The National Pre-Departure Orientation was hosted in Washington D.C. for four days to prepare all YES Abroad students for our year abroad. I met my Thailand cohort, made tons of new friends going all around the world, and learned so much from our amazing alumni.
The day before our National Pre-Departure Orientation, I had the pleasure of hanging out with my fellow Chicago to Thailand YES ladies, alumni of ’17-18 Matti & ’18-19 cohort member Sydney! Matti explained what to be prepared for and addressed some of our concerns. Afterwards, Sydney and I got lunch and got to know each other before taking the first step on our big adventure!
The next morning at O’Hare airport, Syd and I set out for PDO. We arrived at around 11 am and met our amazing group leader, ’14-15 alumni Brandon. At around 12 pm, we met another cohort member, Luke. We all sat together and chatted on the bus to the National 4-H center, just outside of the capital. We checked in at around 1:30 pm and I met my INCREDIBLE roommates and now forever friends, Katie (Morocco) and Zoe (Indonesia). Our first session started at 6 pm so we wandered down to the basement where we met and played card games with some other finalists. We met Sofia, who got caught up in some bad D.C. traffic, at dinner. Then, we had a seemingly never-ending and exhausting session (we’d all been up since 4 am). Poor Chloe came in halfway through after a terrible day of flying troubles. The cohort was finally all together! We had been talking in a Facebook group with the incredible ’17-18 alumni for months so hanging out for the first time in real life was surreal. The night ended on a light-hearted tone with an eye-opening and hilarious alumni panel.
Day two was a little taxing, considering we sat in the same windowless room from 8 am until 10:30 pm doing nonstop sessions with the exception of meals and very necessary coffee breaks. However, we all started to bond through icebreakers and anxiously awaiting information about our host families. We had group discussions and did activities about social identity and culture, health and safety, perspectives, host families, and implementing organization-specific information. Somewhere in between, Zoe introduced me and the Thailand cohort to Mena and the rest of the Indonesia cohort. We also talked a lot with the boys from the India cohort. It was certainly overwhelming but exciting as we all realized the realities of our commitment. The AFS & YES alumni and staff were incredibly kind and helpful, assuring us of how supported we would be on our year abroad.
Unfortunately, on day three, I was feeling pretty sick and it was raining intermittently. Nevertheless, I persevered and had an amazing day in the city with my friends! The Thailand cohort kicked off the busy day with a quick coffee run with Brandon & AFS staff member Allen. We heard about some of their favourite parts about Thailand and practiced the few Thai words we knew. We were very warmly welcomed into the Royal Thai Embassy by Counselor Phisek Panupat and Assistant on Educational Affairs Kanoknate Kramer with a lovely bag, flash drive, and pins. They also prepared three lovely Thai desserts for us to try while we learned about Thailand through a very informative slideshow. We proceeded to tour the building, which was full of ancient and more modern Thai historical artifacts, specially set up for a party in honor of Virachai Plasai being newly credentialed as Thailand’s Ambassador to the United States earlier that day. We thanked the Royal Thai Embassy representatives greatly and then left for a lovely lunch at Bangkok Joe’s, an American-Thai fusion restaurant nearby.
After our respective cultural visits, the entire YES Abroad cohort gathered at the U.S. State Department, which funds our scholarship. We had the privilege of asking Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Jennifer Galt questions about her career and our program. Some Foreign Service Officers also allowed us to ask them host country-specific questions. The group walked to the Lincoln Memorial in our cute and colourful ponchos. Brandon served as our professional photographer, capturing our excitement with the Thai flag. We had our final Clover Café dinner together and the alumni gave us their last pieces of advice in another panel.
Our last session was bittersweet, with elation hanging in the air and the unfortunate knowledge that we might not ever see the majority of our YES cohort again (aside from the India & Indonesia kids in NYC!). The Thailand squad finally found out about our host families, took some last-minute pictures, and said our goodbyes until the next week. Sydney and I met up with the Indonesia cohort, Luka from India due to flight complications, and a large group of alumni. I surprisingly got to say goodbye to Katie, who left earlier in the day for the airport, at my terminal. Lastly, we all grabbed lunch, played some cards, and flew home to Chicago.
Mena astutely left us with a question:
“How will you spend the last week of your life as you know it?”
Letting go of my life as I knew it no longer conflicted me with simultaneous joy and pain. The National Pre-Departure Orientation planted seeds in my mind of confidence and hope. I spent that last week content and ready to be present in every moment, knowing that the YES Abroad community would support me through goodbyes, hellos, and everything in between. I could now leave my life in the United States with only fond memories and love for what once was.