By Lora Radoycheva (YES 2021-2022, Bulgaria, placed by American Councils in Kamuela, HI)
After anxiously waiting for over a year amidst the uncertainties of the pandemic, Lora found herself unexpectedly calling the 50th state of the U.S. her second home. Born by the Bulgarian seaside, she’s always loved the beach and the outdoors and imagined spending her exchange year close to either the West or the East American coast but not ending up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. She couldn’t believe where she was going until she saw the Big Island from the plane window with her own eyes after flying halfway through the world. Little could she predict how these next ten months would impact her life.
From day one, Lora was captivated by the natural beauty, the diverse range of classes and activities offered by her high school, and the genuine kindness of the local community. She quickly realized that Hawai’i is unlike any other part of the U.S. “My American life was hardly anything like what I expected. Hawaii turned out to be a slower-paced and very peaceful place. During our PDO, we compared the U.S. to a melting pot. Well, Hawai’i is the most diverse culturally of all other states, and that gave me such a broad perspective. Immersed in the strong Asian influence and firsthand experiences with the Native Hawaiian inhabitants, I absorbed invaluable knowledge.”
She admits that reaching the Aloha state of mind wasn’t effortless: “When I tell people where I lived, they usually assume that my life must have been perfect because I was in a place associated with paradise. Like any exchange student, I encountered ups and downs. There were many culture shocks I was reacting to without even realizing it at the time. In the beginning, I had a hard time adjusting to the climate and I felt island fever after a while. It took me some time to make friends. A year later though, I’m only reminded of fond memories. I’m dreaming of the hikes I went on with my local coordinator, fellow exchange students, and host families, all the different foods I discovered, and my trip to O’ahu at the end of the year. Today I stay in touch with a lot of people from the exchange, including my double placement from Armenia. Living with another exchange student was another opportunity to expand my horizon and experience what life would be like with a sibling.”
During her exchange year, Lora embarked on various endeavors. She enrolled in a college-level Computer Science course, learned Japanese and how to play the guitar, actively contributed to her school's yearbook, and participated in the junior varsity paddling team—a notable achievement she’s proud of. Lora remarks, "Paddling is deeply rooted in Hawai'i's history and culture as the state's official sport. It was a completely new experience for me. Achieving this milestone feels incredibly rewarding, especially considering most of my teammates had been paddling their entire lives. One of the highlights was our coach ending every practice with a Hawaiian word of the day—an enriching and insightful experience."
She also completed 100 hours of volunteer service primarily focused on environmental work. From assisting in a public garden dedicated to cultivating native vegetation to educating tourists about responsible snorkeling practices, she developed a profound commitment to addressing the environmental challenges our planet faces. Lora also delivered several presentations on her home country and the Bulgarian language.
Lora affirms that her exchange experience has shaped her into a stronger, more mature, and independent individual with a global perspective. She’s already looking forward to her next adventure and encourages others to embark on such a life-transforming experience.