I was an "exchange student." But I didn't believe the power of being in an exchange program until last year, when I participated in the U.S. Department of State's Youth Exchange and Study Program, or YES.
After my own experience, I now believe that exchange students can help change some of the assumptions and preconceived ideas in their societies because people are more likely to accept the change from within their society rather than from the outside. That is why I strongly believe that an exchange experience is one of the most powerful ways to promote human beings and help end those centuries' long conflicts that take our focus away from the real problems.
I'd like to share a couple of the hundreds of experiences I had while in the United States that continue to amaze me.
When I came to Rhode Island last year, I was a 16 year-old Moroccan student who did not have much experience outside my own culture. I learned a lot going to school in the United States, but the most important lessons I learned were outside of the classroom. I never thought that I'd travel across the world and be invited to meet an important official of my country, let alone the Ambassador of Morocco. But on October 27th 2008, I went to Brown University, near my host family's home, and spoke with him one on one. It may seem like a small thing, but this experience was the first of a long list of very interesting experiences that will change my life forever. Most of which I never thought I would have.
I was in the U.S. for Election Day. That experience encouraged me to challenge myself and set some goals to my year in the United States. The excitement on that day was incredible. The last thing I expected was to be asked to help. But I was. I volunteered to promote a bond referendum that proposed building a new middle school and update my town's high school's science facilities. Not only did the bond pass, but the man who was in charge, a CEO of a marketing company, become a mentor for me, and we met each month to talk about business and politics.
During my stay I was invited to speak about Islam at the Unitarian Church of my town to 7th and 8th graders. The hour I spent there showed me once more that coming to the United States was the best decision I have ever made. I learned about different religions, which is something I couldn't have done as easily in my country where 98 percent of the community is Muslim. I went several times to different churches and learned about different practices and beliefs and I was able to share my practices and beliefs with others. That year taught me to be more tolerant and I think I helped people understand more about my heritage.
These are just a few of my experiences. There are too many to list. But through all the diverse community service activities, my time at school, with my host family and with new friends, I have I have seen different faces of the United States. From people who live from paycheck to paycheck and fill the lines of soup kitchens, to old people in nursing homes who want nothing but a little bit of attention and care, I was lucky enough to see the true diversity of the world's biggest melting pot.
Being thousands of miles from home was not always easy. Like everything in life, my experience had its ups but also its downs. The hard times helped me grow up and move away from my comfort zone to gain maturity and independence.
Every time I think about my host family, my local coordinator, friends, teachers or fellow volunteers, I cannot help but get emotional. They did so much for me. My host family gave me a place in their hearts and minds. My local coordinator was always there for me whenever I needed her, always making sure that I was adjusting and enjoying my stay here. My teachers and friends have volunteered to help me in the academics and took my situation in consideration whenever I did not understand something that was common knowledge to the other students. The volunteers I worked with tried to make my experience enjoyable and taught me all I needed to know.
I know I was one of the lucky few to live overseas for a year, but I also know that too few people know about my story and those of the thousands of other young people who are part of exchange programs every year. When I came home I felt I had seen America's true face and heart. I knew more than what the news told me and I helped others learn more about my culture.
The lessons I learned will stay with me forever and my belief in cultural exchange will never leave me. This is how we can really learn about others.