By Zeesha Shafi – Exchange Student, Washington DC, USA from Srinagar 

“Last year, at this point of time I was planning and excited about the coming 10 months that were going to change my life forever. I had no idea what was going to happen with my life in the coming future. Life was so busy with formalities, visa documents, packing and saying goodbyes. Finally, the day arrived September 07, 2017, when I waved final goodbye to my family and friends and took my first step towards my exchange year. 

At UNICEF Annual Student Submit 2018

The long journey of 10 months started with the long flight from Delhi via Turkey to New York. The first step in New York made me instantly feel that I was in a totally different world now. Next day, early morning, I took a bus trip of 5 hours from New York to Washington DC, where I was placed. The first encounter with my welcome host family was good and there was lot to do to strengthen our relationship. The first week was tough for me. Everything was different: food, culture and people. I had to join the school, which had already started three weeks before I joined, so I had to work hard to cover up my missed classes. I was missing my family, so there was a lot of mental stress but life started becoming better in a month. I became friendlier with my host family. School was great with amazing teachers I could ever find.  The point of changing the host family came up as it was just a welcome family and I was required to be placed in a permanent family. At first, I thought it would be stressful, adjusting in a new family, shifting in the middle of the school but I was wrong.

After one week of my arrival in the new family, I went on a road trip with my host family to Indiana (where my host mom’s sisters live). It was the time of thanksgiving, a new experience for me. That was the best road trip I could ever make. Me and my family got to know each other better, and I knew right away that I was blessed with an amazing family. It felt great to meet my cousins and aunts in Indiana. They were so humble and nice to me.

Other amazing trip was to New York in December with AFS team and other exchange students. It was a trip of just two days but I made so many memories with the best people I had ever met. For Christmas, I went to Connecticut with my liaison to spend time with her family. Again, it was an amazing trip. Getting my Christmas stockings, decorating Christmas trees, singing carols, having big lunches and dinners together was so much fun. I went to New York again with my host mom and sister to visit my host brother and we went inside the Empire State Building. Trust me, I have never seen anything beautiful than the view from the 86th floor of the building. I felt like I was at the top of the world. The spring break was no less fun. I went to Virginia Beach with my family and stayed in a house with 5 families. That was the time I felt I was in India with so many kids around, eating together & doing stuff together. There were so many amazing things I did for the first time. I attended a two-day Bike Youth Summit after I learned how to ride a bike. 

I attended a two-day UNICEF Annual Summit which were the most memorable two days. I went to US’s biggest flower show. I was part of the March for Lives, 2018 with almost 1.5 million people attending it. I went to see the Washington Nationals Baseball game with Dad. The list is a long one which won’t end.

My favorite class at School Without Walls was the art class with one of the best teachers, Mr. Cunningham. He made me believe that I can do good in Art. We did a lot of stuff together like designing three shoes, designing my name, learning calligraphy, writing Arabic verses in Calligraphy and much more. Apart from art, he gave me some important lessons of life. He taught me to believe in oneself, to work as hard as one can. I am never ever going to forget Mr. Cunningham; he is an amazing teacher and person by heart. My other teachers were also great and always helped me out whenever I needed them. They gave me some good lessons that I am going to remember all my life. Being a Walls student was an amazing feeling. It gave me an international experience which I could never get. I am thankful to every teacher I had in the US and also to my school for hosting me. 

With host family

The best part of my exchange was my host family. I can now proudly say that I have two families. They gave me all the love and care I expected. The nights I would be late home, mom would wait for me at the metro station. She packed my lunch for school every day like my mom in India did. She was so organized and managed all my time perfectly. She travelled with me to many places . Meeting my host dad filled my need of natural dad whom I had lost three years back. Calling him dad felt like I always called out to my own dad. He would take me to basketball practice and we would have these long conversations about all random stuff. They are the best parents a person could have. My host sister is another amazing person who came into my life. She is so cute and beautiful. Her smile makes me smile and she is no different than my own sisters. She was always so helpful and respectful. We had a great time together. About my pet cat, Jazzy, well I always assumed that she never liked me but Elizabeth says this every time “Jazzy surely loves you.” I hope she does!  I am going to miss having all of them around me always. 

Now, the time is almost here when I need to leave all these things and return to my other home. Life has once again become so busy planning stuff, packing and once again the hard goodbyes. Believe me, saying goodbyes this time is as hard as it was when I left my family and friends in India. It feels like leaving one home and going to another because home is where the heart is. And I can be sure on this that my heart lies in two places now – India and US.”