Friday, July 15, 2011

D.C. and Orientations

Although YES Abroad students going to different countries are departing at various times, all of us had a pre-departure orientation from June 28th -July 1st in Washington D.C. Students going to Thailand and India left directly after the orientation, and the rest went home until their departures. We were divided into two orientations. Both YES and YES Abroad work with a consortium of exchange programs to make them possible. YES is primarily just a scholarship from the Department of State, it's not an exchange program in itself. Other organizations, such as AFS, American Councils, PAX, CCI, AYUSA, and more, help implement the YES program. YES Abroad works the same way. Different organizations are in charge of the YES Abroad students in different countries. Students who go to India, Turkey, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Ghana become AFS students. That is to say, when I was accepted to the India program, AFS took over my pre-departure training, and while I am in India, the organization that will facilitate my exchange year is AFS. AFS (American Field Service) is one of the largest worldwide student exchange programs. It currently has chapters in over 50 countries and has been facilitating exchanges for over 60 years. Most AFS students just pay for their exchange years. Here in the Chennai chapter (Chennai is the city I am living in in India) we have 10 AFS students: five of the YES Abroad Americans, a girl from Thailand, a girl from Germany, a girl from Austria, a boy from Italy and a girl from Italy. The YES Abroad students going to Oman and Morocco are with a program called Amideast, and the students going to Mali are going with a program called I-earn. The Amideast and Iearn students had an orientation together in the American Councils office, but the rest of the YES Abroad students, who are going through AFS (there are 33 of us) had an orientation at the Hilton Dulles Airport Hotel. We were there with about 450 returning YES students who came through AFS in their home countries. They had just finished their exchange years across America and were there for their returning orientation. There were students from India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Mozambique, Egypt, South Africa, Ghana, Philippines, and Kenya. Students from Germany who were here through the Congress-Bundestag scholarship were also there.

I flew out of Albany, NY to D.C. with Eunice (Mozambique), Esin (Turkey), and Salamatu (Ghana), who were hosted in my area this year. It was so strange to be going with the exchange students instead of saying goodbye to them as I usually do. Tuesday evening the orientations began, and they continued all day on Wednesday. The sessions for YES Abroad included "Learning to be an Effective Ambassador," "Journaling for Growth," "Indroduction to Islam," "Effective Communication with your Host Family," "Not Good, Not Bad, Just Different," "Conversations on Faith," and "Time With a Cultural Resource." On Thursday, we left the hotel early in the morning for a full day. First we had meetings with our Senators, or with their assistants, in most cases. Each group was made up of the YES Abroad students from that state as well as the YES students who had been hosted in that state this past year. In my group there were two girls from Indonesia, a boy from Ghana, an alum of two years ago from Ghana, a volunteer from VT, my friends Eunice and Esin, and me. The point of the visit was to advocate for funding for the YES program. We practiced and prepared the day before. I was in charge of introducing the YES program, explaining the goals of the program, and also of concluding the talk. First we met with Peter Welch's assistant, and then we had the privilege of meeting with Bernie Sanders. It was a lot of fun. Next all the returning students visited their respective embassies, and the YES Abroad students went to the embassies of the country they are going to. At the Indian embassy we just watched clips of Obama and India's prime minister talking about India-U.S. relations and then heard a short speech, again about India-U.S. relations. Then we ate kind of Indian food, and then left. Next we all went to the Department of State for a question and answer session with people from the Department of State. It was a chance for us to ask them questions about YES and YES Abroad, and what they saw for the future of the programs. After that, the YES Abroad students went to the American Councils office to meet up with the rest of the YES Abroad students who had their orientation there. It was probably the last time all of us will be together. After dinner, the YES Abroad students with AFS went to the Hyatt Hotel for a Cultural Presentation Evening with the returning YES students. Also present were Department of State VIPs, executive representatives from the major exchange organizations in the U.S., and about 75 AFS staff and volunteers. Each group of students from each of the 14 countries present gave a five minute cultural presentation involving music and dance to represent their country. There was an outstanding array of diversity and talent. Some of the performances were really incredible. I was one of four YES Abroad students in charge of organizing the U.S. performance. We had a hard time finding something to represent us, but we ended up doing a square dance and singing This Land Is Your Land, with two of our students playing ukulele. Since we didn't have traditional clothes, we all dressed up in red white and blue and waved American flags. That night the goodbyes began, as some students had to wake up very early the next day to depart for their home country.

The following day was full of goodbyes.There were no orientations, just goodbyes all day long. All the YES students were going back home, the YES Abroad students going to India and Thailand were starting their journeys, and the rest of the YES Abroad students were going back home until their time to leave. At 1:30 in the afternoon, I went to the airport with the rest of my India group.

During all of our orientations, we were seated by our country groups, so I had basically already spent three days straight with my India group. There are five of us, all girls: Tenaya, Cee, Anastacia, Jenny, and me. We are such a random group in that we are all so different, but somehow we form an awesome group. We are from all over the country, too. Tenaya is from Washington (state), Anastacia is from New Mexico, Jenny is from Illinois, and Cee is from Kentucky. If we hadn't spent enough time together in D.C., we had a seven hour flight to Frankfurt, three hours in Frankfurt (where we met Hannah and Theresa from Ausria, who were also going to India through AFS), and a nine hour flight to Chennai. When we got to Chennai we were met at the airport by an AFS volunteer, and were taken to a hotel that was inside a mall. First impressions of Chennai were: It's 1:30 in the morning and there are this many people out??? It's the middle of the night, and raining, why is it still this hot??? and There are so many people, colors, smells, and new things, I love it!!!

The next day we had a "survival" orientation. We met the other students hosted in Chennai, as well as the students going to Bangalore, a nearby city. We also met the AFS Volunteers in Chennai who will be a huge part of our year here. In India you never call your elders by their first names. You must call them "Aunty" or "Uncle". Our orientation was run by Sujatha Aunty, Beena Aunty, Merlyn Aunty, and two young volunteers, Adhavan and Chandrika. We learned a lot about Indian culture in a short amount of time. I was really glad for that orientation, because of what we learned and also who we met. All of the AFS Volunteers were so nice. I felt completely safe and comfortable with them. At the end of the day, the students going to Bangalore took a train to Bangalore, and the rest of us waited anxiously for our host families!! I was sad to say goodbye to the other AFSers, especially the other American girls who I had come so far with, but I was also excited to meet my host family. We were all nervous and excited at the same time, since we had no idea what to really expect. One by one our host families arrived and took us home, and a new step of our journey began! I will write about my host family in a separate post.

If there's anything you want to know about my time in India that I don't write about, please let me know. I really have no clue how to write a blog, so any tips would be welcome. Comments are welcome too. And I'm of course interested who is actually reading this.

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