April 21, 2022. It was during the month of Ramadan. Tahsin Islam Nabiha started climbing down the stairs at 4 a.m. for Sehri. But moments later, Nabiha was awestruck to see the entire downstairs decorated with balloons, gifts, cards, ribbons and birthday banners. There was even a banner with 'Happy Birthday' written in Bengali. Nabiha's American host family had it all arranged to make her 18th birthday special while she was eight thousand miles away from home. To this date, Nabiha keeps this precious memory in a special pocket in her heart to reminisce for a lifetime.
Nabiha was one of the 28 Bangladeshi scholars of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program (abbreviated as the KL-YES program or simply the YES program) for the 2021-22 academic year. The KL-YES program is a fully funded student exchange program administered by the U.S. Department of State that allows high school students aged 15-17 from 40 different predominantly Muslim countries to live and study in the United States for a year. The students live with an American host family, attend an American high school and involve themselves in various service activities in their local community throughout the year.
Before her exchange year, Nabiha was enrolled in 11th grade at Viqarunnisa Noon High School and College. During the program, she was placed in the city of Portland in Oregon and attended Roosevelt High School. Her immense desire to do something out of the book, to earn distinction in the eyes of herself and society, inspired her to apply for the YES program. "In my definition, being different means to be courageous enough to step out of their comfort zones and work to break chains of narrow mentality," Nabiha said. "The YES Program facilitates such opportunities to youths like me at such a young age where we get to work on self-development and community building alongside stepping out of our comfort zones. When I got to know about the program, the opportunities provided by this program came out simply enticing to me which was the main driving force behind my choice of applying in this program."
Debarati Dixita Dixit Tripura from Golgotcha English Medium School in Dhaka had the opportunity to experience the American holidays and celebrations firsth and during her exchange experience in St. Louis, Missouri. "Out of all, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Eve were my favourite holidays to be with friends and family to celebrate Gratitude, the birth of Jesus, and welcome the new year," she said. Besides the national and religious holidays, she also got a taste of the two major American high school celebrations: homecoming and prom. However, she interestingly had a clear preference between the two. "Honestly I liked prom better; the food, the setting, the theme, the company and the dance were all better," Dixita said. "My best friend was there with me so it made it all so much worth it even though prom was much more expensive than homecoming.
Yet Dixita's exchange year was much more than just holidays and celebrations as she completed 200 hours of service towards her host community, church and school in America. The joy she found in community service changed her attitude towards voluntary work drastically and now motivates her to reciprocate more to her school, community and neighbourhood in Bangladesh.
"I don't serve just because I have to, I serve because I want to, I serve because it is a responsibility," Dixita said.
Meanwhile, Prottay Roy Chowdhury saw a transformation in himself while attending West Delaware High School during his exchange year in Manchester, Iowa. Formerly one of the introverted and socially awkward students of St. Gregory's High School and College, Prottay initially found it challenging to socialise among his American schoolmates. But once the ice started to break, he soon started making plenty of fun, precious and lasting memories with friends, teachers and staff members of his host school. "I have so many memories to recall, but the pamphlet full of wholesome remarks from my peers and the letter from my coach I received during Speech Awards Night stood out to me specifically," Prottay said. "I felt like I meant something to those people, I felt loved, I felt I was a part of the West Delaware family."
Prottay also had his moment of enlightenment during the Civic Education Workshop, which is a weeklong event in Washington D.C. for a selective group of exchange students of different nationalities. During this week, the students get the opportunity to learn about U.S history and government, media literacy, disability awareness and many other important concepts through seminar discussions, briefings, dialogue with policymakers at the State Department and meetings on Capitol Hill.
"The Civic Education Workshop in its entirety was very empowering for me," Prottay said. "It turned my frustrations about the socioeconomic problems in Bangladesh into inspiration. It gave me the faith that no matter how insignificant, I can always try to make a difference in changing the situation for the better from my respective position."
Finally, there is Sheikh Samin from Icchapura Government Model High School in Munshiganj, who emphasized the crucial aspect of self-development that he experienced throughout the YES program. "Applying to YES has been one of my best decisions in life- the reason I applied is my dream of experiencing the world and meeting new people across the globe," Samin said. "Not only did YES deeply impact and turn me into a better person in various ways, but it also skyrocketed my self-confidence. It taught me how to be self-efficient."
Unsurprisingly, Samin strongly advocates the YES program for fellow Bangladeshi high-schoolers aspiring to study abroad. "If you are a student who wants to experience the world and its variety of cultures, YES is one of the best places for you to start," Samin said. "On top of that, the respect and joy of representing your country in front of a crowd of people with all their eyes on you is just bliss."
But the journey of Samin, Nabiha, Prottay, Dixita and their fellow YES scholars does not end here, as they have already been welcomed to the YES Alumni Association Bangladesh upon their return. The association does not only provide the alumnus with various exciting opportunities and the support necessary to cope with the reverse cultural shock but also works as a platform for them to continue community service in their home communities in Bangladesh. Last month YES Alumni Bangladesh Association arranged 'Project SOS: Save Our Sylhet' where they provided free medical checkup to approximately 450 flood victims in Sunamganj.
The YES program activities in Bangladesh are supervised by International Education and Resource Network Bangladesh (iEARN-BD). Program Director Nawab Mahmud Wasi has informed that applications for the KL-YES program 2023-24 are opening in September this year. All applicants must be Bangladeshi citizens, have a birthday between August 15, 2006, and August 15, 2008, be enrolled in 8th, 9th, 10th or 11th grade at a Bangladeshi school and have an average grade of B in the last two academic years without any failing grades to be eligible for the program. The selection process consists of four phases: primary application, phone interview, ElTiS test for English proficiency along with essay writing and lastly, the final application and in-person interviews. The names of a selected number of finalists and alternates are expected to be announced within next February by the American Councils in Washington D.C.