Experience of a lifetime

  • Education
  • Sunday, 02 Jun 2019

Jonathan (second from right) with the team involved in building a reactor that converts plastic into biofuel.

TIME flies. In a few weeks, my stay in the United States will be drawing to an end. In my earlier article (published in The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education pullout on Apr 10), I wrote about my first three months into the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) programme in New Hampshire, where I am hosted. The programme is fully funded by the US Department of State.

Having spent almost six months on American soil now, I must say that my time here has been equally hectic and exhilarating. I have travelled to other parts of the US, completed projects, contributed to community work and given presentations on my home country, not forgetting spending time with my host family.

Over the course of mere months, I have attended a wedding in Miami, Florida, visited national monuments and museums in Washington DC, and experienced Virginia en route to my host father’s college reunion. Throughout my travels, I was impressed with the differences – be it the people or the climate – between other states and New Hampshire.

I also visited Massachusetts, a neighbouring state. More recently, I was there with several other exchange students to pay a call on a senator’s office to seek further support for the YES programme.

Another exciting experience for me was visiting two world-renowned universities. In April, my biology class made a field trip to Harvard University. There, we got to use the facilities of the genetic lab and read our genetic code through a series of experiments. I felt so ecstatic the whole time I was on campus grounds. It was a dream come true for me!

The other university I visited was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where my uncle works as a researcher. I was awestruck by the cutting-edge developments and projects that were taking place in the private research university. It felt as if I was taking a peek into the future.

I left both universities with a huge takeaway that nothing is impossible. To take a leaf out of my uncle’s book, we should always “prototype the impossible”.

My learning experience did not end there. As mentioned in my earlier article, I was involved in building a reactor that aimed to convert plastic into biofuel. It worked!

The icing on the cake was when it was determined to be a first of its kind built in a high school in New Hampshire. It felt incredible to know that I am taking part in a global effort to reduce pollution.

The success of this project has been tremendous. With this newfound encouragement, I have been spurred to take on a more challenging experiment, namely, building a particle accelerator. It is an ambitious task, but not an impossible one.

Another unforgettable experience I had was taking care of bees with my biology classmates. It was a weekly affair for the class to replace the food source of the beehive and monitor how the hardworking, nectar-collecting insects were doing.

Despite once suffering a sting from handling the queen bee, I have no complaints because not everyone can claim to have beekeeping knowledge and experience after all!

It’s beekeeping 101 for Jonathan dressed in a bee suit as he learns how to take care of bees in his biology class.
It’s beekeeping 101 for Jonathan dressed in a bee suit as he learns how to take care of bees in his biology class.

I will certainly miss donning a bee suit, handling a “smoker”, as well as having the therapeutic sound of buzzing bees surrounding me.

An integral part of my experience in the US is the people around me, mainly my host family, friends and teachers from school.

Without the care and generosity of my host family, I will never have had such an amazing experience. Words can’t describe how grateful I am to them for opening their home to me and making me feel like part of their family. I couldn’t have asked for a better host family.

They are my constant source of guidance, happiness and refuge in this foreign land. Living with a family away from home has been such a life-changing experience. It taught me so many lessons that schools didn’t, and I’ve come to appreciate the little things in life that I tend to take for granted.

My friends have also been incredible individuals. They are my go-to people in school and have spiced up my American high school life with so much fun. From playing soccer in the rain to having the wildest discussions at the lunch and dinner tables, you name it all.

One particular occasion that will forever be etched in my mind was when some of my classmates volunteered to chip in to pay for my prom ticket. It moved me to know how much they wanted me to join in the fun. I’ll definitely miss them deeply and the moments spent with them will stay with me.

There are also my teachers, who are the most inspiring lot. They hold on to the belief that every student can achieve the impossible. My host school’s commitment to experimental learning has empowered me to step out of my comfort zone and engage with resources to realise my dreams. These individuals who have played key roles in my exchange mean the world to me.

As part of the aim of the YES programme is to foster good relationships between Muslim-majority countries and the US, I have served as a youth ambassador giving presentations about my home country, be it in school or my Christian youth group.

The sharing experience was nothing short of heart-warming. I saw the genuine curiosity of American youths towards our rich heritage and abundant wildlife.

I remember swelling with pride for my home country when a youth asked, “How do Malaysians live so peacefully together in a multiracial society?”

As winter turns to spring, so it signifies my upcoming inevitable departure. I am sure to leave this land with a bittersweet feeling – sad that I’ll be saying my goodbyes to the wonderful individuals whom I have come across, yet happy that I’ll be back home with my family.

When I first arrived here on Jan 14, 2019, I was determined to leave the US feeling accomplished. I’m proud to share that I’ve reached that goal, all guided by the Latin phrase “carpe diem”.

Throughout this exchange programme, the message that struck me the hardest is this: be receptive of others. I have since realised that not everything is clearly wrong or right. It doesn’t mean something is wrong if it is different from the cultural norms that we grew up in.

To the students out there, seize the opportunity to go for an exchange programme. The experience will not only broaden your horizons as a student, but also as an individual.

To future exchange students, remember to craft your own individual, unique experience. Don’t be afraid to try things you’ve never done and be receptive of cultural and social differences. Set a goal before you embark on your journey.

What a journey it has been for me. I’m grateful for everything that the past few months have taught me. I can’t wait to see what lies ahead on my path.

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