December 9, 2016 –  Helene B. spent her AFS year in Indonesia as a recipient of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Abroad (YES Abroad) scholarship funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and participated in the 2016 AFS Returnee Leadership Summit. Read her account of her exchange year in Southeast Asia and the #AFSEffect.

Discovering YES Abroad

As a sophomore in high school, I was searching for scholarships for which I was applicable, and I stumbled across the YES Abroad website. I was immediately interested when I saw that Indonesia was one of the possible countries because my parents had been working there when I was born.

I had grown up listening to their stories and was intensely curious about what it was like to live there. At that point, I had never considered studying abroad in high school and had assumed it was something expensive to do in college. After browsing the website and reading participant blogs, I knew I wanted to apply. I started the application two weeks before the deadline and rushed to finish it.

At a religious retreat with my classmates in Indonesia

Life in Indonesia

After the 24-hour journey, I was so tired getting off of the plane and I remember how hot and humid the terminal was. I spent my first few days at an AFS camp and remember being in complete shock. Everything was different, down to the grass (small, round blades instead of the long, thin blades we have in the US) and I felt very overwhelmed.

My first few days with my host family were challenging. I couldn’t understand anything, and it took me a while to gain my footing. I remember in my first week at school I had to give a welcome speech. Everyone cheered when I finished, but a year later, one of my friends told me that no one had had a clue about what I said.

After adjusting, I had an amazing and transformative experience. I lived near the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, and I was occasionally invited to speak at their events. Learning the Indonesian language opened my mind to a new way of thought and allowed me to communicate. After I was able to get around independently, every day seemed like an adventure and I ended the year with many close friends, even my teachers and principal! Two years later, I’m still regularly chatting with them and video calling them.

On vacation with my host family, wearing traditional Indonesian clothing

Life After Indonesia and the #AFSEffect

There are so many things that I gained from studying abroad. I was exposed to a completely different way of thinking, which in turn opened my eyes to many other possibilities for my life. I became more open and accepting and discovered more about my own values and beliefs. I gained confidence to pursue the opportunities I wanted, and once the year was over, I knew I had the ability to accomplish anything. It changed the trajectory of my life in a very good way.

I am currently taking a bridge year between high school and college in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador. I’m living with a host family and working within the community. One thing I’ve found is that I’ve been able to adapt more quickly and have found myself picking up Spanish more quickly as well. After this, I plan to study environmental science and anthropology in college.

Filtering a traditional Ecuadorian drink at my host family’s farm

Since returning from Indonesia, I’ve been a part of two local AFS teams. My natural family moved last year, and when they did, I got involved with AFS in my new region. I attended the Returnee Leadership Summit this past summer, and I am now volunteering as a Returnee Coordinator and organizing events for other AFS returnees. For the summit, I flew to Washington D.C. for a training seminar where I learned how to plan and execute events for returnees in my local AFS team. This training equipped me not only with the skills needed to be a Returnee Coordinator but with various other organizational and leadership skills.

Even though I’m currently abroad, AFS has been very flexible and I’m able to continue to fulfill my role as Returnee Coordinator. The AFS returnee network is so broad and there are so many opportunities to be involved where you can meet interesting, like-minded people.

As for my future career, AFS and YES definitely got me interested in working within the State Department in some capacity. I’d love to be able to travel and learn about other countries as part of my career. However, what my experience in Indonesia really inspired was a love for the preservation of cultures and natural resources.

The YES Abroad program is proud to receive support from the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Learn more about the YES Abroad program at