By Harsh Gajjar, YES India 2016-17, hosted with World Link in Illinois

“It all started with a dream, a dream of a 16-year old teenager who had never been out of his country or away from home for more than a week. It was about a year ago when I heard about exchange programs and I made the decision to apply right away. It was the best decision of my life, but it also had it’s challenges. The selection process was difficult, but it helped me learn a lot about myself. When I was notified that I was selected as a finalist for this program, my happiness had no limit and I jumped with excitement. I started preparing for the best year of my life.

As the departure date came closer, I started feeling nervous and uneasy. I was excited but at the same time there was a lot of anxiety. I was a young teen who didn’t even make his own bed at that time and I realized that I was going to spend the next 10 months of my life at a place where nobody knows my name. It required a lot of courage to say good bye to my family and friends. My parents were more worried than I was. I knew I had a long journey ahead of myself and I had to make the most of it, no matter what.

I still remember the day I landed in the US. Everything felt so different. Kilometers changed into miles, Celsius changed into Fahrenheit. Rupees turned into dollars. It was like living on a different planet. I still remember the first time I saw my host family; my host mom was standing there with a bag full of candies and balloons. I wasn’t sure if I should go for a hug or a handshake, but she made that decision by giving me a tight, warm hug.

From the very first day, I started trying new stuff. I was a vegan, but wanted to try a chicken sandwich. Turns out, it’s one of my favorite foods! Little everyday things felt like a challenge, but it helped me to start learning new skills. I washed dishes for the first time. I was doing my own laundry. I was taking care of my own self which was a huge surprise for my parents.

My host parents taught me a lot of things. They answered all my questions with patience. I still remember all the memories I have had with my host brother. We had a great year together. When nobody could give me a ride, he always gives me a ride anywhere. It’s like an angel from heaven to me. We would wear same clothes, we would sing together, he taught me guitar. We would do all sorts of crazy stuff together. We would have our brotherly fights but would always defend each other. Each memory has a special place in my heart. From those exciting times when mom asks what I want for dinner, I would of course shout, “Wendy’s” at the top of my voice! When my host dad would try to explain a sport I didn’t (and still don’t) understand. I’ll always remember traveling to different places with the whole family. Each and every little memory matters.

Some people think that an exchange year is only full of fun and games, but that is not the truth. I had to face a lot of obstacles like homesickness, getting used to this new foreign culture, overcoming the language barrier, and most of all, deal with the extra homework. What was once a normal, everyday thing became more of a challenge.

I got used to being out of my comfort zone, but halfway through my year, I went through a phase where I started to get tired. I had many people who supported me that helped me out at that time. One person was my friend Yuri; another exchange student in my town. He knew and had experienced all of the same ‘exchange student problems’ I was facing.

We helped each other by volunteering in our host community and this motivated me during my bad times. At times when I felt helpless, the goal we set of getting at least 100 community service hours each rejuvenated me and my passions. I was able to achieve my goal and it gave me a great feeling of satisfaction. I stayed focused and was awarded recognition for it at the end of my exchange year.

I experienced a lot of new things here. I met new people and made new friendships I know will last forever. Most of all, I gained a second family who loves me and cares about me. One of my favorite things for me here was my host school. I loved walking down those packed hallways and using those cool American handshakes with the friends in the hallways. I’ll always remember being completely lost on the first day of school and asking a lot of questions because I had no Idea where I was supposed to be. All my teachers were so supportive and were always willing to help me.

After all the ups and downs, I was finally starting to feel like I wanted to stay here longer, but then came my return travel date announcement. I started getting a strange feeling. It feels like it went by so quickly. I feel like if I had a chance to go back in time, I would do it all over again, even if I had to go through hardships again. And yet, here I am, attempting to fit a LIFE in a suitcase. I am already starting to get a feeling of emptiness after seeing my other exchange friends leave.

This exchange program helped me know my true self and my abilities. I have a different point of view to everything now. I came here as a stone and it carved a diamond out of me. I am a completely different person now and all the credit goes to YES program. Looking back at all these memories, I am happy with all the memories I made. A part of me will always stay here. This experience will stay with me for my entire life.

As many people say, “It’s not a year in a life, it’s a life in a year”.