Exchange is a great number of things. It’s an alternative to another boring year of high school. An opportunity to travel. A much needed adventure. Most of all, exchange is a tool and an advantage. It’s the force. It will, without a doubt, turn you into Yoda.
What has struck me about every YES alum that I’ve ever met is their incredible aura of stability and self assurance. All of them feel safe. Like someone you’d want to have around in a crisis. I’ve thought a lot about where the YES aura comes from. It isn’t culture specific, or gender specific. It has nothing to do with personality. It boils down to knowing that you’re capable of surviving whatever the chaos of life throws your way.
Exchange tests you mentally. Especially in a non Western European country, where the culture is vastly different, you are forced not just to step out onto the porch of your comfort zone, but to live out in the middle of it for an extended period of time. Social anxiety, self consciousness, these things are products of living in a place where you can choose to hide in the proverbial indoors and avoid discomfort. After a certain number of humiliations, your ability to feel embarrassed dulls enormously. When everyone stares at you everywhere you go, it no longer makes you uncomfortable. This process begins the moment you step onto the plane. You arrive extremely jet lagged in a totally new place, where you immediately meet dozens of students from all over the world, make exhausted, haphazard attempts at friendship, spend hours being prepared for the new culture, and then are shipped, energy less, to a new family. Now begin the language trials. They speak to you, you smile and nod. You learn to understand universal sign language. You get up early to go to school. You introduce yourself in a foreign language to four thousand students, all of whom laugh hysterically at your abysmal pronunciation. This goes on and on. You intend to say the word for banana and accidentally say something about the male genitalia. You are forced to dance in front of hundreds of college students. You are called fat because it is culturally acceptable. Your host sister attempts to explain the correct procedure for laundering underwear in limited English. You try and fail at the language again and again.
The secret of the YES aura is continual humiliation and failure. This, combined with hours and hours spent in the company of your own mind because you don’t have anyone to talk to, creates wonderfully confident, self assured people.
Exchange is a trial that prepares you for the insanity of adult life, and teaches you how to flourish under any and all circumstances. It breaks down the divides of ignorance and stereotypes and reminds us that we are all human and alike. You make friends all over the planet, and reemerge on the other side, enlightened and well connected. Real social butterflies aren’t born, they’re made, from one mortifying incident after another. There’s no feeling on earth like the relief of realizing that you’ve survived yet another horrific embarrassment.