By Sameirah Nasrin Ahsan (YES 2006-07, Bangladesh, placed by CCI in Honolulu, HI)
My mother always tells me that even though she has birthed me, I have been shaped by my experiences and the people who helped guide me along the way.
I was 16 years old when I left home to take part in the prestigious YES program. I was a timid teenager–easily nervous, lacking in confidence, and very acutely aware of these faults–so one can imagine what a daunting experience it was for me. I was completely out of my comfort zone, in a brand new country and school, surrounded by people who don't look like me, and trying to understand and live in a culture very different from mine. It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life, but also one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the capital, my host family's home in Hawaii was a cozy condo in the residential area of Kaneohe. My first host family consisted of my host parents, Vicki and Ralph (or Grandma and Grandpa, as we called them), and my host sister, Nicole. Nicole and I shared a bedroom, and we both attended high school at Le Jardin Academy in Kailua. For the second half of my exchange year, I lived with my Comparative Government teacher, Fred (or Uncle Fred, as I call him) and his family, which included a wife and daughter (and now a son!) in the small beach town of Kailua.
I’m still in awe at the ease with which I was accepted into my host families. My host mom, Grandma Vicki, knew I was Muslim and went out of her way to understand my culture. Before I arrived, she called the local mosque to gain a deeper understanding of me, and she even tried to cook Bangladeshi food. Both Grandma Vicki and Nicole would take turns driving me to the mosque every Friday during Ramadan, and they even created a corner in the house for me to pray in. It was just such a humbling experience that words fail me every time I convey what their actions meant to me.
During my program, volunteering at different organizations was elemental to my growth. I am grateful for my experience at the Windward Spouse Abuse Shelter, where I worked with victims of domestic abuse, and which opened my eyes about the importance of mental healthcare. I also fondly remember the time I spent at the Therapeutic Horsemanship of Hawaii, where I worked with retired horses to help differently-abled children with their motor and communication skills. Since I am a bookworm, I also spent a lot of time volunteering at the school library, where I helped the librarian organize books and at times read to younger children.
After graduating high school from LJA, I went on to pursue my Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering at Boston University, after which I went back to Hawaii to work at an engineering consulting firm. I became a frequent volunteer at the International Hospitality Center in Hawaii, where I worked closely with my YES program coordinator, Barbara, and helped her in several projects involving incoming YES and FLEX students in Hawaii. During this time I lived with Grandma Vicki, and her and Grandpa Ralph taught me how to drive and obtain my driver’s license. They truly loved me as their own, and being back in my host home as an adult was a surreal and wonderful experience.
Since my return to Bangladesh, I have taken part in several projects including, but not limited to, workshops for eradicating gender-based discrimination, road and beach clean-up projects, environmental awareness projects and fund-raising, and disaster management projects. I have also participated in several YES program initiatives as a guest speaker in the U.S., and I am a resource for new YES student pre-departure orientations in Dhaka held by iEARN-BD. Today, I’m pursuing a Masters in Environmental Engineering at the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.
I remain in touch with both my host families and several friends I met in Hawaii. My relationship with my host sister, Nicole, is probably the most special to me. For us, the passage of time is irrelevant, and we still feel the same way around each other as we did in high school. We are both moms now, and in keeping with Hawaiian culture, my son refers to her as “Aunty Nicole” and her daughter knows me as “Aunty Sam.”
Traveling helps you broaden your perspective, but living in a new country with new people helps you rediscover yourself. This means unlocking abilities and senses that you didn't even know you possessed. The YES program shaped me into who I am today. Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever imagined the possibility of living under the same roof with people of different ethnicities and belief systems than my own, and never would I have imagined that it would be so easy, so endearing, and so empowering. If I were to summarize what I learned during my YES year, I would say tolerance, empathy, and the maturity to respect people who have opposing views than mine.
Grandma Vicki and Grandpa Ralph both passed away within a week of each other in March of 2016. I remember crying during my last phone call with Grandma Vicki, and she kept saying, “You’ll be okay, my girl. You’ll do fine in life.”
She was right–I am. I stand tall today because they carried me on their shoulders.