Pre-Departure Orientations are a blur. Months of excitement and anticipation has built up, leading to a breakneck few days where you’re introduced to new people, new rules, and a new country. After the countless emails, web searches, and handouts, it is the tangible start to the NSLI-Y journey.
My own PDO for Morocco in the summer of 2013 was jam-packed with dos and don’ts, trip itineraries, safety advice, and helpful vocabulary from iEARN staff and our Resident Director, to which my group responded with an unending stream of questions. While we had already taken part in multiple webinars and been chatting on a Facebook group, we wanted to know everything about the adventure we were about to depart for.
The best resource iEARN provided us was an alumni of the program: Ryan. Ryan had gone on the exact same program a year ago that we were about to embark on. He was exactly the right person to answer our questions about everyday Moroccan life as a NSLI-Y student: something no guidebook or handout could quite capture.
Ryan told us stories of his own experiences with his host family, navigating the streets of Rabat to our language school, and making the most of new experiences. He told us where the best ice cream was and to take things “shwea b shwea”: little by little. He made us laugh until we teared up, and (if possible) made us even more excited for the trip. As Ryan answered all of our questions, and discussed the smaller details of life in Rabat, he reassured us that none of our fears and nerves were too great to overcome.
Two years after my own NSLI-Y summer, I had the opportunity to play the same role of program alumni for the group going in the summer of 2015.
I approached the role with a mind similar to what Ryan brought to my own group two years prior, and I hope I was able to provide that for the new group. I focused on the little aspects of the day that surprised me when I went and the odd questions I had wondered before going but hadn’t asked. Among other things, I shared my favorite type of street juice (orange, obviously!), suggested climbing a sand dune, taught my favorite word (khobz: bread) and encouraged everyone to visit the hammam at least once.
In the process of teaching, I discovered that my role included becoming a learner again too. Questions from the students reminded me of places, vocab, and experiences I had forgotten. Talking about one memory of drinking shea b’anan (mint tea) with my host family reminded me of other experiences eating, talking, and watching TV with them. The little details that had since faded were suddenly in the forefront of my mind again. It was exhilarating to think of the trip that these students were about to fly out for, and the trip that I had enjoyed and learned so much on.
The students also reminded me of the enthusiasm and passion for language learning that characterizes NSLI-Y participants. Since returning after my trip, I had taken language classes but found them lacking the immediacy or thrill that the NSLI-Y setting provides. With this new group, I was excited to share common phrases and vocab, and to learn again with them the key phrases and colloquialisms that are essential to everyday life in Rabat.
At the end of the three day PDO, I walked away not only with new friends in the NSLI-Y family, but also a renewed excitement for Arabic and reminder of how much I missed Morocco.
The same thing happened this summer when I returned as program alumni for a new group. I was again reminded about how much I had learned and grown through NSLI-Y, and the great group of people that I was exposed to in each new encounter with fellow language-learners. The opportunity to serve as program alumni for a second time also allowed me to reflect on how my experience with NSLI-Y has continued to this day.
I realize now that the NSLI-Y journey does not end when the plane wheels touch down after six weeks abroad. The NSLI-Y experience continues in meeting fellow alumni, encouraging people to apply, and sharing experiences. The best way to do this is through volunteering with the NSLI-Y program.
Through volunteering, I have been reminded time and time again of how much I owe to NSLI-Y and what an amazing program it is. It attracts people with varied interests and paths who come together over a shared passion for language learning and a willingness to step outside of their comfort zone. The implementing organizations work magic to create programs where groups of high school students, previously strangers to each other, travel together throughout a foreign country and live with host-families while learning a new language and culture. Finally upon return, participants are part of a new family of people who have shared simultaneously similar and unique experiences all over the world that are centered around cross-cultural communication and travel.
Recognizing how much NSLI-Y has done for me has pushed me to find ways to give back to the program, and there are no shortage of ways to volunteer.
You can be a program alumni for your own program, or a regional study abroad alumni for others traveling on a Department of State exchange. AFS, American Councils, and other implementing organizations hold interest events, regional meetups, and other exchange PDOs that could all benefit from your presence.
If you aren’t physically located near an event, you can answer questions people have about NSLI-Y online. Or you could create your own event and present to a local community organization or even your high school. NSLI-Y offers outreach toolkits that are also available to alumni. Alumni can look to share media here.
There are also opportunities to represent other alumni formally and strengthen programming by applying to be an Alumni Representative. And if you’ve got the space, why not host an exchange student?
Volunteering for NSLI-Y is an opportunity you should not pass up on. Not only will you make a positive impact on someone else’s NSLI-Y journey, but you will be continuing your own. I look forward to continuing my own NSLI-Y journey, and I hope I meet you along the way!
-Jack, Morocco Summer 2013