YES Programs



My American Experience

Justin Gonzales with his host family

This article was originally published in the Maryland Bulletin, a publication of the Maryland School for the Deaf

By Justin Gonzalez (YES 2017-18, Philippines, hosted with AFS in Frederick, MD)

I remember learning about the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program (YES) program for the first time when I was in seventh grade. Several of my friends were insisting that I should apply for YES. They badgered me for three years; however, I was not sure if I wanted to go to America. I had never considered becoming an exchange student or traveling to America. Finally, in ninth grade, I felt ready to apply and decided to enter the selection process. Last year, YES called my aunt to let her know I made it through to the final round to become an ex­change student. This news left sev­eral huge questions weighing on my mind: Should I leave my country? What about my family? How can I survive without seeing my friends for a full year? How can I leave everything I had ever known and go to a country I knew nothing about? Honestly, I did not want to leave. However, the same friends I was scared to leave, were the same who got me in this predicament in the first place.

All of the YES exchange students and I left the Philippines, where we had lived our whole lives, to start our one-year journey to America. Each of us was filled with a myriad of mixed feelings: excitement, fear, longing for new experiences, missing our families, and most of all, anxiety over meeting our host families. However, I was the only deaf Filipino and was anxious. However, later we met up with other AFS students who were from many different countries.

Upon arrival to America, I met my host family at the airport. I approached them with trepidation, until I realized that my dad, Daniel Koo, and mother, Sherry Bradley-Koo, were deaf! They also had two hearing, twin sons, Aspen and Logan. Much of the fear I felt, when leaving the Philippines, had disappeared at that moment.

My first day at Maryland School for the Deaf (MSD) was another momentous occasion for me. I learned that the American education system is different from the Philippines. I was thrilled to find out that MSD personally scheduled each of my classes to fit my needs. This not only allowed me to have an exceptional education, but also to make friends quickly. In addition, I joined various clubs such as sports and the per­forming arts. Upon returning to the Philippines at the end of my exchange year, I will be filled with so many great memories. I am a changed person, for the better, due to the opportuni­ties I experienced at MSD. I now identify myself as a global citizen and I promote peace in every aspect of my life.

I would en­courage deaf stu­dents, from around the world, to consider becoming an exchange student and attending MSD. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and remember, you only live once. I have attended a stellar school, made new friends, acquired a new family, and even played American sports. In addition, the technology available in America is leaps and bounds above the Philippines. Here I have access to closed-captioning, video-phones, and a bed shaker alarm clock. Now I can enjoy access to many things thanks to my host family, friends, teachers, and everyone at AFS Intercultural Programs and the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs who worked to make my exchange experience a success!

Again, I want to thank MSD for giving me this op­portunity to learn about American life and Deaf culture. The memories I have made this year will last me throughout my lifetime.