2022 started off with a big bang for a group of 25 Malaysian students who were selected to participate in the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange Study (YES) Program to the United States of America. Popularly known as the  KL-YES programme in Malaysia, is a fully-funded student exchange programme administered by the U.S. Department of State for countries with a significant Muslim population. Malaysia being the perfect fit for this programme has been actively involved in sending high school students for this purpose since 2004.

On the 18th of January 2022, a group of 25 Malaysian students checked-in for their 24 hour long journey to the ‘Big Apple’ to begin their exchange abroad after a PCR-Test and many antigen ones later. The students had undergone a stringent selection process and orientation to prepare themselves for an American life experience. I was privileged to be selected to accompany them on their journey to New York as their chaperone.

During the 24-hour long journey (including  a two-hour transit), many of the students experienced the first flight of their lifetime and some were even seen giggling away at the joy of flying. It was a pleasant surprise to experience full flights from Kuala Lumpur International Airport right through to New York John F. Kennedy with a short layover . It seemed as if the whole world had recovered and people were traveling again.

On both the flights to the ‘Big Apple’, I noticed that our students had quickly accustomed themselves to their new surroundings, particularly in the aircraft, and were adapting well  to the inflight entertainment (IFE) system as well as adhering to the announcements made by the cabin crew. During the transit, although lacking sleep and experiencing their first jet-lag with exhaustion, they kept their spirits up and were focused on what lay ahead of them in the U.S.

As we descended from clear skies into Long Island, they were filled with trepidation and excitement, especially about the cooler weather that awaited them on the ground. Three hours later, the students and I walked out of the arrival hall of Terminal 8 and we were greeted by my colleagues at AFS USA. A two-hour bus ride later, we reached our accommodation for the night, were given a briefing and soon we were off to our rooms for a refreshing shower and off to bed.

The next morning, at 3:00am, the first batch of students gathered at the lobby of the hotel we were staying at for their onward journey to their host communities across the country. Although they were all tired, jet-lagged and dehydrated, the thought of meeting their host families kept them in high spirits. The second and third batch soon followed and by the next evening, all the Malaysian students had departed to their host families.

Although I had made plans to meet some colleagues of mine at the local and international offices, it was not possible due to the spike in covid cases. For our own safety, it was decided we would do it virtually instead. I left two days later, feeling happy and excited for the students and wishing them all the best in their intercultural experience.

At KLIA before departure with the AFS volunteers and staff
Outside New York JFK Airport waiting to board the bus to the hotel
At New York JFK upon arrival
At the boarding gate at Doha Airport for our flight to New York