By Nafisa Bala (YES 2008-2009, Nigeria, hosted by Aspect in Scranton, PA)
Cultural exchange between international students and their American host families and communities may be the main goal of the YES program – but it is not the only goal. Another important goal is for these exceptional young people to go back to their home countries and use their exchange experiences to make an impact locally, creating a ripple effect that will change the world for the better. After my YES year, I was excited to go back home and live the goals of the YES program. My fellow alumni and I have carried out life-changing projects in our communities; and through these projects, I developed a passion for teaching and mentoring. So when the opportunity to be a Civic Education Workshop alumni ambassador and mentor was presented to me, I jumped at it with an eager and open heart.
My experience during the YES Civic Education Workshop was life-changing. It was an honor to be selected and serve as a role model to current YES students. It was also a great privilege to meet, interact with, and present about my community service journey to officials from the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Congressional staff, and American Councils’ volunteer application evaluators. I took great pride in representing the program and demonstrating to all these stakeholders’ that their efforts to sustain and support the YES program is worthwhile.
My Civic Education experience was also full of fun. I visited the Library of Congress and all of Washington DC’s many memorials again, and I had my first podcast interview! Through this opportunity, I learned more about leadership and American civic engagement, and I improved my presentation skills. Perhaps most importantly, I gained a renewed strength and energy to be an even better alumna. All these amazing experiences were made possible by the guidance and hard work that American Councils and American Civic Center staff put in to ensure the success of the workshop.
If someone asked me what I liked most about the YES program, my answer would be the concept of “hosting.” Host families all over America are super heroes, and I feel I am the luckiest exchange student of all because I was placed with the coolest super heroes. My host mom and host sister made my year a “super exchange year.” Throughout my stay with them, I was accepted, loved, and cared for. It was a home away from home, but even better.
Reuniting with my host family after the Civic Education Workshop for the first time in ten years was thrilling. Seeing, hugging, and talking to them felt so real and right. When I saw my host mom, she gave me the warm hug of a mother to her child and said, “you look the same after all these years!” My host sister has since moved to California, but she flew all the way to Scranton, PA to reunite with me and our mom as a complete family.
My host mom showed me an amazing time, as she promised. We explored the city, reminiscing about the memorable things we did during my exchange year. We visited old friends and ate A LOT of pizza (my favorite food in the U.S.) and chocolate (my second favorite food). At home, we spent a lot of quality family time together. The best thing about my host family is how much we love and care for each other. They’ve never treated me like anything but a real family member. And I have always loved how they are genuinely interested in knowing more about me as an individual, my country, and my culture in order for them to better relate with me; and I always try to do the same. My heart is warmed by the opportunity to spend time with these amazing souls again.