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From Dream to Reality

Kennedy With  Classmates,  Phi

By Kennedy, YES Abroad 2014-2015, Philippines

One year ago today, I was sitting in my room, in my home of over 10 years - Watertown, New York. I was working on an application for the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Abroad Program. I had recently been introduced to this program by a YES participant from Egypt who was an exchange student at my high school. The program intrigued me. Everything I read about it sounded interesting, exotic, and challenging; a scholarship to study abroad for one year in a Muslim-influenced country, with a mission to create cross-cultural understanding and to break down cultural barriers. It sounded like everything I wanted, but at that time it was only a dream.

Flash forward seven months. I'm waving goodbye to my family at the airport. There is a smile plastered on my face and dried tears on my cheeks.

After orientations, I arrive in the Philippines with my new host family, going to school, wearing a uniform, walking busy streets, and breathing in the smells of rotisserie-roasted  lechon, lechon manok, pedicab motorcycle fumes, and burning banana leaves. I am lost in new languages, beliefs, appearances, and my own apparent foreignness. In my first days in the Philippines, it felt like I had stopped breathing while I sprinted to keep up with this unknown culture.

Five months later, I am still here. Except now, I am breathing once again. I'm not only breathing, but with every breath, I intake all the aspects of the Filipino culture, process them in my mind, understand them, calculate how I should react, and then breathe out to proceed again. This process has become a habit and it has helped me adapt to my time here. I have learned many things about myself, and my personal qualities and beliefs have been put to the test when faced with new situations, or when questioned by others who have different beliefs than mine.

Being a YES Abroad student has taught me about the importance of being kind, welcoming, and a friend to all; to be accepting of new personalities, cultural norms, and backgrounds. Living in a host family has taught me the importance of sacrificing one's own desires for the benefit of a group, the simple joy found in interacting with my host siblings, and the smile brought to my host mom's eyes when I try new foods such as dried fish, jack fruit, and fresh lumpia without any hesitation. During my time in the Philippines, I have learned more about worldly views, cultures, mass communication, myself, and other human beings, than I have in my whole life.

I have not only made friends from the Philippines, but from all over the world, and I have never felt more alive than I do today. For some reason, it feels as though I had an undiscovered half of me that was sitting here in the Philippines simply waiting to be discovered while I applied for this program one year ago. I can't wait to see what these next 6 months hold.