Li Voon went abroad to Italy for two months with AFS Malaysia, an intercultural exchange programme. She is currently pursuing the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme on scholarship at Fairview International School. Today, she is here to share her experience with us.
At the beginning of 2013, I was introduced to AFS by a friend. It is a non-profit organization that aims to promote intercultural understanding between different countries in order to create a more just and peaceful world. To achieve this, AFS sends more than 200 Malaysian students abroad and in turn, receives more than 100 students from other countries every year.
As a 17-year-old, I was honestly only interested in the idea of going abroad for a few months, much like travelling. But I couldn’t be more wrong. The experience ended up being more than just a vacation; it became one of the best and most memorable parts of my life that helped me grow and discover what I want in life. The application process though, was not too much of a breeze.
First, there was the easy part of filling in a few pages of form and mailing it to the AFS local chapter. I was thrilled to receive a letter from them about a month later informing me that I had made it through to the interview session. As scary as it may sound, the interview was more like a friendly conversation to get to know the potential exchange students better. After getting through the interview came a long list of preparation which included sending in medical reports, filling in more forms and writing a personal letter to our potential host families. However, the long application process was definitely worth it. I knew it the moment I was told that I was a guaranteed exchange student.
AFS did an excellent job in preparing us mentally for the exchange. An exchange is not travelling, we go there to live and see things like the locals, not as a foreigner. Therefore, the pre-departure camp was conducted by previous AFS returnees so that we will able to fully utilize the exchange to the fullest and learn from every second of our experience. It was also there that we met new friends, and they will become your closest companions once you leave for a foreign country. These are the people who will truly understand the joy or pain you might experience and who might later become some of your closest friends.
Just a few weeks before my departure that I learnt who my host family would be. They were a sweet family of four with an adorable cat. The youngest one in the family went for an exchange to the US and thus, they were able to host me. We contacted each other on Facebook and by e-mail prior to my departure but the best moment was when I finally met them.
I can still remember vividly the first day I stepped into the train station which I would soon frequent every day for the next two months. They were all there to welcome me – my host family, other exchange students from different countries and the volunteers of AFS Italy.I was initially overwhelmed by so many strangers hugging and kissing my cheek, which is the local way to greet someone, but they later became my closest friends and family, and without whom my experience would not have been so meaningful.
Communication at the beginning was difficult. With their limited English vocabulary and my limited Italian, we resorted to using pointing and showing as our primary means of communication. However, with their immense patience with me, I was able to learn enough Italian in two months to converse with a native speaker. Most importantly, I realized that language is not a barrier to love and acceptance.I didn’t realize how much I’ve grown to love them as a family until my exchange days were coming to an end. When it dawned on me that I might not see the people I have lived with–the people who have treated me like a daughter and a sister–was so heart-breaking that I cried myself to sleep on the train to Rome.
Nevertheless, the most beautiful thing about the experience was how one can feel so strongly about others in such a short period of time. For me, every second of the exchange taught me something new.As different as people from different countries can be, from the language we speak, the food we eat, and the way we think, we still have the capacity to accept one another like our own if only we allow ourselves to do so. The exchange changed the way I look at people and their differences. It is amazing to know how humans can be so different yet so similar at the same time, and how kind and accepting people can be, despite how the media portrays everything. I believe that the kindness I have seen during my exchange in Italy was only a fraction of what is out there in the world. Therefore, I have made it a life goal to experience as much as possible for as long as I shall live.It is clear that cultural exchange programmes can be a very enriching experience, as detailed by Li Voon above. We encourage those who are interested to apply.