In the span of six months, I have managed to build an outstanding board of highly skilled, like-minded, and motivated individuals that are thirsty for giving back. They have executed 27 events and projects across all Lebanese regions. These events targeted, empowered, and left an impact as well as a smile on citizens regardless of their age or background. Moreover, they implemented several developmental projects for the benefit of the Lebanese alumni such as the YES Database, YES Calendar, and YES Mentorship and MentorBac that were on hold for 2 years. Recently, I've been developing an online platform that would facilitate brainstorming, planning, and carrying out projects for all Lebanese alumni, wherever they are around the world. These are just glimpses of the board’s work and what is to come in the future months! Upon the remarkable achievements and outcomes, the regrets of the past vanished; there is nothing but progress in sight for me, this board, the alumni network in Lebanon, and the country.
The YES program provides its alumni with a diverse set of international opportunities to further expand upon the lessons, values, and skills they learned during their exchange year and amplifies their experiences. Being an alumni instructor for the upcoming and new YES students is the ultimate alumni experience. Once I got the acceptance email, it took me a couple of hours to process what happened as if it was surreal.
Why did I want to be an alumni instructor? During my own orientations in 2017, I looked to the alumni instructors as role models. Tons of questions and concerns were circulating in my mind when I arrived in the U.S. for my exchange year. How will I make friends? How will I deal with the differences that I have with my host family? Is it going to be a honeymoon experience or a culture shock nightmare? The alumni instructors held the answers to each of these questions. They instilled order, confidence, and excitement into the confused, scared, and hesitant 15-year-old me. The alumni instructors were the best of the best in the international alumni community, and, at that time, I aspired to be like them one day.
I will always be grateful for the YES program, it changed my life, and I wouldn't be who I am today without the experiences that I shared and the support I received from all the people I met on program, especially my own alumni instructors. YES was, is, and will always be the cornerstone experience in my life; it gave me a second home and family that have a very special place in his heart. I wanted to give back to the program, I wanted to give back and help the new students in making the best out of their YES experiences, to support them through the phase of uncertainty once arriving in the U.S., and, most importantly, to prepare them for an experience full of ups and downs yet full of personal growth and unforgettable memories.
Before the start of the orientations, doubts began to surface in my thoughts. To be an alumni instructor entails a considerable duty and responsibility. Will I be up to the task, challenges, and standards? Will I be able to deliver? There is a substantial amount of preparation that goes into the orientations; to teach, I had to understand the program and my exchange experience like never did before. Although it was his first time, their experience acted as a source of valuable insights and there was so much to learn from them. They fostered a nurturing environment that was both encouraging and conducive to learning and growth. I became less and less worried with each day he spent preparing, listening, and engaging with them. Each team member had something unique to bring to the table. Brilliant teaching tactics, funny stories, leadership strategies, self-care advice, constructive criticism, you name it; they had it all. I definitely became a better mentor and a fully prepared instructor with their unwavering support and guidance. I was ready to carry out my duty.
Fout weeks, four classes, 94 students, and 17 countries after, the orientations did not live up to the expectations I had as an alumni instructor, rather, it far surpassed them. Without a doubt, it has been the most wholesome experience as a YES alumnus for me. The connection that I forged with the students turned out to be more special than he had imagined. Each class started as a group of people who do not know each other and ended with lifelong connections and friendships. They learned, prepared, laughed, smiled, and cried together. I poured my heart and soul into creating an orientation experience filled with shared memories that the students will cherish forever. Did I succeed in doing that? I'd say that I did!
The end of each week was a testimony to that, which was his favorite part of the orientations as well. At the end, if you were a stranger walking into the room and seeing the class singing, dancing, crying, and exchanging farewell letters, your guess would be that the students and teachers knew each other for at least two years and not two days! This sight made each week of putting my utmost effort worthwhile. Although each week brought a new group of students, they all had something in common, they were full of spirit, courageous, kindhearted, and possessed a strong will and resolution. I had a sense of fulfillment knowing I had something to offer to prepare such students for one of the best experiences one can have at such a young age. The YES journey is often considered the starting point of a series of events that eventually lead not only to lifelong personal progress but sustainable and global communal progress as well. Fueled by the impact that their exchange year had on them, students march ahead, leading and accomplishing remarkable endeavors throughout their lifetimes leaving eternal footprints and a legacy of a better world. Knowing that I was a catalyst for almost a 100 student to commence their fight for their dreams and aspirations, it brings a genuine smile to my heart; it is one of the best feelings and realizations a person can ever have. I cannot wait to see how far the journey of the students, that made me a better person, will take them.
“Congratulations, you are now alumni of the YES program…YES never ends!” Until this day, 5 years later, if you ask me a thousand times, what does it mean to be an alumnus of the YES program? Each and every answer would be different; the alumni journey just evokes greater meaning with every interaction and experience. With that, at last, I can conclude one thing over my YES alumni voyage, and that is the following: YES, it truly never ends.