By: Vatchira Wong

Surreal. A feeling of mixed fact and fantasy. That was what I felt throughout my exchange experience as a chaperone on the ALEX Program to the United States of America for two whole weeks. At the age of 25, I could finally step foot on the Land of Opportunity.

ALEX, also known as American Leadership Experience, is a two-week program introduced by AFS USA to allow students who were not able to join the YES Program due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, to have a shorter and still meaningful intercultural experience. Most of the students were only able to join virtually beforehand, thus making this two weeks face-to-face program an all-round experience. I was looking forward to this new assignment as chaperone, having been a returnee on the Intensive Program to Italy back in 2014/2015 and an active volunteer with AFS Malaysia ever since then.

The ALEX program was divided into three groups, namely the April group, July group and the August group. Malaysia, alongside our friends from South Africa, Mozambique and Kenya were the first participants for the April group.  In total, there were 26 students in this batch, from South Africa, Kenya, Mozambique and Malaysia and 4 chaperones from each country accompanied the students.  From Malaysia, our student, Kirtanaashini Sivakumar, a 17 year-old girl from Penang, was the only Malaysian student selected for this prestigious program.

The 21-hour journey was tiring to say the least, but I was marvelling at the scenery and wonderful weather we were greeted with when we arrived that the exhaustion was not felt. Our program coordinators, Jacqueline Sotelo, Madeline Keating and Carter Austin from AFS USA were there to greet us and introduce the schedule plans for the next two weeks at our arrival orientation. In the first week, the students will be arranged into 4 groups with a chaperone and a host community assigned to each one. The groups would be hosted separately in Greater Illinois, East Metro Minnesota, Kansas and Chicago. In the second week, the students and chaperones would return to Washington D.C. for a changemaker workshop.

Thus, after a night at the hotel in Washington D.C,and ensuring every student had been tested negative with Covid-19 before the flight, I led a group of 7 students and we were off to Minnesota, East Metro. During our stay in Minnesota, we were placed separately with host families around the area, including myself! I was fortunate enough to be accepted by Ken and Judy Alich, a charming, loving couple who had previously hosted a few students themselves.

Throughout our week in Minnesota, the local chapter volunteer, led by Bob Boyce, engaged us in various fun-filled activities such as a visit to Minnehaha Falls, a tour around the State Capitol, museums and even a shopping trip to America’s biggest mall; Mall of America! We were also able to perform community service such as working with Feed My Starving Children, an organisation that helps to pack nutritious dry food to be shipped to starving children in various countries. And just before we could settle down into a routine, it was time for us to leave the comfort of our host community and go  back to Washington D.C. for the last week of the ALEX Program.

During our last week in Washington D.C, the students participated in a changemaker workshop,  a workshop that teaches and encourages the students on how to be a better leader and a global citizen. Aside from the changemaker workshop, both students and chaperones were brought out to tour the city centre, visiting the national monuments at night, attending a play at the Kennedy Center of Performing Arts, exploring free entrance museums and attending a meet-and-greet session with the US Department of State. We also participated in another community service in Washington D.C., where we had to paint the railings at the Korean War Memorial Park. The students were also asked to put up presentations about their host communities, their cultural background and took part in a talent show on one of the nights.

My first time experience as a chaperone has really opened my eyes to so many new things and hopefully made me wiser. Overall, I’ve learned so much from this experience, namely how to be a great leader, a better listener, a keen observer, and a good friend. I am also proud that I was able to bring my Malaysian culture abroad and further strengthen bonds between both our countries. At the end of the day, it wasn’t just the students who were undergoing a new experience, but it was also me, learning from the best, living and loving every second of it.

“We don’t meet people by accident. They are meant to cross our paths for a reason.”

Off on an exciting adventure!
Volunteering to prepare and pack dry foods for the community
Students and chaperone hosted in East Metro together with an Indonesian exchange student about to cross the Mississippi River
From left: Kirtanaa, Ai (Indonesian exchange student) & Vatchira at Minnehaha Falls
Students and chaperone together with local volunteer, Bob Boyce at the Feed My Starving Children factory