From Ellen who spent a year in Brazil
My Youth Exchange experience has changed me in many ways. Some of these changes I anticipated, but most I could never have imagined. Most obviously, I have learned another language and learned about another culture. This has been important to me, but it only scratches the surface of what my experiences this year have taught me. The rose-colored glasses have definitely been taken off. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just the truth.
One change I see in myself has to do with the way I communicate with others from day to day. I am better at communicating with people— or at least I communicate differently—I am more direct now. I feel that I am more open about what I tell people. I have always been a person who likes to express myself to others, but before my exchange I tried harder to please people. I still do like to please people as much as possible, but I know when to hold my ground. I am more assertive. Now I may even run the risk of being forward, whereas before I was too polite. I am still polite, but I am no longer afraid to ask things of people when it is necessary. All things considered, I believe the change was for the better.
My exchange experience was wonderful. It taught me to better appreciate the things I have in this life: my family, the awesome relationship I have with my parents, the access I have to a good education, the opportunity I have to choose a career according to my interests and abilities, and so much more. There are many people who don’t have these opportunities.
As odd as it might sound, another important thing I learned from my year in Brazil was not to take everything seriously. Before I went on exchange I had always been driven about my studies, about sports, about every aspect of my life. This level of intensity is good to a point, but it can become too much. There comes a time when you physically tire of it—just run out of steam. I believe I was approaching that point before I came to Brazil. My exchange taught me how to relax. I learned that striving for perfection in everything is not always the best option—now I strive to do a good job—I do my best and I don’t worry about the rest.
I also find that I take more risks now – I am more spontaneous. As a perfectionist, I used to be more concerned about planning things. Now I spend less time planning and more time doing. This sometimes causes problems, but generally results in more opportunities and new experiences.
In addition to this, I feel that I have a better understanding of what it means to be an American; of all the good things that it implies, and also of the negatives. I am more aware of how other people see the U.S. as a nation full of wealth and resources – a good place to live—but also as a nation perpetually engaged in conflicts around the world; one that seems to “want a piece” of everyone else. I hope that by my presence and through my actions, at least a few people’s image of the United States can change for the better.
Going into my exchange, I thought that I would have a clearer notion of what I want to do with my life afterwards, but I actually have a less clear notion. That being said, I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing. When I came, I thought I wanted to do foreign aid work. I still see the value in that, and might want to do it, but I now see that this is not necessarily the best way for me to contribute to improving society and helping others. It is the most obvious way, maybe, but not the best for me to use my talents.
I am less naive now. In seeing the suffering of others up close, I changed. Sometimes it seems like there is nothing I can do, but I know that I can do something. I think now though, that I might go about it in a different way. What people need is hope that the future can be better. This comes from education; from knowing that others care; it comes from recreational and cultural outlets; it comes from faith. These things are not bread or medicine, but I believe they are equally important.
In addition to these many changes, I have gained new family members. I didn’t realize I could feel this strong a bond with people I hadn’t even met one year ago. Especially with my first host parents—I feel like they are really my family—if not my parents, they should at least be some formerly undiscovered aunt and uncle. I feel we understand each other. They are different from my real parents in so many ways but that is good, because they have different things to teach me that my American parents could not. I love them. They stuck with me when I didn’t speak Portuguese. They held me when I cried. They corrected me when I did stupid things. They treated me as a part of their family, and now they are a part of mine.