The life-changing journey called YES

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Story from Shebi Niazi about the connection between her exchange year in the United States and the University of UAE, but also about all the other things that happened to her after she came back from America – thanks to the valuable experience she received from the YES program.


-by Shebi Niazi, YES Alumna 13-14

Many exchange students describe their year abroad in the United States as a “life-changing” one. And often it sounds like a cliché. How can a single year play such a crucial role in one’s life? How can a single year determine one’s future? Here is how it did mine.

In 2013, after competing with hundreds of high school students in Bulgaria in a series of interviews and tests, I was chosen to be one of the six finalists for the “Kennedy-Lugar” Youth Exchange & Study (YES) program for the 2013-2014 academic year. During my stay in the USA, I participated in myriad events and volunteering opportunities; I took classes that I wouldn’t have been able to do so in my home country; I was involved in extracurricular activities that enriched me academically and personally beyond measure.

shebi. nyuad

Two of the most important aspects of my exchange year were the people I met and the diversity I was exposed to. Being placed in a diverse seminar with students from all over the world, I developed a sensibility regarding the vicissitudes of cultural stereotyping and misunderstanding. Every discussion on pressing global issues was equally nuanced with the perspective of my peers from Israel, India, Pakistan, Tanzania, etc. From each I learned and to each I adopted. Checking CNN World news became part of my daily routine. Examining tensions between local ways of life with deep historical, linguistic, ethnic and religious roots and today’s transnational cultures and multiple identities, was what excited me.

After returning from the USA my passion to understand the multifaceted interconnectedness among nation-states, international institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and ethnic, cultural, and religious groups never faded away. I was awarded a scholarship from Connecting Cultures, one of the world’s leading civil society initiatives aiming to bridge the Western and Arab world through the power of dialogue. I spent one week in Oman exploring cultural differences and discussing the issues of peace with young female leaders from Europe and the Middle East. At the end of my senior year in high school I attended the YES Alumni Interfaith Harmony Conference in Rabat, Morocco. Using the skills and knowledge gained from such educational initiatives, I organized several peacebuilding workshops both in my school and community. I implemented an interfaith cross-country collaboration event in Bulgaria called “Letters of Hope to Refugees”. The campaign’s goal was to provide messages of support and solidarity from around the world to asylum seekers in Bulgaria. The project ended up having over 1,200 participants from 5 continents and 18 countries.

I was first introduced to volunteering in my exchange year in the United States where I completed more than 100 hours of community service. In 2014 I became a part of the YES Alumni Association. The goals of the YES Alumni Program are to expand on and practice what YES students have learned during their exchange year by implementing various projects. The projects I have participated in include: making handmade jewelry and Christmas cards for charity; participating in the nationwide eco-campaign “Let’s Clean Bulgaria in one Day!”; spreading love with the “Love Note Project”; organizing activities for International Children’s day; informing others about the merits of vegetarianism; participating in campaigns to address HIV/AIDS prevention, etc. My worldview was broadened by another volunteering opportunity in rural Sing Buri, Thailand where I taught English and helped with the construction work at the Sri Udam orphanage. I managed to fundraise to travel to Thailand by using all the techniques I had learned in the United States. All of the aforementioned activities taught me how to become an active citizen not only in my home country but also in every other community around the world that I choose to join.

After my graduation from high school I was presented the wonderful opportunity to work for a year as an Alumni Coordinator at American Councils for International Education. It was so much more than just working in an office setting, managing email overloads, tracking on alumni activity spending, filling timesheets, writing budget proposals, submitting monthly reports. Being able to strengthen the alumni community, to help its members bring their ideas to reality, to organize projects that make a difference and to see the impact of our actions- whether it’s the smile of an old lady at a soup kitchen or the warm thank you of a stranger, is what makes the existence of the YES Alumni community worthwhile.

Where are you now and what are you doing, you will ask. As of now, I am attending the New York University in Abu Dhabi on a full ride scholarship. I am pursuing my bachelor’s degree in Social Research and Public Policy. NYU Abu Dhabi is one of the most selective liberal arts colleges in the world, with an admission rate of around 3%. The student body is arguably the most selective and internationally diverse one. My peers come from all around the globe and bring their unique perspectives with them. Being part of the community of NYU Abu Dhabi is a dream come true and a great honor. It is an important stage in my life that I wouldn’t have come close to without my exchange year in the United States that sparked my interest in international education. My year in the USA taught me how to appreciate human diversity, how to create and maintain meaningful social ties, how to invest my time and energy in developing myself professionally and personally, and above all else how to strive to make an impact somewhere somehow. I am beyond thankful for having had the opportunity to be an exchange student. All I had to do was say “YES”. And I believe that you can do it, too!


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