Sadie Van Vranken - 2014 Program Participant

Ruins near Rabat, Morocco

Ruins outside of Rabat

Why did you decide to apply for an international program?

I decided to apply for international program because I love adventure. Going straight to college after high school felt a bit boring and narrow-minded. I wanted to escape from the constant demands of academia, to view life from a different perspective, and to do something big that really mattered. I knew that if I went abroad it would change my entire life, and leave me connected to a region of the world that I had never really thought or cared about before.

I was also interested in studying international relations in college, so I thought that going abroad would give me interesting insight into the international community (which it did, I got to meet several ambassadors and embassy employees from countries around the world). I also wanted to get first hand experience in other countries so that when I studied them in college they wouldn't just be words on a piece of paper, but a living, breathing organism that I was invested in. I truly believe that in order to study international relations and make decisions in the sphere of international policy, you have to understand on a personal level what it's like to live in a different society and culture than your own.

I also wanted to go abroad in order to form relationships with people I might never have met otherwise. I wanted to feel connected to a host family, to have local friends, and to meet other American teenagers who shared my passion for travel and international issues. My expectations were blown away in that department; I met so many people that I know I'll be friends with for the rest of my life.

Why did you choose YES Abroad?

YES Abroad primarily appealed to me for three reasons: it was affiliated with the State Department, it had holistic approach to cultural immersion, and it was completely paid for. I knew that being connected to the State Department would ensure the quality of the program and my safety while abroad. There are not too many programs that send high schoolers to the Middle East for an entire year either, so going with the State Department definitely helps!

Doing an exchange with the State Department also gave me access to an incredible alumni network. I'm also close to many of the other 64 YES Abroad Scholarship recipients from my year; we still discuss our experiences in our different countries and talk about the challenges we experienced after finishing exchange.

YES Abroad's approach to cultural immersion also interested me. I wanted to live with a host family, I wanted to go to a local school (versus just taking language classes all day with other Americans), and I wanted to be free to explore the city and culture on my own. YES Abroad did all of those things, and also gave us supplemental language classes after school, cultural classes, and group excursions to different cities in Morocco.

Being free also definitely helped! Everything from the plane ticket to school tuition to a monthly stipend was covered by YES Abroad. I definitely wouldn't have been able to pay for an exchange program by myself, so it being free enabled me to experience something I never would have otherwise!

View of Chefchaouen, Morocco

In Chefchaouen - the blue city

What was your favorite part about Rabat?

I have to pick just one? I love Rabat, Morocco. Rabat is the capital city of Morocco, so there's always a fair amount going on, from a Russian ballet concert I went to in January to an international music festival hosted in June. Rabat is super easy to get around, which is not always a given if you're living abroad and don't have a car or anyone to drive you places. They have a great tram system, cheap and reliable taxis, and it's also a very walkable city, so I could always go explore after class before I went home or on the weekends!

Cities in Morocco usually have two parts, the old city, or medina, and the new city. The medina in Rabat was one of my favorite places; I loved the narrow streets, the busy shops, and the delicious juice shops or doughnut stands. The medina was a labyrinth, and I always found some new corner or shop whenever I went in. You can find anything in the medina, anything at all, french antiques, guitars, knitting needles, shoes, bags, vegetables, game boys, pirated dvds, computers, etc. It was where I went when I was bored and had a free afternoon, and the medina never disappointed!

What aspect of your program made it unique?

YES Abroad is unique because it allows high school students to study abroad for an entire year in countries that most people would never even visit! There are very few programs that offer an entire year abroad for high schoolers, and there's only one other program that I know of that offers programs in countries like Morocco, Turkey, and Bosnia.

YES Abroad allows high school students to really immerse themselves in another culture, and spend such a long time in that country that it becomes a part of them.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

YES Abroad works with three different "implementing organizations": AFS, Amideast, and American Councils. All three of the organizations are non-profit, international organizations that work with a lot of exchange students.

I know the most about Amideast, who runs the program in Morocco. Amideast has a physical building in Rabat, which I found really useful. It was a place I could go if I didn't want to go home to my host family, if I needed somewhere to study after school, or if I just wanted to relax. We had a local coordinator, who was really really great. She was in the office everyday, so we could always stop by if we had questions or needed support. She found us volunteering opportunities, walked us through the stages of cultural adjustment, took us on trips, and did pretty much everything else. We also had other Amideast employees working with us, a housing coordinator and a program assistant, who worked a lot on translation and talking to our local school. I think the system worked really well and I always felt really supported.

Riding camels in Morocco

Riding camels! - Only the most stereotypical thing to do in Morocco, but it was still fun!

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

I wish I had spent more time and effort learning the local language, Darija (Moroccan Arabic)! Since I went to school in French and my host family spoke French, I didn't focus as much on learning Darija, even though it would have been super easy to do.

Describe a day in the life of your program.

I woke up around 7 a.m. and ate breakfast with my host mom and host siblings. Breakfast was typically bread or pastries with honey, olive oil, cheese, and nutella, with Moroccan mint tea and coffee to drink. Then I'd walk to school, which took about 20 minutes, and started school at 8 a.m.

Classes at school were each two hours long, so I'd be in class until 12 p.m. most days, and then I'd have a break for lunch. I'd typically get lunch with friends at a local cafe or bakery, or eat at Amideast's building. I mostly ate sandwiches for lunch during the week. Then back to class, which usually ended at 4 p.m. After school I'd grab coffee with friends or go to the medina to shop or relax. Some days I'd volunteer as an English teaching assistant at Amideast or take violin lessons with a Moroccan violinist.

Then I went home, around 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. We'd have a snack as a family, which was the same foods as breakfast. Then I'd sit with my family in the living room doing homework, reading, journaling, or watching TV with them. Dinner was typically around 10 p.m., which took some getting used to! We'd eat a tagine most nights. Then I'd watch TV with my family for a while longer before heading to bed, around 11 p.m. or 12 p.m.

What did you enjoy doing on you free time?

I loved traveling to different cities. We traveled about once every two months, for three or four days at a time. I loved getting to explore new cities and see incredible historical monuments. It was a great break from my daily routine of school and a reminder that I lived in an incredibly beautiful country!

Tell us more about your accommodation.

I lived with a host family with an American roommate who was also in YES Abroad for the first half of the year and alone for the second half of the year. My favorite part of living with a host family was getting to participate in daily life with them. I loved going to the vegetable market with my host mom on the weekends or to the public baths. I loved watching TV with them on the weekends and developing favorite shows that we could watch together and comment on. They started to feel like my family by the end of the year; I had a place and a purpose in their home, and I loved feeling like I was a part of their life.

There is no better way to understand a culture than living with a local family.

Visiting Essaouira, Morocco

Exploring Essaouira

Now that you're home, how has your year abroad impacted your life?

How has it not impacted my life? It has made me more patient, given me perspective on my privilege as an American, made me more empathetic and a better listener, made me more willing to try new things, made me less afraid of embarrassing myself or being wrong. I think about Morocco every single day, and I miss it every single day. I see the world in two ways at once now, from a Moroccan perspective and an American one, and so everything I do here in the U.S. is colored by my experience abroad. I'm studying Arabic in college, and I hope to return to the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region soon!