Flying from the Philippines to the U.S., I thought I would be learning about American traditions and pop culture as a Youth Exchange and Study (YES) student through the U.S. State Department and AFS Intercultural Programs. Surprisingly, I also learned about myself.
Of the forty-one Filipinos embarking on a journey as young ambassadors to the United States, three of us had disabilities, including me. This was the first time I met other people my age with disabilities.
I was not quite sure if I wanted to be a part of the group, but when I understood the purpose of the exchange program, I decided to go and experience it myself to see if it really is a life changing experience.
Two plane rides and a day later, we finally arrived in Washington, D.C. for our orientation where the cultural exchange really started. As the first to arrive, we were very excited to meet the other foreign exchange students from other countries. They were different from us, from the clothes they wore, the color of their skin and the languages they spoke, but it was such an amazing sight and we were still able to work and interact well with each other.
I have dwarfism, but it is amazing that until my year in the United States, I had never met or talked to someone who has my same disability.
All of this changed when I learned that my host parents in Michigan were “little people” as they refer to themselves. They were active members of an international organization called Little People of America.
AFS placed me with a host family in Flushing, Michigan, a small city about an hour away from Detroit. Honestly, at first, I wasn’t quite sure about living with them, but I thought, “This experience is meant to change my views on things.” I made the right decision to stay. Maybe I was just too scared or ashamed of talking about my disability. I come from a family of average size people, meaning I am the only person in my family who has short stature. All of my friends, too, were average size people and I had become used to an environment where I was different.
My host parents taught me a lot about being a “little person” by inviting me to their association’s activities. It opened my mind, and it changed the way I look at myself. I know what I have learned from them will be helpful for me when I go out into the world to live my own life.
As a high school YES student with a disability, I experienced many “firsts” in my life. For the first time, I was doing something to make the world a better place.
It started when I lived far from home, but it ended very close to my heart.
The Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program provides scholarships for high school students from countries with significant Muslim populations to spend a semester or academic year in the United States.