September 21, 2016 – Dana Buzzelli is an alumna of the National Security Language Initiative for Youth scholarship program, funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and administered by AFS. She spent the 2009-10 year in Nanjing, China. Since then, Dana has been an AFS Volunteer and was recently selected and sponsored by AFS-USA to attend the Transatlantic Summer Academy on Sustainability in Bremen, Germany. After her time in Bremen, Dana spent the rest of her summer with Project Let’s Go, a small non-profit that runs English language summer camps for students in the mountains of southern Taiwan. She then had the special opportunity to visit her host family for the first time in six years. Read her account of the #AFSEffect and her exciting summer below.

Dana’s #AFSEffect

My AFS year in China somehow feels like both yesterday and a lifetime ago – in reality it’s been six years. Depending on your perspective, that could be either a blink of an eye or an eternity. For me it depends on the day.

I studied in Nanjing, China through the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) program during the 2009-2010 school year. It was my first time being out of the U.S. for more than two weeks, and my first time ever in China. As most exchange students, I had a year full of ups and downs, but mine was overwhelmingly a positive experience. It never occurred to me at the time that six years could go by before I would be back.

I tried to study abroad throughout college, however each time something wasn’t quite right, whether it be the program, the timing, or (more often than not) the funding. It wasn’t until this past year that things began to fall into place for me to go abroad again and, eventually, go back home to Nanjing.

The journey began when I received a sponsorship from AFS-USA to participate in the Transatlantic Summer Academy (TSA) on Sustainability in Bremen, Germany. The program, now in its second year, is a collaboration between AFS, Intercultur, and Jacobs University that brings together young professionals from the United States and Germany to explore issues related to ecological sustainability and climate change. Over the course of 3 weeks in July and August, I attended lectures, engaged in discussions, went on field trips, and participated in a variety of activities all centered around sustainability and intercultural learning.

TSA group photo on the intertidal mud flats at the Wadden Sea National Park

I arrived in Bremen on a Thursday afternoon, not quite knowing what to expect and armed only with a few phrases of German. Over the course of the next few days I got to know my fellow participants, a diverse group that spanned many different universities, fields of study, ages, and levels of exposure to issues of sustainability. There were 28 of us, with about a third coming from Germany and two thirds from the U.S. Our first few days were filled with ice breakers and team-building challenges ranging from leading each other through obstacle courses (blindfolded, of course) to competitive rock-paper-scissors games. No matter what the activity, we pushed our comfort zones, laughed almost continuously, and slowly built our own community.

By Monday, we started the official programming, attending lectures in the mornings and engaging in intercultural workshops in the afternoons. The lectures, which were given by two Jacobs University Ph.D. candidates, provided a foundational overview of sustainability. Specific topics covered during the program were climate change, renewable energies, deep sea mining, and risk and vulnerability as it relates to sustainability. In addition to our regular schedule of lectures and workshops, we had the opportunity to attend two unique excursions, one to Klimahaus, an experiential climate museum in Bremerhaven, and one to the intertidal mud flats of the Wadden Sea.

Overall my experience with TSA broadened my perceptions about sustainable systems, exposed me to new ideas and practices, and introduced me to a cohort of inspiring new friends. I learned something from everyone in the program (including a few more phrases of German!) and contributed my knowledge and experience to the group whenever possible. Like my original AFS year, I know the things I learned and the friends I gained will be important parts of my life moving forward.

Group photo of Project Let’s Go students and teachers at Xiaolin Elementary School in Taiwain

Once my time in Germany was at an end, I re-packed my bags and headed directly to Taipei to teach with Project Let’s Go, a small non-profit that runs English language summer camps for students in the mountains of southern Taiwan. Project Let’s Go brings Taiwanese and U.S. college students together to learn from each other, teach English, and connect with the communities in which we teach. During our two weeks together, we taught at Shuangwen Middle School and at Xiaolin Elementary School.

This was my first experience in Taiwan, and it was somewhat surreal for someone accustomed to mainland China. While it felt exhilarating to hear Mandarin spoken so widely around me again, I was quickly reminded that I was not “home” in China quite yet. I was fascinated by the subtle cultural differences as well as the slight linguistic differences between Taiwan and China; my Taiwanese friends would sometimes find my accent or choice of words to be very “mainland,” and I would frequently ask them to help me read whichever traditional Chinese characters I couldn’t quite figure out.

After the conclusion of Project Let’s Go, I nervously boarded a flight to Nanjing to see my host family for the first time in six years. I felt a rush of nostalgia as I got off the plane at the Nanjing Lukou airport. I wondered what my host family would think of me now, with my piercings, tattoos, and half-shaved head. I had maintained periodic contact with my family, mostly through my host sister, over the past few years, but I hadn’t quite been able to articulate all the ways in which I’d grown and changed since they last saw me. We had all changed, I was sure of that, but would we still fit together as a family?

Dana reunited with her host parents in Nanjing, China

In addition to my worries about family dynamics, I was a bit nervous to put my Mandarin to the test for the first time in years. While in Taiwan I had primarily spoken English out of respect for some colleagues who didn’t speak any Mandarin, yet here in Nanjing I knew English would often not be an option. My anxiety disappeared, however, at the look of delight on my host dad’s face when, as he picked me up from the airport, I began telling him about my summer travels and how happy I was to finally be home again. He reminded me about the first time I arrived in Nanjing hardly able to speak any Mandarin at all, and about how he and I had difficulty communicating. Now, it seemed, at least language was no longer a barrier.

When we arrived home, I was greeted by my family’s new dog, Conan, as well as a flood of memories. Small things had changed, yes, but our home was largely what I remembered, including my bedroom. I slowly walked through each room, letting memory and reality blend for a time. When my host mom arrived a few hours later, I felt once again fully at home. My fears that perhaps our time apart had changed things between us suddenly seemed silly, even ridiculous. We stayed up late that evening, catching up on all we had missed.

Dana visiting her school, Nanjing Foreign Language School, six years later

All told, my week-long visit felt too short, yet it was healing in a way I hadn’t quite known I’d needed so badly. I visited my teachers and walked through my old school, caught up with friends I hadn’t seen in years, and most importantly, reconnected with my family. Nanjing, which I had feared might seem foreign to me all over again, was once again home.

Reflecting on my summer, I am reminded once again that, as cliché as it may sound, AFS gave me so much more than just a year in China. None of my experiences this summer would have been possible had it not been for my exchange year and the relationships I built through AFS over the past six years, both during and after my exchange. I don’t know when I’ll go abroad next, but knowing that I have friends and family to learn from all over the world is truly powerful and humbling.