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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

My Ups and Downs as a YES Scholar

Age: 17
Location: Currently in Miami, Oklahoma, USA, but going back to Petaling Jaya, Selangor in July
Education: Well I sat for SPM in 2007, from Chong Hwa Independent High School, now in USA under the YES scholarship. Will be starting A levels in Sunway University College for the July intake and intend to do Medicine for further studies.
Interests: music(piano), reading, writing, politics, sports, maths, history, philosophy, blogging, web surfing, computer programming etc.

My Ups and Downs as a YES Scholar

by Oh Coyin for Writing Contest 2008

As some of you might have probably known, YES (Youth Exchange & Study) program is a students exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State after the 9/11 incident in 2001 to help in building bridges between citizens of the U.S. and countries around the world, particularly those with large Muslim populations. Each year, Malaysia sends about 30 to 40 students to USA from January to July under the YES Scholarship.

I was offered the scholarship around October 07. Unlike most of the scholars, due to some sort of technical error, I only received the details of my host family two days before I depart. After three days of orientation in Washington D.C., I arrived at the airport in Kansas City, MO, thinking my coordinator is my host family. There, I was met by my coordinator and her daughter, greeted with:" I'm your local coordinator!", in which I replied politely despite the huge confusion in my mind. To make things worse, all the information I had was not up-to-date, in fact, actually it was about ten years ago, with her daughter being 28 instead of 19, and her being retired long time ago. Then I was told that she hadn't received any of my documents yet, which is why she couldn't find me a host family.

"Uh, this is just great. Maybe I am just not supposed to be getting this scholarship to come here." I muttered in my heart, thinking what I was doing here in a totally strange and freezing cold place, 9000 miles away from my home sweet home which is 85 degrees everyday.

Somehow I settled down, attended school, until 12 days later, my coordinator told me, in a panic tone, that I need to see if I have any friends in my school that are willing to host me or else I would have to move to another town because my stay with her is only limited to two weeks. Great.

Find a host family?
It can't be that hard, can it?

The very next day in choir class, I walked up to the board and left a message saying," Does anybody want to have a sister (I mean me) for 6 months or know anybody who would like to do that? Please let me know, thanks!"

Soon, a girl, whom I have talked to a few times before, walked towards me saying that she will have to ask her parents but she was quite sure it would be okay. Wow. Isn't things amazing? The bell rang and my teacher started telling the class about my situation. A split second later, and I meant it literally, there was this one girl whom I didn't even know that she existed before, raised her hand, shouting," Mrs. Richards, I would like to! Not because of anything, but, uhm, I just thought it would be cool! And I never have a sister before!" Oh great. I wanted to tell her instantly, never think that having a sister is cool, I have a sister at home, and trust me, she is a brat! Don't get your hopes up, although I will try my best to be a good sister, but I really don't want to make you disappointed.

After all the family visits and paperwork were done, my coordinator and I had a long talk about choosing between these two, in which she thought both of them would be very good families. In the end, I chose the latter, which we decided that it would be more convenient for all of us.

Well so the host family problem was finally solved at the end of January.

One big thing about participating in a student exchange program is actually your school life. During our orientation in Washington D.C., a lot of us expressed our concern about school. Interacting with our host family is not a problem. Things will turn out well easily if you remain friendly and open-minded. School... Now that is the real problem. How are we going to make friends? The other exchange students we met in Washington D.C. told us that school life would be really hard at first. During your first week, everybody may be friendly and wave to you, but after that, they will act like you do not exist. Just be active and go out to talk to people. Don't be afraid to ask when you have problems, or ask even if you have already known the answer, at least you have something to talk about. (Trust me, this actually works A LOT BETTER compared to other methods.)

My school is actually very small, with only about 270 students in the whole high school. I guess the advantage of this is that everybody knows everybody, and you get noticed easily(a German exchange student told us that nobody noticed him at all in his school which has more than 4000 kids.). The principal and teachers were very nice and helpful. Thanks to the small number of students, people will try their best to accept you and usually high-five with you in the hallway or "what's up?" to make you feel welcome. However, there is a well-known saying," In America, everyone is friendly, but it's really hard to make friends."

Although everybody is quite friendly with you, it doesn't mean that they include you into their circle of friends. Lunch time is the hardest of all. Since my school only has two exchange students including me, unlike other exchange students in my local chapter who have ten of them in the same school, there is no group of friends that I can readily join in. Going out asking," Excuse me, can I sit here?" wasn't hard at all. Nobody will say no, unless, well, you have been really annoying. Reaching out is not the hard task, getting people to include you is. The friends you made in class may not reach the cafeteria the same time as you are, so by the time you start eating, they might have already finished, or vice versa. Unlike the school canteens in Malaysia where we usually hang out at until the bell rings, here people leave as soon as they finish eating so as to provide space for the other students.

During the first two months, there were numerous times when I ended up eating alone or wandering in the hallway trying to decide which group of students to join. The mornings before classes start are not easy either. I used to walk around or sometimes just stand in a group of kids without actually joining in because it takes time for me to understand their conversations and give my own opinion. Of course, my host sister was very kind and often invited me to join her friends during lunch, which I sometimes do so, but hey man, you are here to learn how to adapt, how to stand out and get yourself being included into a new circle. Not to be dependent, but independent, and only through accepting challenges can then you really grow up.

Some may argue, you can be by yourself. I am perfectly fine with it, and sometimes I actually tend to do so. Yet I reminded myself, you are not here as a student, but an exchange student. You are here to experience the American way of life and interact with them so that a cultural understanding of both sides can be achieved. You are not here just to experience a change in your life, but also to bring changes to their lives.

I tried joining clubs because everybody said that it is the easiest way to make friends. However, since my school is too small, there are not much clubs available and you have to take the class in order to join. My classes have already been arranged, so I did not participate in any clubs. I guess that is the biggest flaw in my American school life.

My classes were choir, English III, American Government, Anatomy & Physiology, Jazz Band, Physics, and Athletics – Track. Academic-wise, school is as easy as ABC. Exam questions were given one or two days before the actual exams so all you have to do is to pay attention when the teacher is discussing the questions.

Well, as you see, although I did not join any clubs, I did join choir, jazz band, and track, which are not normal weighted classes, but the perfect places to make friends. In choir, I was the accompanist for both the choir and the soloists, and through representing the school for various vocal competitions, we had some really awesome and enjoyable moments together. To join choir, you don't have to know how to sing. All you have to do is to know how to try to sing.

As for track, it sucks, literally. I threw up on my first day of practice. Our daily practice includes running two to three kilometers outdoors where it is less than 10 degree Celsius. I was never an athletic person, but I really love sports. I decided to join track because I want to experience an athlete's school life (I have never joined sports in school before except PE), and also, to lose weight (Oh yea, trust me, exchange students can get REALLY FAT!). I thought of quitting everyday but finally, I still managed to stay till the end. Well, so if you are healthy enough, do join sports! Any kind you want, even off-season is fun! Listening to gossips in the locker room is actually the quickest way to understand how the student body in the school works. Going out with the team for competitions or track meets will be the best time you have ever had with your friends!

Among all my seven classes (our classes are the same everyday), jazz band is the best of all! Jazz band is not a normal band, but a band that plays jazz pieces(duh.) and only formed by selected students. Actually the class I had at first is Family & Consumer Science (which in other words, a Cooking class), but what we did everyday for the first two weeks were only stuff like Sudoku, crossword puzzles, watching movies that nobody understand and eat(oh yeah, the teacher is a wonderful cook!). It was stress-free all right, but I lost my patience to wait for our chance to cook (Come on, I am not going to be in school only to do these!) and told my principal that I wanted to change class. She gave me some options and from those, I chose World Geography.

Now this class was not bad, the teacher was okay (although he read from the book directly when teaching and I find it really difficult to refrain myself from dozing off), but guess what? He gave homework! Now, other teachers assign homework too, but only once a week. In this class, a lot of the assignments were summaries and essay questions, and being a former SPM student who is used to writing 300-500 words per essay question, I usually end up writing a short paragraph for each question while my fellow classmates answered everything in one sentence because if you write an answer, you will get your points automatically. Thus I ended up having to bring homework back home. It was not bad at all if compared to the amount we used to do in Malaysia (I'm from Chong Hwa Independent High School so some of you might hear that the academic curriculum is really insane!), but I really do not want to waste my time here doing homework.

This time, I asked a copy of teachers' timetable from my school's secretary (exchange students are treated better and have certain privileges such as getting away from minor stuff =P) and figured out what other classes I could take for that hour besides the options given previously. I went to talk to the jazz band teacher for permission to join and together, we consulted the principal. So there it was, finally, a class that suited me the most!

I know I sounded picky, but my point here is that you have to speak up if you want things to be changed. Never be afraid to ask for things because you never know what the results are. Jazz band turned out to be my best school moments I've ever had and because of it, I met the group of friends I really love, and since it is the class right before lunch, I never had the timing problem again! =) Yeah so my advice here is: join a band! Who cares if you have never played a musical instrument before, everything starts from scratch. Give it a try, it will be the best class of all!

Now about religious restrictions, I am a Buddhist who is not allowed to consume beef. It is not that hard to follow your religious beliefs, but not that easy either. There may be times where accidents happen and you accidentally consume something you are not supposed to (unless you are extremely careful) and since you are in a country where the majority are Christians who have no dietary restrictions, be open-minded. It is okay if you smelt the odor, it is okay to help preparing the meat, it is okay if people are offering you the meat you are restricted to or saying how delicious it is in front of you. Your host family is acknowledged earlier so they will respect you and help you in choosing your food. If you accidentally consumed it, do not think that you are supposed to die or may not go to heaven or some other thing else. Think from a more mature point of view while maintaining your decent religious beliefs.

Also, never hesitate to ask for help if you need any. Due to my dietary restriction, I talked to my school lunch lady, get the menus for breakfast and lunch from her every month, and ask her to cross out the things that contain beef. Of course, you can also choose to break the rules while you are here. My other friends who are exchange students from other countries considered the exception rules while they are over here.

About host family, no worries. At least, it has never been a problem for me. Again, just ask if you need help. Sometimes it is really hard to understand their accent and slang and you may feel like giving up after a while and choose not to participate in their conversations, yet remind yourself that it is just as hard for them to understand you too. Give and take. If they are willing to try for you, do not take things for granted.

Well, another important thing will probably be culture shock. Culture shock is not just a feeling, but actually something that will cause various kinds of symptoms such as depression, insomnia, loss of appetite and so on. For me, I did not experience any serious culture shock during my first three months because my American life went just like what I have expected, as if I am living in books and TV shows (although a lot of people denied that the real American life is same as what is showed on TV). However, after three months, when I really felt that I have fit into their life and learnt about every detail, that was when the problem came. There was a time that lasted about five days when I was quite stressed and unhappy.

You know the news and rumors we often heard through the mass media about Hollywood? They don't just happen there, but in fact, in the daily lives of Americans.

My school itself has quite a large number of homosexuals and bisexuals, although I have always felt certain that I am able to accept them with no doubts, it is still something different for me. This added a little to my stress but out of the expectations of many people, they are usually very friendly and have good personalities, and I even become very good friends with some of them! Now the real stress-causing thing is high school drama. I was incredibly fed up with how friends around me smoke, do drugs, get drunk every weekend, talk bad things behind people's backs yet pretend to be friends with them, curse their parents just because of simple things, have sex, cheat on their partners, and even some girls who sleep around with other guys only to get attention. These were the real culture shock.

I tried to get over it by expressing my frustration through writing back to my friends in Malaysia(Thanks to them for willing to spend a few dollars to mail me letters!). This helped and after a while, my life went back to normal. America, this is the place to be open-minded. I couldn't say that they are wrong, as this is how they grew up and how they were raised. Being open-minded does not mean accepting new cultures entirely and admitting our culture is inferior to them. Being open-minded means embracing both cultures by analyzing and understanding that there is no definite right or wrong, everything is just different.

Now as for homesick, to be frank, it did not happen to me. I did not miss home at all(come on, it's only six months!), I am not sure why - it's not that I am the kind that has a bad relationship with my family - but occasionally I do miss my friends in Malaysia, so does that count? I couldn't quite explain homesickness as I did not actually experience it myself.

The only drawback of this program is that we do not stand any chance for JPA Scholarships (which is a big thing for a lot of post-SPM students) because we are not able to attend the interview. In fact, I emailed them to ask for an alternative interview arrangement and they gave me three days (which include a weekend) to fly to the Malaysian Embassy in Washington D.C. to attend the interview. Naturally, I couldn't finish the paperwork in time so everything ended like that. However, I did managed to obtain both IB (International Baccalaureate) scholarships offers by Sri KDU and ISKL, though I later turned down both of them after considering the curriculum that may not be very suitable as I intend to pursue Medicine. I had an early interview with Sri KDU in the afternoon before I depart. ISKL interview was conducted by a long-distance phone call.

A student exchange program does not waste your time, it actually helps you to value your life and put your time in better use! The experience really helps you to stand out among other applicants because you do not just learn about the culture of the country you are in, but also different countries around the world. In your local chapter, you will meet exchange students from other countries and interact with them. It will give you the inspiration about changes you can make in Malaysia, identify the strengths and weaknesses of Malaysia so that you can play a part in changing it in the future. It is also a life time experience that helps you discover who you truly are and realize how much you have learnt when you were educated in Malaysia. For me, I am now able to strongly feel my path of life ten years from now. Malaysia is the place where I grew my wings, and America is the place where I learnt to fly.

I have always thought that I am quite a patriotic person. I watch Merdeka celebration, I join countdowns, I read newspaper everyday to understand what is happening throughout my country, I am concerned about public issues and governmental policies etc. How much more patriotic could I be? After I came here, I truly understand the pride of being a Malaysian. It is not something you feel and talk about, but being proud of your country is something you have the ability to believe and prove it in front of others that do not understand.

The biggest duty as an exchange student, I would say, is to understand the new cultures, learn about them so that you can help people in your country to benefit from it. Meanwhile, you have to be true and strong about your beliefs, let the others learn from your own culture as well. This is what exchange programs teach us to, to be a leader, to be compassionate, to influence others for good and change ourselves towards the better. Do not feel shame for your own traditional customs because people will learn to respect it only when you stand up and be confident about it.

Join a student exchange program, I assure you, no regrets!
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  1. Hi there,

    That was a really intriguing account of your experience in the US! It's interesting to know that you can change classes whenever you want. If only schools here had that kind of flexibility in education.

    Well, you were certainly exposed to a lot of new things there and although you may not like them at first, it's still valuable experience. It's true, you go there to learn their culture and if possible, take part and revel in it. We really do need to learn about other countries and customs so we wouldn't be narrow-minded.

    Anyway, I'm already too old to join this YES program as I'm 20 now! I did a search on it and it's for teens aged 16 to 18, right?

    Hmm, I'd like to join a student exchange program too. I'll check out my uni's International Affairs section and see how to go about it! :)

    Oh, enjoy your stay in Miami! Do you go to the beach often? Haha!

  2. Hey there!
    I'm in the same class with you here in PJ.
    Feel free to meet me up later.
    I was surprised to see that you participate this articles competition.
    but anyway, you really did a good job and thanks for sharing your experiences here! =)

  3. Hi there,

    Very well written and an eyes opener. Your experiences are priceless.
    Hope this article will encourage more students to sign up for the YES Scholar.


  4. Hello Coyin, I am your junior from Chong Hwa. I never realise there was actually someone from Chong Hwa that managed to get into the student exchange programme. I have always wanted to take part in this kinda programme but I haven't actually apply for it. Anyway, nice read. =)

  5. Hi, I was just wondering how to apply for student exchange programme like yours?


  6. I am very much impressed. Will you share your experience on how you apply?

  7. @Levvy & Sukumunu: Glad to see you guys enjoyed the article. =) I applied for it by myself through AFS, if your school does advertise the program you can apply through your school. Otherwise, the application form is also available online here in AFS-MAS website: http://afsmas.org/mas_ma/home

    For the YES program, it's only open for SPM students of that year. The application is usually open in January and will be closed at the end of April. After that you have to go through two rounds of intensive interviews.

    Other student exchange programs organised by AFS have different conditions and timelines. Do check the website above for more details.

    Feel free to email me at coyin.oh[at]gmail[dot]com if u have any further enquiries!

  8. how to be an exchange student??
    i already apply at afs program but nothing respon??
    email me at [email protected]

  9. Can you tell me, before going overseas did the government sent any of you to some talk on keeping your 'religious and moral views' before going overseas? It seems that a lot of malaysian students, especially malays are wearing the tudung overseas very extensively BUT are more lenient in their clothing when in Malaysia. Thank You

  10. @anonymous of October 20, 2010: Nope none of that at all. Although the organizer did invite an imam to explain to the Muslims that it is okay to be flexible in your religious practices, especially if you were to spend 6 months in America. and also clear up any doubts they had about the religion of Islam.

  11. Hello there.
    Reading your essay was just wonderful. All I did was just kept on reading and reading until the end as it was just so exciting. I'm not a reader but now I realized that there are some essays and articles and other stuffs that are really amazing to read.
    The way you explained your experience as a exchange student gave me the motivation to apply for a student exchange program. And YES, I am so going to do that! Thank you very much for sharing your experience. Now I actually have a little guide for myself regarding the life of an exchange student. Even though this was published in 2008 and I'm reading it now in 2016, it doesn't make much difference as this program is held annually. Thanks again!!

  12. Is it hard to be chosen as an exchange student?


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