YES Programs



Reuniting After 14 Years

Mohammed at the podium at the US Department of State

By Dr. Mohammed Bello (YES 2008-2009, Nigeria, placed by IRIS in Ankeny, IA)

Fourteen years ago, I bid farewell to my American host family, unsure if we would ever see one another or hug again. Despite the distance, our relationship endured. I guess you could say we mastered keeping in touch from afar long before the pandemic!

When the opportunity to apply to be an alumni mentor for the YES Civic Education Workshop came to my attention, I was intimidated by the level of competition as alumni from all over the world would be applying. Nevertheless, it was a golden opportunity for me to return to the U.S. and reunite with my host family, so I leapt at the chance. Lo and behold, I received an email weeks later that I had been selected! It was a dream come true. All that stood between me and my 14-year reunion were months, and then weeks. Slowly and but surely, the day came for me to bid my Nigerian family farewell this time.

Mohammed poses with his host parents during their reunion

The moment I saw my host parents waiting at the airport, tears welled up in my eyes. It was a reunion filled with overwhelming emotion, as if time had stood still for us. Spending nearly two weeks with them felt like a mere blink. Every moment was precious and fleeting.

Seeing my host siblings, who were teenagers the last time I saw them, now as grown adults with families of their own was nothing short of amazing. We laughed, reminisced, and shared stories of our lives. I also traveled to Philadelphia to spend a weekend with my host sister and her spouse, marveling at the lives they built since we last met.

The trip was a journey of rediscovery, filled with nostalgic moments and heartwarming reunions. I visited my old high school, where memories flooded back with each step. Seeing my former teachers and friends, now older but still familiar, brought a sense of comfort and joy.

However, the trip was not just about revisiting the past; it was also about embracing the present and shaping the future. In Washington D.C., I participated in a week-long program, mentoring current YES students about transitioning from exchange students to alumni. It was a challenging yet rewarding experience. I shared insights on finding balance between alumni activities, work, family, and community service. In addition to mentoring the students, we met with the offices of our host families’ Senators and Congressman. Pictured here, I’m speaking with Iowa Senator Joni Ernst about the power of exchange.

Mohammed speaking to Senator Joni Ernst

During this week, I had the pleasure of having dinner with the charismatic and eloquent Sam Potolicchio, a renowned professor and speaker. Sam was accompanied by Ché Bolden, CEO of The Charles F. Bolden Group, an executive leadership firm focused on the global advancement of science and security, which carries the namesake of his father, an astronaut and former NASA administrator. This meeting not only left a lasting impression but also marked the beginning of new friendships and connections.

One of the highlights of the week was delivering a presentation at the U.S. Department of State, where I shared the impact of the YES program on my life and discussed issues facing alumni in Nigeria. Meeting with the Bureau of African Affairs’ Cultural Coordinator Gabrielle Chwazik-Gee was enlightening. I proposed ideas to increase alumni opportunities, such as increased engagement with U.S. Embassies and more grants and internships.

My return to the United States was a testament to the enduring connections forged through exchange programs. It was a time of reunion, reflection, and renewal, reminding me of the profound impact a year abroad can have on one's life. As I bid farewell once again, I carry with me the memories of this trip, cherishing the bonds that transcend time and distance.