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YES Abroad Alumni Spotlight: Shruthi Venkata

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By Shruthi Venkata, YES Abroad 2016-2017, Senegal

What are some of your biggest accomplishments since becoming an alum of the YES Abroad program?

It has been over a quarter of my life since I came home from my year in Senegal with YES Abroad, so these have been formative years. I graduated both high school and university and am proud of how I navigated these institutions. I learned and did so many things in college I hadn’t done before (e.g. taekwondo, beekeeping, community organizing), took risks, made the most I could of the pandemic, and loved what I studied. One of my biggest accomplishments in college was my interdisciplinary Comparative Literature and Computer Science thesis. I had the chance to delve into narratives, art, and technology that constituted the redevelopment of Times Square as a large urban renewal undertaking. In my past year, my first year of my conscious life not spent in school, gaining a sense of financial independence and moving to London have been large personal accomplishments.

Shruthi and her host family smiling holding a cake
Shruthi and her host family

What are some of your favorite memories from the YES Abroad program?

Going to the bapteme of my newly-born host brother and listening to gewels (griots/singing storytellers/oral historians) sing beautifully alongside drummers.

Going to Touba for the Grand Magal pilgrimage and visiting the Great Mosque. I had so many lovely conversations with new people being hosted along with us at my host aunt’s cousin’s place in Touba. The whole trip solidified for me the Senegalese notion of teranga or hospitality, including making a pitstop on the road to use the restroom at the house of a stranger who offered us refreshments and being shown around town by an uncle who took us onto the back of a horse-drawn cart. I am so grateful to my host aunt Tata Adja for bringing me along in the first place — the trip is one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

Taking dance lessons with electro-sabar legend Mara Seck and going to his shows with great music and dance performances.

The chaos of going to school every morning with my wonderful host sisters Rapha and Rokhaya, with whom I shared a room, and nights doing homework with Rapha while we listened to Lemonade.

Spending time with host family at dinner every evening — my host mom made sure we ate well and that we had mafé (peanut stew with lamb or grilled chicken) often since it was me and my host brother’s favorite.

Visits to the atelier of my host mom Binette who runs her own fashion business — I admire her so much as a person and professional.

Ndogou — breaking the fast — during Ramadan on the rooftop with my host family.

What are some of the ways you’ve stayed connected to fellow alumni since your exchange experience? What about your host family or friends that you met abroad?

I am very close with my host family and have been fortunate to have consistent, great chats with my host parents, who I still call fairly often. At this point, I see them as real family in addition to my family in NYC. I visited Senegal again after two years and saw lots of familiar faces, which I hope to do again very soon. My host family has also since visited or studied on my side of the Atlantic — my host sister came to my college graduation, my host mom visited me in NY, and I’ve met up with two of my host siblings in Montreal. Cricket, the other exchange student in my year in Senegal, and I, have also met up several times in the Northeast, and I keep up with other alums and exchange year friends through social media and calls.

Shruthi in graduation robes with her host sister, smiling in front of a graduation banner
Shruthi and her host sister at graduation

How did the YES Abroad program impact you professionally? What about personally?

While it was the same spirit of wanting to expand my worldview that brought me to participate in YES Abroad, my time in Senegal greatly deepened my curiosity and formed the foundations of what I was driven to study. My first semester of college, I took a course on postcolonial francophone literature that delved into some Senegalese literature and film, and it brought me to study Comparative Literature. Now about a year out of college, I just moved to London and am eager to find new communities. I still remember being taught to “say yes” during our orientation before leaving to country and it’s valuable advice I keep with me here and in general: to maintain a radical openness to foreign possibilities. Studying abroad at age 15/16 teaches you to have a certain audacity in how you approach life and sense of grounding within yourself wherever you find yourself. YES Abroad has had a resounding impact in how I navigate my young adult life and career.

What is one piece of advice you would give to current or future YES Abroad program participants? 

I would say to remember that a lot of your year may be Type 2 fun (the kind that is difficult in the moment and feels rewarding afterwards), and maybe that way you can trick yourself into having Type 1 fun (the kind that you enjoy in the moment). Being an exchange student can be very hard in moments but years out, lessons will emerge from every challenge and you should be so proud of yourself for undertaking such an experience in high school.

In 10, 20, or even 30 years, what do you hope the legacy of the YES Abroad program will be?

I know that many of my peers have found areas of interest or ways of life informed by their exchange years. Though it may sound trite, I hope that decades down the line, my fellow alums and I will have contributed to making the world a more open and peaceful place in which more people’s needs are met, borrowing from models of care we’ve seen at home and abroad.