As exchange students, we often heard countless accounts of people throughout our exchange year saying “this is one of the most challenging things you’ll ever do in life." As former KLYES students ourselves, is a statement we couldn’t deny. But when the COVID-19 pandemic first emerged in 2020, the entire world, including the YES program, came to a halt. Students who were on the program had to be evacuated back to their home-countries, and many of them had to leave behind some of their most anticipated events such as participating in Civic Education workshop, going to prom and attending high-school graduation.
Despite having their exchange experiences cut short, these students went back to their home and took what they learned to make a difference in their communities. Therefore, we wouldn’t be exaggerating when we say that the 2020 batch of YES students and those who followed after have been the most resilient batches of the YES program thus far. A ten month long exchange program is a challenge for any 15-year old, but participating in an exchange program in the middle of a global health pandemic only adds more layers of complexity.
Before we dive further into this article, let us briefly introduce ourselves. We are Qurat Ul Ain from Pakistan, and Zaid from Jordan and we were on the YES program for the 2015-16 academic year. Qurat Ul Ain was placed by AIFS/AYA in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, whereas Zaid was placed by AFS in Kendaville, Indiana. Three years after returning to our home countries, we were short-listed to serve as Alumni Instructors in the DC orientations in 2019. Little did we know that this would be the last “normal” DC orientation before COVID-19 transformed the world forever.
In January 2020, we were invited back by the American Councils to assist with the DCO’s, this time as Senior Alumni Instructors. Two months later, COVID-19 happened. After much anticipation and analyzing the logistics, it was communicated to us that the YES program for the year 2020-21 was not going to take place. This had never happened before and it went on to show the gravity of the situation.
As time passed and vaccines started becoming more readily available to the public worldwide, the YES program’s operations were also resumed. And while students were able to participate in the program, the grounds for attending in-person DC orientations did not work in their favor. Fast-forward to 2022, we were invited to return for the first in-person DC orientations post COVID-19 to make-up for the opportunity we missed in 2020 and we couldn’t have been more thrilled to come back.
Working as Senior Alumni Instructors, we were largely responsible for mentoring the new group of alumni instructors, managing the admin work and making sure that all class teams felt supported and ran smoothly throughout the DCO’s. We also assisted with student arrivals and departures, COVID testing, assisting with collective sessions with all students, actively monitoring students and doing regular health check-ins and other tasks. The workload was a lot but the challenges were worth it every step of the way to see a successful and revitalized program that prepared the next generation of YES students!
Reflecting back on the last month, we feel very accomplished and proud of the work we were able to pull off as a team. Despite all the little hiccups we encountered along the way, we were able to carve out creative solutions and did not let the challenges get in the way of allowing the students and ourselves to have some fun. From witnessing the cutest student interactions during the “dog meet-and-greet” session to finally seeing students meet their host families, it has been a wholesome and heartwarming experience overall to see the DC orientations resume again. We are both so grateful to have gotten this opportunity by the American Councils to work on DCO's again, and providing us the front row seats to experience the YES program's prompt transformation to see the next cohort of YES students start their successful year!
However, the task of bringing together hundreds of students from around the world and having them spend three days in DC during a time when COVID-19 still posed a very real threat was an arduous one. Students had to be tested once they arrived at the orientation site and the day before they depart to their host families, as well as isolating students who had positive test results and ensuring they received the help they needed required a lot more supervision, time, and management on our part. Thankfully we had an incredibly proactive team of alumni instructors and American teachers. Everyone was on their toes to ensure the health and well-being of students with regular health check-in’s and active monitoring day-in and day-out.
Having worked on the DC orientations prior to the pandemic in 2019, the thought of running the orientations the same way seemed unrealistic. We were met with new challenges along the way; a brand new orientation site, new schedule to cater to the COVID protocols, a revised curriculum and a three year gap between the last DC orientations meant that it was an adjustment process for everyone. The first week served as a learning curve for all of us. Getting acquainted with the new norm and familiarizing ourselves with the revised curriculum and schedule, while dealing with the anticipated challenges (such as lost luggage, sick students, etc.) demanded clear communication of expectations as well as flexibility on everyone’s part to deal with any surprises that weren’t already accounted for.
Teamwork lies at the heart of the work done at DCO’s, so taking the first week to better know our strengths and weaknesses and reflecting at the end of the workday to share what practices worked well or what could be further improved upon prepared us for the upcoming weeks. By second week’s arrivals, we felt more confident in our potential as a team and as the weeks further progressed, we found the process to be much smoother than when we first started.
Qurat ul Ain (YES 2015-2016, Pakistan, placed by AYA in Brooklyn Park, MN)
Zaid Goussous (YES 2015-2016, Jordan, placed by AFS-USA in Kendaville, IN)