A year in America, and what I learned over there

Published: August 29, 2011
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Pakistani, Chinese, Brazilian and Bolivian exchange students in New York 2010 PHOTO: ZOYA NAZIR

Pakistani, Chinese, Brazilian and Bolivian exchange students in New York 2010 PHOTO: ZOYA NAZIR Pakistani Exchange group in Yes leadership summit, Arizona 2010 PHOTO: ZOYA NAZIR

It was in 2006 when I came to know of Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program.

It is a scholarship program for students aged 15-16, allowing them to spend one academic year in the United States, where an American family hosts the student. My uncle mentioned that his 15-year-old daughter had gone to America for a year to study in an American high school on a YES scholarship. My dad asked me:

“Do you want to be an exchange student in America too?”

Being just twelve, I had at least three more years before I could apply to the program. However, the idea of spending a year in America away from family certainly struck me as thrilling. Who wouldn’t want to avail this opportunity if given?

When I turned fifteen, the application process started. In December 2009, I had to appear for my first major test known as SLEP test which was an English proficiency test. About a hundred students from Islamabad, Rawalpindi and surrounding areas alone appeared for the test. I was instructed to write down essays about myself, my family and why I want to be a foreign exchange student.

It was in late June, just two months before departure, that we had our first big pre-departure orientation meeting in Karachi. A few alumni were there too. The chief purpose of the orientation was to encourage interaction among all the YES students all over the country, and to make us aware of the cultural shock we’d have to face in a new society. Many of us were of the misconception that our year in the US would be fun vacation time. However we were clearly told that this would not be the case and that we should all start preparing for a tough life.

“Prepare for the worst and hope for the best” was a line that was time and again reiterated in the orientation.

We had sessions about almost anything and everything, from the statuses we should update on Facebook to the kind of deodorants we should use in the US. To me, the alumni who were there to guide us often came across as arrogant, know-it-all seniors asking me questions like: why do you want to be an exchange student?

I didn’t like that one bit, but now I realize they were only preparing me and testing my level of tolerance.

On August 3, 2010 our group of 70 students departed for Washington DC. It seems like only yesterday that we started snapping pictures next to the American flag outside the Dallas airport in DC. We spent three days at the campus of American University in the capital- the three days that can positively be called the most unforgettable days of our lives.

From Moroccans to Liberians, there were more than 300 YES students there. However, our group being the largest in number was by far the noisiest and most prominent of all. We sang, danced and interacted with kids all over the Muslim world. We were so different yet so alike.

Soon enough, we were in our respective states with our host families. I, having been placed with a family in Virginia, was only an hour and a half drive away from the capital. I cannot describe the exciting feeling that overwhelmed me during my first few weeks in the US, knowing that I was on foreign soil, so far away from my family.

My school started in late August. The sight of lockers, teeming hallways, cheerleaders and the use of terms like freshmen, sophomores and juniors was enough to make me feel that I was living the American dream. I was surprised to know that much of the American lifestyle was not how Hollywood movies depict it.  The students could not fool the teachers into believing claptraps, they didn’t go dancing around hallways, and cheerleaders were not snobby fashion-conscious know-it-alls.

I made friends fairly easily. Often questions like “Do you have cell phones in your country?” and statements such as “Wow! You have a Facebook too?” were thrown at me. It was fun to answer their queries since they were so eager to learn about another culture.

As far as subjects go, there was a vast variety to choose from. I took theatre, psychology, newspaper production and creative writing. When it came to host families, words like thank you, sorry and a smiling face were the power accessories in putting a good vibe.

I made several mistakes during my exchange life and I now realise that they could’ve been avoided, had I been more tolerant, compromising and polite. From host family troubles to issues regarding weight-gain, I was often angry with myself for being an exchange student. On the other hand, I had experiences so memorable that my life, at times, felt like lyrics to a captivating song. If there was a rewind button I would go back and enjoy my trip to New York, homecoming dance party, and the pizzas once again.

All things considered, an exchange year abroad is a very enriching and life-changing experience. Leaving the US, I learned a lot about the American’s love for pets, eating habits, slang language, obsession with 7-Eleven (a store) and what not!

Nevertheless, there are some routines I never got used to, like the American fixation with ice cubes in any drink, and left-hand driving.

We Pakistanis tend to dish out a good deal of negativity towards the Americans. This exchange year made me realise that there is a large segment of the population that is friendly and hospitable.

Why else would anyone host a student from an alien culture without being paid a single penny?

Zoya Nazir

Zoya Nazir

The writer is a first year A levels student. She was an exchange student in America from 2010-2011, and did her O levels from The City School Islamabad.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.