Friday, July 20, 2012

National Pre-Departure Orientation

At the end of last month (June 26-29th) all of the YES Abroad students were flown to Washington DC to attend a National Pre-Departure Orientation. We had workshops from early in the morning until late at night, and on one day went to the U.S. State Department building and the embassy of the country that we will be traveling to. After the orientation, students going abroad to Malaysia, India and Thailand went to an additional workshop in another DC hotel, before departing directly for their exchange.

The workshops were super interesting and informative, we learned more about culture shock and how to deal with it, (it's not good, its not bad, it's just different), how to communicate about our own culture and dispel stereotypes of Americans, how to effectively communicate about the YES Abroad Program, and what it means to be an ambassador. We had a brief history and outline of Islam and Muslim Faith Cultures, learned what things will get you sent home from the program (drugs/driving/hitchhiking/pregnancies being the main ones) and the common stages of ups and downs that go along with homesickness and being an exchange student (showed graphically on "Allen's chart of sadness", a sine wave). We learned about the importance of documenting your exchange and journaling for growth, health and safety while abroad, and the support and organizational structures of AFS. Afterwards, I felt boatloads more prepared on all sorts of levels.

On Thursday, we had a morning workshop, before taking buses to the State Department. There we met with AFS and YES Inbound students from Turkey (students from abroad who were on their tail end of an exchange in the states), and got on a bus with them to the Turkish embassy. It was really fun because there are only seven of us YES Abroaders going to Turkey, but there were over 30 Turkish students. They were all SO excited for us! We walked through the embassy and briefly sat chatting with the students in a conference room. I was asking different people where they were hosted, and what things they were most surprised to find out about the United States. They were hosted all over, from Juneau, Alaska to rural Vermont, and I even found one girl who lived just across the Puget Sound from me, on Bainbridge Island! One main difference between cultures that a lot of the students brought up was being affectionate with friends: in Turkey I heard, it is much more common to hold hands, link arms, and kiss cheeks in greeting. Also you have to pay for public restrooms, and most people think that the U.S. is all like New York City, or that is the only fun place to go (which they found to be not true on both accounts). I would have loved to stay and talk for hours with the students about their exchanges, but we were on a tight schedule to go back to the U.S. State Department.

At the State Department, we met back up with the other YES Abroad 2012-2013 students and received a congratulatory speech from Tara D. Soneshine, the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. We then got to ask her questions about citizen diplomacy and international relations. Afterwards, we asked more extensive questions to a panel of five experts that focused on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, African Affairs, Near East Affairs, South and Central Asian Affairs, and the Affairs in the Balkan Region (covering all of the regions that YES Abroad students are traveling to). There was supposed to be an additional person focusing on Southern European Affairs, but they weren’t there, so questions concerning Turkey were shared between the Balkans and Near Eastern specialists. We discussed relations between the U.S. and Turkey, as well as Turkey’s responses to the situation in Syria, and specifically the plane that was shot down a few days before the orientation.
 Afterwards, we all made a brief tourist stop at the Lincoln Memorial, before heading back to the hotel.

We had needed our passports to get into the State Department Building, so AFS gave us these fancy name tag necklaces with a passport sized pouch in them. They worked great for storing passports and hotel room keys until nearly all 53 of us couldn’t unlock our rooms because we wiped our keys by walking through a metal detector… Oops.

Our YES Abroad Turkey 2012-2013 crew. From left to right: Ruby from Seattle, WA., Rya from Baltimore, MD., Linnie from Bowling Green, KY., Can from Ankara, Türkiye, Hana from Henderson, NV., Bridget from Montpelier, VT., Olivia from Englewood, CO., and myself.

Can was our group leader who came for the orientation from college in Ankara, to tell us about his home country. Three years ago he was part of the YES Inbound Program, and spent a year in Austin, Texas. He is now an AFS Turkey volunteer. He was so patient with all of our incessant questions about all things Turkish!

As a result overall, I am feeling much more prepared, and know far more of what to expect on my exchange. I also really got to know my fellow YES Abroad students traveling to Turkey, and many more specifics about Turkish culture from Can. Some honey is so strong it can kill you! Your host mom will probably read your diary! Your host family probably won’t speak very much English! People don’t have dryers, they just hang their clothes! Everyone drinks lots and lots of black tea! Don’t put the Turkish flag on the ground! One of the longest Turkish words is Çekoslovakyalılaştıramadıklarımızdansınız! There are lots of dramatic Turkish soap operas!

See you later in Turkish is görüşürüz!

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