SEATTLE — October 2002 saw the creation of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program by the United States Congress. The bipartisan program was established after the September 11 attacks in 2001. Its mission was to create an exchange program by which high school students from predominantly Muslim countries would be able to attend a year of high school in the United States, and in 2009 U.S. students would have the same opportunity to study abroad. Its goal was to show U.S. goodwill across the Muslim world at a time of great stress.
Emotions were running high in America at the time of the program’s creation. Introducing Americans all over the country to these young students was important for both sides to gain a cultural understanding of one another. The YES program is funded by the U.S. Department of State and sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. In 2003, the YES program began operation in Bangladesh. Since its inception, over 330 students have passed through the program with great results.
YES Program Bangladesh is administered by the International Education and Resource Network – Bangladesh (iEARN-BD) in conjunction with the United States Embassy Public Affairs Office. To ensure that the selection process is fair and the most qualified candidates are selected to participate in YES Program Bangladesh, prerequisites must be met before the application process begins. This includes making sure that the parents of the students are not employed by the U.S. government or the embassy in Bangladesh. Students must also have a minimum of a B average. J-1 visa requirements must also be met.
After acceptance, multiple rounds of testing are done to prove the applicant’s knowledge of English. It is important that the student has a strong grasp of the English language. All of their classes in the United States will be taught in English and their host family will likely speak only English. If the student cannot learn to communicate, the goals of the program will not be met. According to alumni of YES Program Bangladesh Toufique Tuhin, this is oftentimes the most critical step in the process. Most students who apply test well during the written exam, which covers grammar and is similar to the SAT, but fail or do poorly during the oral test where comprehension and communication are key.
Once the student is accepted into the program by passing the various tests, interviews and other screenings, preparation for departure begins. Students must be vaccinated and be in possession of a passport. These expenses are not covered by the program, according to the YES Program Bangladesh website. Funding for vaccinations can be found through other foundations and programs if necessary. It is important that all applicants have a fair chance to participate in the program. Preparation for departure begins soon after selection and culminates at the pre-departure workshop. Students participate in exercises and lectures to help prepare them for a year of high school in the United States. This includes lessons on culture and culture shock.
When students arrive in Washington D.C., they participate in a more extensive workshop. The workshops are run by American volunteers who have had experience living abroad, alumni of YES Program Bangladesh and other YES program alumni. The workshops cover American culture more in-depth; topics include relationships with elders (many non-Western culture revere elders even if they are not related), family dynamics, social dynamics (relationships between males and females are oftentimes different in other countries) and what they can expect at school.
Students in YES Program Bangladesh are encouraged to participate in the classroom and outside of the classroom. Many students are excited to try out for U.S. sports. American football, baseball and basketball are popular. Relationships and interaction during this time are special. Not only are these students gaining friends and teammates, but they have an opportunity to teach entire teams and their families about Bangladeshi culture.
It is important to note that the host families students are housed with are volunteers and are not compensated by the program. They are only required to provide the student with a bed and three meals a day. Oftentimes they provide more than what is required. Many times relationships fostered between the host family and the host student become long-lasting and strong. Although YES Program Bangladesh is young, when compared to the post-Soviet FLEX program that continues to this day, relationships are similar. Host families and students typically treat each other as family and are invited to participate in life milestones.
Most of the over 330 YES Program Bangladesh alumni returned home with good results. These students then go on to become leaders in their communities or come back to the U.S. for college. Some students continue to support YES Program Bangladesh by volunteering or working for the bodies who run the program. Alumni in the United States travel to participate in the D.C. workshop. It is important to them that other students are prepared to have the best experience possible. This proves that YES Program Bangladesh and other YES programs have become a success and will only grow stronger in the coming years.
– Nick DeMarco