It has been more than three months since I returned home; sometimes I feel like I never left, and so I go back to my memories and pictures to recall the many things that I learned and the many wonderful people I met during my exchange program in 2019. I was placed at Old Dominion University in Virginia with Iulia from Moldova and Seradj from Algeria.
I started to learn about American culture the minute I got off the plane in Norfolk. For example, everyone held doors for the people behind them, and cashiers wished customers a good day even at one o’clock in the morning. When my campus advisor arrived at the hotel where Seradj and I were staying, the first thing she did was to welcome us with a big smile and tight hugs saying, “Sorry, I’m a hugger!” As the days passed and as we got used to our brief new life, I realized Americans are very welcoming and serve others when they can. In the U.S., communities have many opportunities for involvement, especially through churches. I was amazed by the number of people who sign up to be volunteers and help international students not only on campus but also in the nearby community.
The Global Student Friendship (GSF) Norfolk, Virginia is an organization working closely with ODU to create bonds between American families and international students. With GSF I got the opportunity to have many pleasant evenings with a big community of international students and Americans interested in learning about world cultures and about each other. These interactions and the many times I share my culture made me feel celebrated and appreciated; I was far away from home, but somehow I had a strong sense of belonging. I also learned that maybe the most valuable feature of American culture is diversity. The U.S. is home to people from all over the world that have an important impact on American culture. This impact is visible in many aspects of everyday life, from food to religion, and there are many spaces that show U.S. diversity. Americans themselves are also diverse, having migration backgrounds in their families with many of them coming from Europe, Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
Iulia, another Global UGRAD student, has a piece of my heart 6,662 miles away from Nicaragua, and despite that distance, our friendship grows with every encouraging message we send to each other whenever we face a difficult situation. Stephanie, my American roommate who used to comfort me with hugs and tea when I felt down, now has a Nicaraguan shirt hanging on the wall of what used to be my room at Old Dominion. Tess, who was Iulia’s roommate, got super excited when I sent her a post card last month and told me she loved a letter I wrote for her. I would need pages and pages to write about every person I met, to write about how they changed me and how I made an impact on them, but I guess the one thing I can say about all of them is how amazing and incredible they are.
After I came back to my country, I was sad and started to feel the heavy weight of the culture shock we were taught about in Washington, D.C. I started to focus more in my major and became even more passionate about moving toward new goals. Recently, I applied for an internship with Habitat for Humanity, an NGO working to strengthen communities by giving families affordable access to homes and to empower women by helping them develop small businesses. I also became a volunteer for World Vision Nicaragua, an NGO that works to protect children from violence and exploitation and ensures access to clean water for children and their families. Lastly, even though I am still improving my English, I am teaching the basics of the language to adults and teenagers in an academy close to my university. My students inspire me with their curiosity and eagerness to learn; I hope to inspire them with my own story in return.
You may think your journey as a Global UGRAD student ends the moment you arrive back in your country, but the truth is coming back is just another phase of this adventure. So, for those of us that are home and for those abroad keep challenging yourselves to flourish even when things seem to be too hard to take on. Remember this: every Global UGRAD student is incredibly special; the changes that we are waiting to see in the world, our countries, and our communities will come from our hard work and determination.
Written by Jezabel Aponte Figueroa, Global UGRAD 2019-2020, Old Dominion University