By Ali Haji Mohammed (YES 2007-2008, Tanzania, placed by IRIS in Gilbert, IA)
In 2007, I was one of 20 lucky students from Tanzania selected to participate in a life-changing, year-long experience as a YES exchange student to the United States. I was hosted in Iowa by the Brekke family through Iowa Resource for International Services (IRIS). During this time, I had a chance to learn about American culture, leadership skills, and much more.
Twelve years later, I received an email from American Councils for International Education that I had been chosen to participate in the March 2020 Civic Education Workshop (CEW) in Washington DC as an alumni mentor. I was so excited for the opportunity, but unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the workshop was cancelled.
Just as I had forgotten about the opportunity, I received another email in December 2021 offering me the same opportunity to attend CEW in 2022. This was a dream come true and, of course, I confirmed and participated this past February.
It was an honor to work with the Washington-based YES team. Jeni St John and Jim Dykstra made our stay in Washington smooth and enjoyable with new experiences and fun activities.
What I enjoyed most during the week was working with my fellow alumni: Parita Patel from India and Ugur Gonul from Turkey. Through them, I witnessed the family that the YES program has created for youth around the world. It’s amazing to see how easily we can connect to people whom we have never met yet share a common story with. Together, we roamed the streets of Washington and shared our success stories and experiences since being on the program.
I was happy to learn that Ugur conducted several activities made possible by a YES Alumni Grant and a grant from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara to help Syrian refugees. Parita, through the technological resources she saw and experienced while on the YES program, has chosen to study IT and create technology to solve problems back in India.
Along with my fellow alumni, I spoke to YES students about what to expect when they finish the program and that YES does not end after the YES year, but then only begins. The YES alumni networks within a country and region are the best way to get started and stay connected.
At the end of the week, I was given the chance to visit my host family. I always wanted to go back and visit my host family, and thanks to this program, my wish came true. I left the U.S. in 2008, and I came back in 2022, almost 13 years later.
I was so excited to see my host family again, and the warm welcome back melted my heart. We went bowling, visited the town and school I attended while on the program, and went to see a movie. I am glad they were happy to see what I have become and for them to continue being a part of my life. To me, this is my second family.
Thanks to IRIS, the YES program, American Councils, and the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs for creating this program, which brings so many mutual benefits to participating countries and the U.S.