Mikea R. is an exchange student from Albania on the YES Scholarship Program (yesprograms.org), hosted by AFS-USA in Rockford, Illinois. Below, Mikea responds to a series of questions about why she decided to come to the U.S. as an exchange student, what her expectations were, how her perspective has changed, and the impact this experience has had on her life, family, and host community.

Why did you decide to study abroad in the U.S.?

I decided to do an exchange year because I wanted to broaden my horizons, experience new cultures, be more independent, and live as an American teenager.

What’s the general opinion of the U.S. in your country? What did you think it would be like here before you arrived?

For me before coming here, the U.S. was the dreamland, I thought life was better here and you could do whatever you wanted, pretty much like the movies. Even though it is a very good place to live, it is not as dreamy as it is seen from the outside, you still have responsibilities here, and *spoiler alert* it is not like the movies (it is still pretty fun though!).

What was your first impression when you got to the U.S.? What about the U.S. surprised you?

I was amazed by everything when I first came here, I was living my dream so I was very excited. To be honest, I was mostly surprised by the food portions here, they are very big.

Mikea Host Family
Mikea and her host family at the airport
What have you learned about cultures and people in the U.S. after living here for a year? How have your perceptions changed?

I have learned that people here are not as judgmental. They are more open-minded and the thing I like the most is how everyone here holds the door open for the person behind them.

What’s it like living with your host family? How has your host family helped you discover the real U.S.?

My host family is great. They are the best I could ever find. They have helped me learn more about the U.S. but also about myself. They welcomed me into their family since the first day and I’m glad to say that I now have another family in a whole different country.

Mikea at Church
Church service with Mikea’s host family
How have AFS staff and volunteers supported you so far during your exchange?

To be completely honest I love all AFS volunteers and staff that I have had the chance to meet this year. They are the best people. They are always there for me to help with anything and guide me not only for my exchange year but life in general as well.

Group of students by the water
Mikea with other exchange students and their AFS coordinator William Egerstaffer in Chicago
Were you worried about communicating in English before you came to the U.S.?

I was a little worried about my English before coming here but not a lot. Now I don’t even think about it anymore, speaking English comes naturally to me now.

Other than communicating in English, what other skills have you gained or improved this year?

I have become more open-minded; less judgmental. I appreciate people of different cultures more now and I am always willing to learn more. I have also become very independent and mature.

Are you involved in any extracurriculars through school or otherwise? What activities in the U.S. have you enjoyed most?

I am involved in some clubs at school. I enjoy going there and spending time with friends.

Students with Albanian Flag
Mikea and classmates with the Albanian flag
How has this year affected your personal development? How have you grown as a person?

This year changed everything for me. I became more mature, more independent, and more open-minded. I feel grown up now and like I can do anything I put my mind to it. It is by far the best growing experience in my life and I am so thankul for it.

What advice do you have for other students who are considering coming to the U.S.? If they’re worried about coming here, what would you tell them to make them feel more confident?

Do it. I know you might hear this a lot but You Only Live Once. This experience is going to be life changing, you are going to grow so much as a person and gain a new perspective about the world. Trust me on this one, it is 100% worth it.

Why is intercultural exchange important? What is the AFS Effect?

Intercultural Exchange for me has become one of the most important things in life. It is what connects us with others that might be different from us. For me that is what makes us global citizens and in the end it all comes down to that.

I would also like to add a little about my other exchange friends:

Before coming here I knew I was going to make American friends but I never thought that I would have friends from all around the world. Because of AFS now I have friends from a lot of countries and I mean A LOT. I never knew that those people would become such an important part of my life but I am so thankful for them. I am happy knowing that I have people from all around the world that I can call my friends and I can get the chance to visit one day. They truly are amazing and getting to know them has been the best thing that happened to me.

Three hosted students
Mikea and friends making an Albanian symbol (the eagle)

Thank you to Mikea for the content of this article! Interested in hosting a student like Mikea? Sign up today! Find out more about the YES Program and other Department of State Scholarship programs here.