Coming to America is a dream come true for me and while I tend to dream big, setting my high expectations, I know that thoughts and reality are two different things. Right after arriving to the US, we had to take a bus to our campus which was where we would stay for the rest of the program. Looking out of the window, I noticed brands like Wendy’s, Taco Bell, and Trader Joe’s in the starry night. For me, it seemed like everything I knew about America was coming to life. I had only heard about those establishments, but now I could see them with my own eyes. They were real! So, if my stereotypical thoughts corresponded to the environment, I wondered what the people would be like. Preconceived notions could only help me so much.
We reached our campus and from what I could perceive in the darkness, it was quite cool. The red-brick buildings created a studious atmosphere. There have been quite a few moments when I felt like an actual university student. For example, brushing my teeth with multiple other girls right next to me, planning when to wash my clothes so I do not waste water, and studying in different areas on campus. I mean, if that doesn’t scream #sororitygirllife, I don’t know what does.
The first days that I spent here were focused on meeting new people, mainly other fellow participants. In some ways, it was much easier to connect with them since everybody is generally here for the same reason – to learn and grow. The more time that goes by, the more people I meet. Not just participants, but also other people involved with the program – program leaders, instructors, the people at CIEE headquarters, and the list goes on and on. It is one thing to take part in a program and complete class assignments and projects. It is a whole different thing to actually encounter the people who are behind the program. We see how much work was put into it and how they really tried to pry into the mindset of adolescents. They have created field trips to different places relevant to the program, arranged a hike, invited various entrepreneurs and other guest speakers to share their stories and teach us things from their experiences. It makes me glad and proud to be a part of this program.
One thing that I absolutely LOVE about this program is that the “authority” a.k.a the operations manager, Peter, regional operations coordinator, Mollie, and our awesome program leaders are well over 18 but they do not find it taboo to come up to us for a friendly conversation. In fact, they do not cease to mention that we are “the best of the best” and that they are excited to have us here. Where I come from, there is a fine line between adults and teenagers. Therefore in this type of setting, especially an academic one, teachers only talk to teachers and students only talk to students. Well, thankfully it does not work like that here! Everybody is curious and that factor is big enough to demolish this old-fashioned structure of superiority and rank. Instead, their curiosity and interest creates a sense of familiarity which drives people to strike up genuine conversations with anyone. That being said, we have tons of respect for the program leaders, instructors, Mollie, and Peter. The classes we have here replicate the typical academic classes I take at my school back home. We’ve learned business terms like VRIO, RISQ, SWOT analysis, unique selling proposition, lean startup model, and minimal viable product. Beyond that we also examined what makes someone a good leader, for example learning from mistakes rather than accepting defeat, working in a team, and authentic happiness. In that sense we are learning about the external environment as well as the “internal” environment. While acquiring this knowledge, the instructors make sure that we are in the right state of mind to participate, meaning we stand up and do some sort of physical activity after sitting down for awhile. I like it a lot. The structure of the lessons make it seem less like we are at school, and more like we are at a casual event where getting smarter is only one of several byproducts.
So, what happens after the program is done? People keep telling us that it will be over before we know it. Truth be told, I scoffed at that and was convinced that 28 days was a fairly abundant amount of time. Needless to say, I was terribly mistaken. Days fly by without us even noticing and every Sunday I find myself looking back at the previous week with confusion. Where did those days go?
I am grateful for this experience because it reminds me that there is a different world outside of where I live. It is so easy to get caught up in one’s daily routine and think that that is all there is to life. When we are so focused on ourselves, we tend to forget that there are people on the opposite side of Earth whose lives are just as important as ours. For that reason, I have made mental notes about this experience, so I could always carry it with me. I want to be as polite as the people who apologize before bumping into me but never do. I want to greet everyone like the cashiers here who also ask, “How are you?” I want to be as open as the people involved with the program who are genuinely interested in us and show it. Most of all, I never want to forget this – things do not work the same way all around the world. We have different cultures and people who make this world versatile. That is why I believe it would be a shame to waste an opportunity to learn more about them. That is why this experience is special.
Written by Angela Melly Kulaviir