By Festina Avdiu (YES 2021-2022, Kosovo, placed by CIEE in Wellsville, UT)
It all started with an online application I overthought a thousand times before hitting submit. That application and over a hundred documents afterward led to me having the best experience of my life so far. I never imagined how much saying yes to an opportunity could change everything. But it did, and I am thankful I said yes to YES.
I’ll never forget that feeling on August 12, 2021, when I arrived in Utah and met my host family at the Salt Lake City airport. They held a piece of cardboard saying, “Welcome to Utah, Festina," with a bouquet of pretty flowers for me. On our way home, it felt as if I were in a dream, although it may have been the aftereffects of making it through four connecting flights from Kosovo to Utah.
School started a few days later. Taking the school bus, assemblies, the Pledge of Allegiance, sports, theater, weekly themes, and school dances… everything was new to me. I enjoyed taking elective classes because they allowed me to explore and try new things, such as engineering, architecture, photography, and pottery.
Even my core classes were exciting. For example, my French professor would have movie days, scavenger hunts, cooking days, and many other activities planned for us. The process of learning was made fun for everyone. Attending high school in the U.S. was one of the most important parts of my exchange experience, and it was more than expected.
One of the things I loved most about being an exchange student was meeting people from all over the world. I can’t even begin to count how many exchange students I met and how much I learned from each one of them. Connecting with other students was one of my favorite things to do. It was a great way to see the differences between our cultures and experience diversity. Even though we came from different backgrounds, we still had much in common. Visiting the most important landmarks in Washington D.C. with exchange students, planning trips, hanging out, and all the friends I made will always be close to my heart.
I also loved being an ambassador of my own country. When most people asked me where I was from, they had never heard of Kosovo. I enjoyed sharing my culture with those interested to know more about my country and having the responsibility to represent Kosovo.
Other than school and time with friends, my time spent with my host family will forever consist of the most precious memories of my exchange year abroad. From our very first day until the day I left, they always treated me like I was a part of their family. This was probably why I never felt homesick. I cherished getting to know my host family and learning about their culture, religion, traditions, and daily life. I loved going on road trips with them to Southern Utah, Montana, Arizona, and Alabama. I’ll forever be grateful to my host family for making my year unforgettable.
My exchange year was a year of firsts. First time on a plane. First time living away from home. First time watching an American football game. First time celebrating Christmas. First time going to a rodeo. First time on a rollercoaster. First time petting an alligator. First time seeing a Broadway show. First time inside a canyon. As you can see, I kept saying YES to everything because that was the only way to make the most out of my experience. You never know what you may be missing unless you try.
I never imagined I would find a second home on another continent, a second family, grandparents, and friends from all over the globe. One day, as I was sitting in Wellsville, Utah, I realized one thing. I had pushed myself 6,025 miles away from my comfort zone, and there was no coming back. This is how YES changed my life.